Photo: Karin Kreider on stage at the ISEAL Alliance's 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Zurich

The 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Review

The ISEAL Alliance's 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Zurich (June 27–29) explored the future of trust in sustainability standards, tackling the challenge of how standards and certification systems can do more while still maintaining credibility. Thus, the conference's focus was very much on data and how it can be utilized to measure and showcase impact. ISEAL Members provided practical insights into their daily challenges and how they cope with it—and we also saw new technologies, which can support the biggest challenge of all: measuring and driving impact.


Standards Have to Prove Their Impact – Marketshare Is Not Enough

We heard a lot of interesting, thought-provoking talks and discussions at this year's ISEAL Conference in Zurich covering many different challenges facing sustainability standards today. However, if we had to narrow it down to a single statement it was this: sustainability standards need to be able to measure and prove their impact. Thomas Vellacott, Chief Executive Officer at WWF Switzerland, was the first to take a firm stand on this in his reception address on day one. But we kept hearing this over and over again in most breakout sessions, plenaries and even coffee break chats.

Measuring and Proving the impact of sustainability standards is not nearly as easy as one might think. You not only need to have relevant, high quality data available and readily accessible for analysis. You also need to be aware of possible side effects, interdependencies, and influencing variables. Both challenges are best explained by an example highlighted in a study published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in 2014 (Potts et al 2014). This study proves a distinct increase in standard-compliant sustainable production in the year 2012 compared to 2008.

Figure: Sustainable Markets: Compliant Production as a Percentage of Global Production for 2008 and 2012

© Potts et al. 2014, p. 90.

What looks like a remarkable impact—which it is from a certain perspective—does not come without a pitfall. The authors highlight that a persistent "oversupply on conventional markets has been one of the most persistent and challenging 'sustainability' issues facing commodity markets over the past century", which "can have significant impacts on livelihoods and efforts to promote poverty reduction". (Potts et al. 2014, p.91) However, systematic data for ascertaining these impacts is still lacking.

This example shows: in order to be able to reliably prove the impact of sustainability standards we need to combine industry expertise, data science, and technologies to support the gathering, structuring, verification, and analysis of data. On the ISEAL blog, Patrick Mallet—the ISEAL Alliance's Director Innovations—makes a similar point: "Standards need to have an honest, holistic picture of what is happening in order to choose indicators of impact carefully and monitor appropriately". He also states that "ISEAL has long championed trust and credibility of sustainability standards, maintaining that credible sustainability claims are clear, accurate and relevant, and are backed up by systems that are transparent and robust."

Multi-Stakholder Engagement is Key

All this is strongly related to and reflected in the 6 core values, which the ISEAL Alliance found to be most relevant to stakeholders:

  • Transparency
  • Scalability
  • Local relevance
  • Multi-stakholder engagement
  • Accessibility
  • Accountability

Patrick Mallet presented them at the ISEAL Community day (June 29), addressing different challenges related to them. He especially highlighted the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement for the future development of standards. Standards, governments, NGOs, businesses but also consumers need to join forces and align to reach their shared objectives. Andrew Bovarnik from the United Nations Development Programme emphasized that "standards have to work with governments and offer their expertise". And it was Rob Skidmore—Chief, Sustainable and Inclusive Value Chains at International Trade Centre—who stressed that the more consumers and producers are being involved in a standard, the better it operates.

Coping with the Growth of Standards (Challenge: Scalability)

One of the biggest bottlenecks and thus challenges for standard setters is their ability to scale with their often rapid growth. Dealing with ever more licencees, members, and the related data quickly exceeds the capabilities of commonly used tools. More sophisticated solutions are required that can not only deal with huge amounts of data but also help to reduce the administrative workload. There are basically two options available: proprietary development and standardized solutions, which are already established on the market. Our colleague Georg Karner compares both options in an insightful article he published over at or Integrity Blog, in which he also explores more comprehensive approaches to standards management.

Having recognized this challenge of scalability and the lack of comprehensive yet flexible solutions, Intact Systems decided to partner with GTS (Global Traceability Solutions) and Book&Claim—each leaders in their own fields—to create Pantegrity: a scalable toolset designed to meet the specific needs of standard setters, no matter the size. It comes with all the tools and features needed to efficiently manage any standard and increase its impact: from basic standards & licencee management to advanced risk analyses and benchmarks, from supply chain traceability to offset certificates & credit trading. Of course, Pantegrity is also accessible for members and licencees and flexibly scales with the standard's growing needs.

Pantegrity hosted two lunch time Topic Tables on Wednesday, June 28, attracting a lot of attention and interest. Both tables were filled to capacity.

Photo Collage with Pictures from the Pantegrity Topic Tables at the ISEAL Alliance's 2017 Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Zurich

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