ISEAL report: The effectiveness of standards in driving adoption of sustainability practices: A State of Knowledge Review (2018)

ISEAL report: The effectiveness of standards in driving adoption of sustainability practices: A State of Knowledge Review (2018)

Voluntary sustainability standards are an important means of providing assurance that products and materials traded in complex, global supply chains have been produced in an ethical and environmentally benign way. Understanding what these standards deliver on the ground is an important part of the debate about their ongoing relevance.

This ISEAL commissioned report, carried out by 3keel and the University of Oxford, aims to understand the effectiveness of sustainability standards and certification tools in driving the adoption of more sustainable practices in certified entities, thereby contributing to the achievement of key sustainability outcomes.The report focuses on the changes of practices by organisations or individuals – such as the use of agricultural inputs, retention of wildlife habitat, and providing better conditions for hired workers – as a necessary step towards the final impacts of standards systems.

One hundred and sixteen studies which reported relevant outcomes from entities certified with a sustainability standard, and which included a counterfactual, were filtered from an original body of over thirteen thousand studies from the peer-reviewed and ’grey’ literature. The report uses four types of evidence: Information from the systematic mapping on the papers that reported outcomes in each thematic area, a literature review of the papers identified by the systematic map, an analysis of standards’ monitoring and compliance data of six ISEAL Alliance members and semi-structured interviews conducted with eight informants in areas and topics not well covered by the literature.

Some key findings are:

  • “The evidence for practice adoption was assessed in six thematic areas which covered environmental, social and economic practices. These were Conservation and Biodiversity; Input Use, Community Benefits and Development; Occupational Health and Safety; Good Production Practices and Management Systems.”
  • “There seems to be a strong suggestion that the technical support that certification systems can bring to farmers may be critical in supporting them to adopt more sustainable practices concerning input use”.
  • “There seems to be a strong suggestion that certification often results in improved democratic organisation and decision making, and/or greater engagement with local communities”.
  • “The adoption of improved management systems by entities seeking certification is seen as a critical step towards sustainability by many people who work with sustainability standards.
  • "There is a concentration of research into coffee and forestry, and on Rainforest Alliance, Organic, Fairtrade and FSC standards. How representative the findings are for other schemes and sectors is not well understood"
  • "There is a focus on research in developing countries in the tropics and sub-tropics, with comparatively little on developed and temperate countries"

The report includes the following conclusions:

  • “There is evidence in each of these thematic areas that certification and standards can contribute to the adoption of improved practices. This is typically expressed as a difference in practices between certified and non-certified entities”.
  • “The evidence for practice adoption may be more robust for some sustainability themes than for others”.
  • “The same factors that motivate individuals and organisation to seek certification are reported to drive the adoption of improved sustainability practices. These include market access, price premium, gaining an advantage over competitors, managing reputational risks, and responding to demands from customers”.
  • “Two instances where practice adoption may be less frequent are when the requirements of the standard are already being met under existing practice, and when practice is hard to detect.”


To read the insights paper, click below.

Originally posted on 12/03/2018