The future of assurance: Designing fit for purpose systems

Sustainability systems are having to rapidly evolve, innovate and rethink the way they approach assurance in changing times. Many ISEAL Community Members are embracing new technologies and innovations to design fit for purpose assurance systems that are more resilient, effective and efficient at addressing the challenges of today.

Sustainability systems have traditionally provided assurance to their stakeholders through annual on-site audits and assessments. Yet in today’s ever-changing global landscape, there is growing emphasis from governments on the quality of assurance systems and from businesses on the need for more robust data to show how high-risk sustainability issues – such as deforestation, forced labour and biodiversity loss - are being addressed along supply chains. The pandemic also underscored the importance of designing more resilient and effective assurance systems that could persevere in the face of a crisis.

Assurance systems need to evolve and adapt to these changing times. This calls for new data-driven innovations and solutions, and the emergence of a new type of assurance model. One that not only measures performance and compliance, but also incentivises continual improvement and drives action around the issues that matter the most.

Efforts to strengthen the integrity of assurance and build fit for purpose systems that are more resilient, effective and efficient have been a focus of the ISEAL community for some time now. The ISEAL Innovations Fund and Innovations Programme has been challenging our members to think beyond certification and design assurance systems for the future, with support from the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO.

Risk-based approaches to address sustainability issues

Accurately detecting and verifying highly complex and sensitive social and environmental issues, like child labour, poverty and deforestation, within global supply chains is a huge challenge. But by integrating new data sources into assurance systems and exploring innovative ways of using assurance data better, new insights and information can be generated to support targeted interventions and improve the detection and remediation of social issues in high-risk areas. Many ISEAL members are experimenting with new innovative models of assurance using a more risk-based and data-driven lens. 

For example, Rainforest Alliance are developing risk maps that identify the likelihood of child and forced labour happening across the coffee, tea, cocoa, and banana sectors in different countries. These risk maps are drawn from multiple sources of data on child and forced labour. They can help farms and companies operating in high-risk areas to understand which actions to take to mitigate these risks.

The hybrid audit 

The pandemic tested the credibility of many assurance systems when it was no longer possible to perform traditional on-site audits and assessments. This catalysed the rapid uptake of innovative new virtual tools and digital technologies to verify compliance and enable audits to be performed remotely. With support from the ISEAL Innovations Fund, four sustainability systems piloted a range of remote auditing approaches and technological tools during the pandemic. For example, worker voice tools were used to collect feedback from workers using mobile phone surveys to see how these could increase the resilience of existing assurance systems during a crisis and beyond.

Alongside our members, we’ve learnt that using a hybrid approach that combines both remote and traditional on-site audits has great potential to future-proof assurance – particularly when assessing complex social issues like forced labour. Hybrid approaches can enhance access to data in situations where data isn’t easy to collect and can strengthen the integrity of assurance decisions. Based on these learnings, and through consultation with a wide variety of stakeholders, ISEAL also produced a range of practical guidance to help sustainability systems get the most out of remote and hybrid auditing.

Embracing new technologies to drive performance 

Sustainability systems are redefining the boundaries of assurance by embracing new technological innovations to collect, aggregate and display real-time data to monitor performance and drive improvement where needed. These technologies can help improve the robustness and credibility of an assurance system by providing valuable insights on a wide range of key issues. 

For example, our members are collaborating on the creation of the ISEAL Certification Atlas, which uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to map out the locations and scale of ISEAL member certified operations. Location data is useful as it can help improve a range of operations from risk management, to targeting technical assistance, to communicating performance.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network are also experimenting with GIS technology in combination with other types of data. They’re working to develop a practical set of tools to reliably assess how farms and other land uses are currently contributing to sustainability goals across a given landscape, and using this information to assist farmers on how they can improve their practices. 

ISEAL’s role

In our 2021-2024 strategy, ISEAL set an ambitious goal — to work with members to develop their assurance systems to be more accurate, effective and resilient to better respond to the world's most pressing sustainability challenges. 

This is a topic that we’ll continue to discuss and work on with our members through collaborative projects, knowledge exchange and learning sessions going forwards. We look forward to seeing how these emerging innovations, data technologies and novel approaches can create new avenues and opportunities to scale impact and redesign assurance for the better.