Governments and sustainability standards: understanding synergies, challenges and best practice

 Since the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 there’s been a steady growth in shared interests across the private sector’s sustainability efforts, the work of multi-stakeholder standards and governments' sustainability agendas. New partnerships have emerged aiming to scale-up sustainable production, trade and consumption – incentivising more sustainable and responsible supply chains to create better sustainability outcomes. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that collaboration between governments and voluntary standards systems has brought a range of benefits for producers, consumers and the environment.

Recognising sustainability standards in public policy

As success stories of interoperability between public policies and sustainability standards multiply, ISEAL has started a new project to uncover shared lessons and challenges of these types of interactions and collaborations.

Either explicitly or implicitly, each interaction between a private standards system and a governmental body is based on a recognition of the role of private regulation. In some cases, this recognition comes in the form of a benchmarking process, where a government aims to analyse a variety of standards or certification systems and acknowledge them based on a set of requirements.

This has been done, for example, to integrate standards in procurement or other trade policies. In other cases, recognition can be more opportunistic as a government chooses to collaborate with a given standards system because of its expertise and market influence.

Importantly, whether private standard recognition is part of an elaborate policy that shapes trade and procurement, or happens as part of a more ad hoc collaboration with sector-specific bodies, the underlying logic for governments is similar. The goal is to use and leverage private standards as enablers of sustainable trade and production patterns.

Collaboration in action

Some of the most interesting new collaborations can be found in producer countries, where policy-makers are finding new ways to engage with sustainability standards. In Suriname, an alignment between sustainability standards and public policy jumpstarted governmental developments in broader policy issues.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Surinamese government together were able to increase the accessibility of sustainability certification to smaller producers, while maintaining the credibility and relevance of the MSC fisheries standard. The government played a key role in this partnership by sharing its existing data, and actively conducting studies to generate more data.

As a result of the collaboration, a Surinamese Seabob fishery achieved and maintained MSC certification, as well as a significant reduction in bycatch of unwanted species.

Similarly, The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) had a significant impact on the sector in Mozambique. Policy-makers made the best use of BCI’s pre-existing technical capacity building and expertise, meaning BCI was able to contribute to a yield increase of 57 percent and a profit increase of 65 percent.

Comparable positive impacts are found in Ecuador, where the jurisdictional approach taken by the government’s Inter-institutional Committee on Sustainable Palm Oil aims to bring whole areas of the country in compliance with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This marks a significant step in combining public policy with private standards to establish coherent environmental and social stewardship over the rapidly expanding Ecuadorian oil palm sector.

All three of these standards – MSC, BCI and RSPO – have broadened their impact through collaboration with governments; reaching the lives of producers who might otherwise have found certification unattainable.

A new dialogue on opportunities, challenges, and best practices

The above examples illustrate how sustainability standards make use of existing institutions and structures, and how governments can benefit from working together with standards.

In this expanding field of practice, ISEAL aims to deliver better guidance to policy-makers, supporting innovative approaches while ensuring that any standards they recognise and endorse are credible, transparent and impactful.

This is why ISEAL has embarked on a project to create good practice guidance for governments in developing benchmarking and recognition systems. The guidance will promote credible practices in government benchmarking and recognition systems, and cover recognition of both sustainability standards and complementary mechanisms such as industry platforms.

Through this work, ISEAL aims to launch a new policy dialogue which explores the possibilities and challenges of how governments can leverage private sustainability standards.

To find out more about this work contact David D'Hollander, Senior Coordinator, Policy & Outreach: davidh@isealalliance.org