Sustainability at scale: the promise of regional approaches – new ISEAL insights briefing

It is increasingly common wisdom that we’re not going to achieve our collective global sustainability goals by certifying the good practices of every individual enterprise around the world. Nor are we going to meet those sustainability commitments (achieving zero deforestation, tackling modern slavery, realising the SDGs by 2030) unless we figure out how to scale up more sustainable practices and do so in partnerships with other like-minded initiatives.

Various regional, landscape and jurisdictional approaches to sustainability are offering that promise of scale. Wouldn’t it be great if we could move whole jurisdictions towards better practices through coordinated, multi-stakeholder coalitions, endorsed by engaged local governments, and built on effective land use planning? It’s a pretty appealing promise, particularly when we’re talking about addressing urgent and focused sustainability objectives like zero deforestation, which require concerted action at different levels. 

That’s why there’s so much interest and pilots being implemented to test the idea. Research commissioned by the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) earlier this year identified 34 jurisdictions working on this approach, of which 14 had finalised their plans and started implementation. Together, they represent significant proportions of global production of key commodities such as soy, pulp and palm oil.

As these new approaches evolve, there is a strong impetus for sustainability standards to determine how best they can expand the geographic scope and relevance of their systems beyond the production unit. A number of good examples already exist, whether that is Marine Stewardship Council’s longstanding focus on regional fisheries as the certification unit, the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s approach to watershed-level management, Rainforest Alliance measuring conservation outcomes across regions with a prevalence of certified enterprises, or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil partnering with state-level governments to move whole jurisdictions towards certifiable production. 

Early in 2016, ISEAL published a report on Landscape Approaches and the potential contributions that sustainability standards could play. Eighteen months on and momentum behind regional solutions continues to grow. To help understand these new developments and reflect on new opportunities, ISEAL has published a new briefing note, Scaling Sustainability: Interactions between standards systems and landscape and jurisdictional approaches. In that briefing note, we identify five entry points for sustainability standards to contribute to the development of these approaches and ensure their integrity and complementarity: preferential or risk-based sourcing; land use planning; government and stakeholder mobilization; producer support at scale; and leveraging finance.

There is a high level of overlap between the process of developing and implementing these new regional approaches (whether on a landscape or jurisdictional scale) and the process of setting and implementing a sustainability standard. It is therefore not surprising that sustainability standards can potentially bring a lot of value to regional approaches. Leading opportunities identified in the paper include:

  • standards content and performance metrics can shape and inform sustainability objectives and targets in land use planning processes
  • sustainability standards have a depth of experience in verification that can be translated into landscape-level models. ISEAL’s work with members on risk-based approaches could feed into this
  • existing certified areas and producers can be integrated into landscape or jurisdictional strategies. An ongoing ISEAL project is supporting members to develop geospatial location data for certified enterprises, which provides a foundational step in the land use planning process and enables visual representation of certified production across a landscape
  • sustainability standards and their stakeholders have a wealth of insights on ground-level implementation that can help to identify obstacles, opportunities and trade-offs in specific regions
  • the increasing focus on continual improvement approaches (also supported by an ISEAL Task Force) shows the way for stepwise improvement pathways that could see enterprises that meet entry level requirements in regional approaches move up to certification performance levels over time.

While landscape and jurisdictional approaches are exciting, it’s useful to recall that in over 85% of the deforestation-free commitments that companies have made, certification is listed as one of the mechanisms by which those companies will meet their commitments. Sustainability standards are proven tools that deliver sustainability impacts and we believe that they can play an important role in ensuring the integrity and complementarity of these initiatives.

Over the next six months, we will be exploring in more detail where the strategic entry points are for sustainability standards in regional and jurisdictional approaches and how best to ensure the credibility of these approaches. If you are interested in being part of that work or want more information about the ISEAL projects referenced here, please contact me at or my colleague David D’Hollander at