Sustainability standards: critical partners in the collective effort to tackle deforestation

There is ‘scant evidence of positive outcomes [on deforestation] for all approaches except voluntary standards systems’.  

This was the conclusion of researchers from Wageningen University in a recent review of the outcomes of deforestation-free commodity supply chain approaches. Voluntary standards systems met more of the researchers’ criteria for successfully tackling deforestation than regulatory approaches, due diligence regulations, public-private partnerships or landscape approaches. 

The researchers also found more evidence that sustainability standards had actually contributed to stopping deforestation than for any other approach. Other reviews draw similar conclusions, such as a recent review by Garrett (2021). The expert panel on a recent Evidensia webinar that discussed this review and WWF’s Deforestation Fronts report concluded that we know where certification works well and less well, but much less about the effectiveness of other approaches. 

Why then are we seeing so much criticism targeted at sustainability standards in current debates about how to tackle deforestation?  

Some observers say these attacks are part of a lobbying effort – an effort to move government attention away from the use of market-based sustainability systems and towards a fully regulatory approach.  

Another explanation is that the tallest trees catch the most wind. Sustainability standards have reached impressive scale in many commodities, exceeding the reach of many other supply chain approaches.  

ISEAL members have invested heavily in transparency and monitoring & evaluation, as well as encouraging research on the impacts of standards and certification. We now know much more about sustainability standards – ISEAL Code Compliant members in particular – than about other supply chain approaches. 

A more constructive view is that critiques of sustainability standards are a call for us to look critically at the potential contributions and the limitations of all supply chain-based approaches to tackling deforestation.  

At ISEAL, we don’t shy away from constructive scrutiny: well-founded research provides a strong foundation for figuring out what needs to change to make a bigger dent in pressing global challenges. 

Research has shown that certified entities are more likely to adopt and retain better practices and, although audits are not flawless, they help drive these better practices and avoid slippage into bad practices, especially in countries with weak national regulatory frameworks in place.  

At the same time, we know that supply chain-based approaches and market-based tools have some limitations in tackling deforestation. For example, sustainability standards are generally implemented in areas chosen by companies rather than in the areas of most deforestation risk, and most standards are focused on improving sustainable practices at the site or enterprise level, which can prompt ‘bad’ practice to simply move to other locations.  

Research also tells us that context matters: a range of studies illustrate that sustainability standards are driving important conservation outcomes in a variety of contexts, while having less success in others. The strength of local legislation and the practices of supply chain leaders are two of the factors that affect outcomes from certification.  

Effective regulation to raise minimum expectations for sustainable practices and to pressure purchasing companies to better support improvement by producers and enterprises can augment the impact of sustainability standards. 

All of this means that it is unrealistic, and unhelpful, to act as if sustainability standards – or any single approach, tool or scheme – could be expected to successfully address global environmental challenges such as deforestation, biodiversity loss or climate change on their own and in all contexts. Even with the latest satellite and remote-sensing technology, addressing issues at a production level is not straightforward.  

We strongly support the growing consensus and recognition that complex sustainability challenges require an ambitious and collective response. Many stakeholders are calling for a range of demand- and supply-side policies, reflecting the need for a multi-dimensional approach to address these critical sustainability issues. 

For policy-makers, sustainability standards and similar systems are important mechanisms that can and should be integrated in a government’s ‘smart mix’ of approaches to achieve their sustainability goals. The EU’s Green Deal offers an important opportunity to work this out in practice, drawing on important lessons from the research and from the experience of sustainability standards. 

We will actively support these efforts, as we see that government regulation and sustainability systems that adopt credible practices can achieve more together than they can alone.  

A recent report by Greenpeace stressed the point about the importance of credible practices and system transparency. Greenpeace recognised the value of ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice, against which our Code Compliant members are independently assessed. ISEAL’s Codes serve as best practice guidance and a continual improvement framework for sustainability systems to strengthen their standard-setting, governance, monitoring and assurance activities. We are pleased, though not surprised, to see that ISEAL members performed better than others in Greenpeace’s analysis.

Credible systems, collaboration, innovation for impact… These are all at the centre of ISEAL’s work and new strategy. We welcome new research, practical experience, and stakeholder views as constructive input into our work to support and challenge sustainability systems to deepen their contributions to global collective action on sustainability challenges like deforestation.