Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Global certification tools: do they help or hinder?

April 2011

Global standards are important, but too many of them just muddies the water, argues Liz Wilkes

The road to environmental certification is fraught with complexity and confusion.

The sheer number of global tools that sustainability professionals need to understand and attempt to apply to their environmental performance is mind-boggling at best.

Firstly we need to ask why we need global standards in the first place. With the rise of international trade, organizations needed to demonstrate competitiveness through continuous commitment to quality improvement. This gave birth to ISO9001, an international quality standard with an independent set of criteria, developed by a third party – the International Standards Organisation (ISO). The beauty of ISO9001 is that it has helped facilitate a common global level of understanding on quality criteria, helping organizations meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders, with more than a million bodies worldwide now independently certified against it.

So why can’t environmental standards mirror the simplicity and efficacy of the ISO9001? ISO14001, the international environmental standard launched in 1996, should have been the natural next step in helping companies to reduce their impact on the environment. However, from this point onwards the picture suddenly became very confusing, as more and more standards appeared and started to muddy the waters: EU Flower, PEFC, FSC, ISO4064, ISI1404O to name but a few.

So how does one decide which tool to use? There is no easy answer to that question, given each tool addresses different challenges across the supply chain and has its own unique criteria. The one thing that all have in common is that they don’t always reflect the reality of industry today, or the very necessary requirement to balance economic and environmental sustainability.

There is a need for a more cohesive approach across these certification tools. When embarking on a relationship with another company there is a clear need to understand the market within which it operates, as well as the local and global environmental standards it adheres to. We also need to recognise that environmental standards apply not just to an organization itself but its products too. Personally, I believe the European Commission’s Eco Label is on the road to providing an umbrella standard that can help organizations reach their sustainability goals while recognising that no two companies are the same. This point is crucial – if government fails to be convinced that industry is able to agree on common standards, it will introduce legislation to address it.

A global environmental international standard, independently verified against a clear set of criteria, is the only satisfactory means of certifying environmental performance management. As with ISO9001, conformance should be enough. Certification is fact and not opinion.

Liz Wilkes is European sustainability manager at Asia Pulp & Paper

Liz Wilkes | Global | Certification

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