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10 Tips for Savvy Shopping in the Certification Marketplace

<p>In the face of surging skepticism around social and environmental claims, sellers and buyers alike are demanding verification. Sustainability certification has become a booming industry. The net result has been mounting confusion and uncertainty about what particular certifications deliver and their relative value. Here are 10 tips for navigating the sea of certifications</p>

In the face of surging skepticism around social and environmental claims, sellers and buyers alike are demanding verification. Sustainability certification has become a booming industry with over 400 in use and new ones emerging almost weekly. This, in turn, has led to scrutiny and public criticism of apparent shortcomings.

Understandably, the net result has been mounting confusion and uncertainty about what particular certifications deliver and their relative value. To help consumers and businesses navigate this landscape, the Consumers Union launched its Greener Choices database several years ago, providing basic information on over 300 labels. Realizing greater breadth and depth were needed, the World Resources Institute recently launched its more detailed Global Ecolabel Monitor.

purityEquipped with this intelligence, businesses face the question of how to use it to determine what designations to pursue and ask of suppliers. Strategic selection is key. Given the resources involved, it's not practical to stamp every admirable trait. Nor is it necessary or beneficial, given that businesses can improve many practices and ensure positive outcomes with their own resources and supplier engagement, and the reality that claims lose their value with saturation. To this end, there are several factors to take into account:

1. Relevance
This is among the first aspects to consider and will help identify potential areas for labeling. Determine what's pertinent to your mission and key impacts, real-world issues, suppliers and stakeholders. If you have an existing sustainability strategy or materiality analysis, it's a perfect starting point to ensure alignment across business activities.Fair Trade

2. Relative Priority

Pare down relevant certification areas to what matters most -- your biggest impacts, responsibilities and stakeholder concerns. Overlooking these and highlighting trivial issues can invite criticism for greenwash. You're likely to end up with multiple focal points, given the diverse factors and stakeholders involved.

3. Recommendations

Ask peers, suppliers, field experts and key stakeholders what options they would suggest, any they would advise against, and why. Scan the market to see what comparable businesses are doing and inquire why they selected that path. Close competitors may choose one program over another simply to maintain differentiation, so ask several colleagues for representative input.Rainforest Alliance

4. Governance
Research the ethics behind each label's development and implementation. Look for independence, regular efficacy assessments and direct audits, 3rd party verification, periodic updating of criteria, broad stakeholder involvement in governance and standard setting, organizational and process transparency, public reporting and the like. Alignment with the ISEAL Alliance Code of Good Practice is a good indicator here.

5. Real Impact

Consider measured, positive outcomes for workers, suppliers, end users, your business, the environment and other stakeholders. Many certifiers produce annual reports and all should be able to produce data demonstrating how their offerings leave people, planet and commerce better off than the status quo. For a balanced, unbiased view, review assessments from 3rd parties and solicit input from directly affected stakeholders, such as workers in supply chain verification programs.

6. Rigor
To avoid greenwash, choose certifications that go beyond the status quo, add significant value and have a meaningful positive impact on people and planet. Seek out high-bar criteria and quantifiable systems that make relative performance clear, such as the graded levels used for LEED and USDA Organic. In addition, look for programs grounded in vetted international frameworks, such as International Labor Organization Conventions, ISO standards and the United Nations Global Compact and its constituent elements.

7. Requirements

Understand what your company, suppliers and other business partners must to comply, and how feasible this is within current systems. Having to make changes need not be a deterrent, since these engender the higher-level progress toward sustainability that's necessary and truly worthy of recognition. You'll simply need to estimate what's needed in such cases and develop strategies for initial certification and scaling up. For example, if sufficient raw materials aren't available, you might label one product line initially and expand as supply grows, as companies adopting Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance are label

8. Return on Investment

Sellers and buyers often face costs related to audits, licensing, commodity premiums and the like, realized directly or indirectly, through higher supplier prices. In some cases, capital improvements, staff expansion and process changes may also be necessary to meet requirements. These should be clearly linked to necessary activities with quantifiable deliverables, and yield commensurate results and benefits. Ask peers and suppliers what costs they've incurred and how ROI has panned out.

9. Recognition and Resonance

Labels, in part, serve a mUSDAarketing function so it's important to gauge the familiarity and influence of your options. Relative awareness in itself isn't cause to select or bypass a specific prospect, since it may simply reflect marketing, not real value. It's simply an indicator of how you'll need to communicate to build support from stakeholders. A survey from BBMG provides a quick scan of consumer insights around common certifications with marketing tips.

10. Reputation

It's becoming easier to find independent assessments of labels, from industry experts, media and others. Look for a few different viewpoints for a comprehensive, well-rounded assessment. Give certifiers the opportunity to address any significant negative feedback you encounter, since hidden biases or misconceptions can be at play.

These tips should get you off to a good start in the bustling world of sustainability markers. If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments section to engage with the GreenBiz community.

Melissa Schweisguth is director of membership development and education for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association and an independent consultant on CSR/sustainability and marketing/communications.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users Andrew Currie, {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}, kafka4prez, sirinyay, adulau and nikoretro.

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