Calling into question ethical-sourcing certifications

Certification standards are in question
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Certification standards are in question in a new report.

If you're reading this, chances are the last time you shopped for fish you looked for the MSC label to tell you that the fillet of tuna or packet of shrimps you were about to buy was sustainably sourced.

Or perhaps you deliberately chose to purchase your new running shoes or gym kit from Adidas, knowing they are a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, and so must be sourcing more sustainable cotton than other brands.

Every day, thousands of environmentally conscious consumers try to make ethical buying choices to minimize their harm to the environment. It's becoming an increasingly popular habit. Sales of MSC certified products are growing rapidly, with spending hitting $1.03 million in 2016-2017, up 29 percent on the previous year, while Christmas 2017 was touted as perhaps the "most ethical on record" thanks to soaring sales of ethically labeled goods.

But what if those labeling and certification schemes we rely on to guide us through the mall are actually helping to harm the environment?

That's the claim made by the NGO Changing Markets Foundation, which released new research last week suggesting many certification schemes are so focused on signing up industry partners that they are accepting lower sustainability standards and providing cover for environmentally damaging corporate practices.

"Certification schemes are failing the environment and consumers, who increasingly want to make ethical and sustainable choices," argued Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at Changing Markets. "It's time for a serious rethink about how we achieve sustainability because the current system is broken."

The paper looked at some of the world's most successful certification schemes, from product labels such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which tags sustainably sourced fish, to industry-wide programs such as the Higg Index in the textiles industry.

Across the three sectors analyzed — palm oil, fishing and textiles — the report concluded certification has "lost its way" and was an ineffective strategy for driving positive environmental change.

For example, it claims no major palm oil certification scheme has proved effective at slowing down rates of deforestation, peatland draining or biodiversity loss around the world. It criticizes the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scheme in particular for allowing the conversion of secondary forests and the draining of peatland and claims it does not require greenhouse gas emissions reductions from members.

In response, the RSPO said it welcomed independent reports to raise awareness of issues with its procedures, and acknowledged that "every system can be improved." Still, it stressed it is already working to address many issues highlighted in the report, and since 2004 it has protected millions of hectares of primary forest from deforestation.

Meanwhile, in the seafood sector, fish stocks around the world continue to be depleted at an alarming rate, with nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks either fully fished or overfished. Worryingly, Changing Markets Foundation suggested MSC and another major certification scheme, Friend of the Sea (FOS), both have certified fisheries which are overfished, had high levels of by-catch and in some cases were at odds with national legislation.

In response to the report's allegations, MSC communications officer James Simpson accused Changing Markets Foundation of "cherry picking" critical research and making "unvalidated criticisms" about the MSC.

"In places, the report contradicts itself. In others, it is just plain wrong about the MSC," he said. "Globally, stocks targeted by MSC certified fisheries show sustainable levels of stock biomass and in many regions stocks show higher biomass after MSC certification. Nearly all MSC certified fisheries are required to make an improvement as part of their certification and 90 percent of those improvements are completed within five years of certification. If you want to make a difference every single day, then labels like the MSC are a very good place to start."

FOS also insisted the report does not reflect its current standards and achievements. "As shown by independent assessments, the greatest majority of Friend of the Sea currently approved fisheries are not overexploited: a better performance compared to other standards," it insisted in a statement. "FOS is the most independent, transparent, accessible to small scale program available and for this reason it has grown constantly over the past years to become the No. 1 globally."

Finally, the report alleges that much of the textiles sector still lacks transparency and causes serious industrial water pollution, despite the numerous certification initiatives at work across the industry. Popular initiatives such as the Higg Index, which helps measure and score textile companies' sustainability performance, is criticized by the report for a reliance on self-assessment, while the paper claims the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has driven more farmers to switch from organic cotton to GM cotton as a result of its policy of allowing the use of chemicals and GM modified seeds.

BCI said the report was "factually inaccurate," contains unsubstantiated claims and makes "misleading" assertions. "BCI is a credible sustainability standard system that brings much-needed training to millions of farmers around the globe and demonstrates the positive results that these farmers are experiencing," the organization said in a written statement. "Sustainability standards and certification are the most proven tool in the sustainability movement today. BCI is keen to consider opportunities to improve the way we work. However, this report does not open a constructive dialogue that can result in progress."

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which runs the Higg Index, said it wanted to make clear the Index is not a certification scheme and it does not allow results to make environmental claims. "We currently operate in a business to business context and after three years of collecting data we do see measurable year over year environmental improvement, each year, on our assessments at both the brand and facility level," CEO Jason Kibbey said. 

Overall, the report claims many schemes often fuel confusion for consumers, muddying the waters and preventing truly sustainable consumption choices. "We argue that it can even cause active damage; it lowers the bar to certify higher product volumes and in many cases fails to enforce greater transparency, thereby providing cover for unsustainable companies and practices," Changing Market Foundation wrote in the paper.  

And despite the vehement responses from the certification bodies, which insist their work is of crucial environmental value, the Changing Markets Foundation is demanding reform. It wants to see the worst schemes abolished, arguing they only drive "label shopping" from consumers that weakens the effectiveness of certification schemes in general.

It also argues that schemes should cover the entire lifecycle of a product rather than just part of a supply chain, and programs should stick to their original aims and not develop different requirements or modules to suit individual member companies. It also insists that schemes must be more selective in their membership and maintain higher entry requirements.

It would be irresponsible to disregard the role of certification schemes on the basis of a single report. The practice undoubtedly has extended protected areas and provided a catalyst for sustainability improvements within thousands of corporations. But the paper does reach some worrying conclusions about the effectiveness of such industry schemes to effect positive change, especially in the light of overarching metrics that show levels of fishing and deforestation remain worryingly high.

For consumers, it means yet more confusion over how to buy better products, but perhaps the report also could help usher in more ambitious reforms to those labeling schemes that critics fear have lost their way.

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