Product stewardship and certification meltdown

image of a forestAre there too many product stewardship, certification and labelling schemes? Crucially, is the current situation an unnecessary and onerous burden on the users of the schemes, the major brands and retailers?  In the early days it was the users who had a clear vision of what was required of certification (for example, why retailers such as B&Q were involved in the set up of the Forest Stewardship Council), but since then the schemes have proliferated without an understanding of how they interact or do, or do not, work together. How many schemes do we need? Should we better co-ordinate them? Is there a better solution?

For 20 years I have worked in the field of environmental and social management in global supply chains. I have been involved in the formation of the Forest Stewardship Council and have worked with The Forest Trust (TFT) and the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels.  I witnessed the creation of a number of related stewardship councils (or roundtables), certification schemes or product related initiatives. I have worked for retailers and major brands who use these schemes and with governments who have sought to clarify their role. It is this experience that has led me to investigate the scale of the problem and to question whether or not it’s time to take on the challenge of working towards a solution.

It’s a jungle out there! – but is it a problem?

Every product in every store has a story to tell. Some brand owners still don’t know what their product story is but one thing is now very clear, good CSR or corporate sustainability starts and ends with product stewardship.

Organics, fair trade and green detergents have been around for decades, but up until 1990 the focus was more marketing-led than strategic, giving consumers an informed ethical choice. It was in the 1990s when product stewardship moved up a gear. Retailers, along with WWF, led the way in creating the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was created specifically to resolve the connection between deforestation and the wood sold in retailers’ stores. FSC was less about informed consumer choice and more about corporate procurement standards.

Product certification and labelling schemes are now so numerous that they represent a very heavy, cluttered toolbox. Policy makers and buyers have to ask themselves, which is better – FSC or PEFC for example – and what makes a scheme better?

The parallel with forests continues with fuel. Marine harvested algae may be a future source of new biofuel. Who will certify these sources – the MSC, the ASC or the RSB, or who knows maybe a new Marine Algae Biofuel Roundtable (BABR)? This means there are duplications, organisations which are doing slightly different or identical jobs but in different ways.

If you are a retailer, manufacturer or importer of a single product line, it’s relatively simple to get to grips with the issues and controversies surrounding that product and to research the organisations which set standards and offer the benefits of a particular label.  But if you, like retailers, sell a stable of different products, it’s much more complicated.  Which are the best schemes for each product and which are the best type of social and environmental audits for basic human rights issues, and should the carbon footprint be measured and what is ‘good’ and what is ‘poor’?

Suppliers have limited resources and the danger is that the greater the proportion of time and budget devoted to tick box exercises, the less that is spent on resolving the real concerns. Is the array of certification schemes a necessary complication to address the sheer complexity of modern supply chains and sustainable development? At the moment there is no clear consensus.

Starting with the FSC and how proliferation evolved into over 60 schemes

In 1990 it was clear that retailers could not reassure themselves that the wood they sold was from well-managed forests, but despite that, there were at least 15 different on-product labels reassuring customers that the wood was indeed from these sources. All these claims lacked independent scrutiny and were based on suppliers’ interpretation of what was meant by sustainability. The superficiality of those claims became clear when over half of B&Q’s suppliers making such claims could not tell the buyers from which country the forests were sourced.

B&Q’s vision was to have one global label for all wood and paper products. This made its ambition bold but precise – all the wood and paper sold by B&Q would be FSC certified.  The only small challenge was to create the FSC!

The underlying principle of FSC was many companies and bodies offering its certification service but all working to the one standard, audit protocol and displaying the same single label for consumer and corporate buyers. The reality was sadly different. Some trade representatives, many of whom had resisted the very concept of certification, saw FSC as too pressure group focused and mistook FSC for a monopoly rather than the means to facilitate choice. Their response was to create their own schemes that reflected their preferences. It is now hypothetically possible to go into a home improvement store and see not one but nine labels, all with varying forms of design, assurance, standards and protocols.

1.     Forest Stewardship Council

2.     Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (Formerly the Pan European Forest Certification)

3.     Canadian Standards Association

4.     Sustainable Forestry Initiative

5.     Finnish Forest Scheme (merged with the PEFC)

6.     Indonesia Ecolabel Institute (LEI)

7.     Malaysian Timber Council

8.     The Forest Trust (formerly Tropical Forest Trust)

9.     Smart Wood run by the Rainforest Alliance

Add palm oil and biofuel which both have their own schemes. Oil palm and biofuel can be grown on agricultural land as well as forests. This means we need standards to cover agriculture:

10.      Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuel

11.      Council for Sustainable Biomass Production (USA based)

12.      Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

13.      Green Palm

Stewardship of agricultural products is also widespread, we already have:

14.      Rainforest Alliance (tea, coffee, other non timber / non forest products)

15.      Roundtable for Responsible Soy

16.      Better Sugar Cane Initiative

17.      International Cocoa Initiative

18.      Better Cotton Initiative

It is fair to say a tool designed for forests would not work for a cotton field, but just how different is soy from cotton? We then have schemes that look at farming as a whole ranging from the organic movement to industry-wide sector standards. These include:

19.      IFOAM

20.      Union of Ethical BioTrade

21.      Inter Organic Accreditation

22.      UTZ certified

23.      For Free

24.      Soil Association (and the rest of the organic movement’s labels)

25.      Conservation Grade

26.      Red Tractor

27.      LEAF

28.      UK Wildlife Trust Biodiversity Benchmark

The variation in farming schemes is logical because organic farming is as much a philosophy of how land should be used, whereas the Red Tractor is a scheme to assure that non-organic environmental and social standards are being applied.

With farming comes animal welfare:

29.      Animal welfare labels / Freedom Foods

And then we have animal welfare in the cosmetics industry.

30.      BUAV (not tested on animals)

We have initiatives that focus on what comes from beneath the ground, basically mines and mine related products:

31.      Mining

32.      Community Mining

33.      UK Quarry Working Group

34.      ‘Responsible Jewellery Council’

35.      ‘Good Practice’ (Sustainable Development in the Mining and Minerals Sector)

We have organisations that cover the built environment and the tourist resorts:

36.      Tourism Stewardship Council

37.      Green Tourism Business Scheme

38.      Travel Life for Hotels

39.      BREAM building standards

Then we have people centric schemes:

40.      FairTrade

41.      World fair trade

42.      Global Footprint

43.      Social Accounting Services

44.      Global GDP

45.      ISO 14000

46.      ISO 26000

47.      Transfair

48.      Rug Mark

49.      Social Accountability International

We have schemes which do not look at entire supply chains but try to cover off many different issues:

49.      EU Flower

50.      Nordic Swan

51.      Canadian Scheme (3 doves!)

52.      Blue Angel

53.      Green Seal

54.      Environment Choice

55.      People4Earth

56.      WWF’s One Planet Living label

Finally we have single issue labels:

57.      Energy label on cars, white goods etc

58.      Solvent paint label – B&Q version

59.      Paint industry label

60.      Carbon Trust’s Carbon footprint label

And individual brand initiatives:

61.      Wal-Mart Score Card

62.      Body Shop’s Community Trade

63.      Marks and Spencer Plan A

And finally the banks and investment house have:

64.      Equator Principles

This list is not intended to be complete.  The emerging embedded water debate might result in another label and we have the recently launched Forest Disclosure Project and many more.

Not every company needs every tool in its toolbox, but some big and influential companies like Tesco and Wal-Mart could have most of them.

How did we end up with such a heavy toolbox?

The answer is very simple. No-one planned an overall approach; sectors and their stakeholders organised themselves around their issues and their product range. Combine the world’s issues and the world’s business sectors and it is inevitable that a thousand tools end up in the toolbox.  There are other complications:

“Product type lock-in” – in the late 1980s and 1990s the pressure group narrative was clear.  If products on retail shelves came from controversial sources, the retailer or brand selling that product was at fault. The solution – create a stewardship certification scheme. For FSC the initial focus was timber but over time the needs of the paper industry emerged so some limited adaptation was made to meet its needs too. The inability to define a boundary and the processes created by others on the other side of the ill-defined boundary meant that duplication was inevitable.

“Not quite right for me” – The Finnish forest industry argued that the FSC model was not quite right for them.  The FSC model was too inflexible for its multi-owner regime. The industry’s solution was to create its own scheme – the Finnish Forest Certification scheme. The USA SFI scheme was created because the FSC model was not quite right for the Bush administration, and a US centric approach was needed.

“Finding the tools’ range of application” – An adjustable spanner is designed to do many jobs whereas a fixed spanner is limited in its use. The Rainforest Alliance became one of the first schemes to achieve FSC accreditation. Since then many of its timber products are co-labelled with its tree frog label. The Rainforest Alliance label however is available for non-forest products and is “adjustable” to fit any product that is grown on land from natural forests to farmland.

“Conversion tools to recognise companies which are investing in improvements but have not yet met the standard” – The forest example is the Forest Trust (TFT). The TFT was launched in 1997 to help the manufacturers and retailers of garden furniture who relied on tropical hardwood species to make the transition towards FSC. To distinguish these products, a consumer-facing product label was offered to member customers. Success however is FSC certification, leading to the replacement of the TFT label with the FSC label. This model is not confined to tropical wood garden furniture, a market undergoing a natural decline.  The impact of many members achieving FSC and approaches from other non furniture companies means that the TFT is spreading its expertise into temperate forests, non furniture products and non wood products such as leather and palm oil.

“Competition versus one scheme” – The fundamental question is whether competition is good for standards and certification. Whilst it makes complete sense that certifiers should compete with other certifiers on price etc, should different standards and labels compete with each other? Does a debate whether the FSC is better or equivalent to PEFC add value? If there was only one scheme, there would be no question but the pressure would be on the governance to ensure that the standard was robust. However, nothing drives improvement better than competition.

“Not invented here” – FSC was invented by the coming together of 20 to 30 players predominantly from the north of the globe. A small group deciding on the shape and direction of an initiative will, by default, leave the majority outside the process. Those not involved face three choices: join in, ignore what’s happening or create a counter movement.  Since it’s natural to be comfortable with a scheme where you have direct influence, it could be said that human nature alone is enough to predict that one certification scheme will lead to the creation of similar but different organisations.

“How good is good enough?” – if the FSC ambition was to bring together the best thinking in sustainable forest management, MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) was slightly different – to use the best current practice in the field. SFI was created because many Americans felt the bar set by the FSC was too high, and easier standards were needed to encourage widespread adoption in the USA. This leads us to the classic “good, better or best” choices most retailers make in deciding to stock a range. Does certification exist to distinguish the best from the not so good, or does it exist to serve the mainstream offer, below which standard the product cannot be sold? Organic carrots are great, but no one expects the world’s carrots to be organic. However, there are many who would argue that the entire fish supply should be managed to MSC standards.

“Times are a-changing” – thinking and issues move on.  What was the very best in the past is now likely to be so mainstream that it is no more than good. This progress is positive but it leads to tools that were needed once being semi-redundant today.

And finally, perhaps most importantly:

“No opinion” – from the retailers, brands and other users of certification – whilst it was clear that the FSC and other individual schemes were shaped partly around the opinion on thought leading users of the service (brands and retailers), do the current users have a clear enough opinion and voice on what they want from the entire certification landscape?

Developing a users’ view on the certification landscape – what is the purpose of all these schemes?
In deciding what tools are best for product stewardship, we need to better understand how they are being applied.  It is far more complex than a simple provision of labels to help customers to make informed choices.

“Informed consumer choice” versus “choice editing” versus “laws”
In the early 90s many thought informed consumer choice would drive the market. The EU eco-label was launched to help that change, but the impacts were minor.

In 2007 the UK’s Roundtable for Sustainable Consumption published a report including compelling evidence that real change in the market place was not driven by consumers, but by companies and public policy. The evidence says that the role of informed consumer choice is important but limited. It creates initial exposure but significant change only happens when corporations use the schemes in their own procurement policies.  Hence the term, coined by that report – ‘choice editing’.

Product stewardship councils’ main client is not the consumer but the major brands and retailers. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, but the evidence is robust; change will be driven by choice editing – not informed consumer choice.

Therefore the main group of organisations to have an opinion on the current situation is the major brands and retailers.  It is up to them to decide whether or not the jungle of certification schemes is tenable and if it isn’t, what would provide an improvement?

Finally we should not ignore the law. There is only one reason why old fashioned, energy intense light bulbs have disappeared from the UK market and that is because they have been banned by law. The list of chemicals and raw materials that have been banned or restricted through public policy should not be forgotten. The law is part of the product stewardship armoury.

It is as simple as the tools designed around their intended application and this is where the good, better and best thinking really works:

Good – is the law, where nothing is available to anybody that doesn’t comply with legislation.

Better – is for choice editing, with high standards, but low enough to be used a procurement policy by the major companies and procurers.

Best – is for informed consumer choice, with very high standards,

Could it be that simple? The answer could be yes, but only if we want this model and encourage the various organisations to decide which level they want to best serve.

Do users agree there is a problem?  Do they need a common voice?
The argument so far is that there are too many schemes, that there are inefficiencies and unclear standards.  First it is essential to assess whether there are sufficient users who agree with this argument and if so, then they should find a voice to speak up. But that voice should be more constructive than just shouting “problem”. A more constructive voice would at least talk about the choices the users face, whilst a braver voice might even express a preference from those choices.

If we were starting afresh and the key users of these schemes gathered to plan and decide the certification landscape or tool box, what choices would they have?

Choice 1 – One adjustable tool for everything - The natural place to start would be a single scheme for all products and all issues.  This is what the EU Flower or national schemes like the Blue Angel tried to achieve. The UK Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and Environment believed that its failure was due to trying to achieve too many things. A scheme designed for timber from forests cannot be designed for fish from oceans as well – the differences are just too profound. Also international schemes’ ambitions on the standard the label represents tend to be poorly defined. Do they represent good, better or best?

Single labels have not succeeded and they cannot succeed. This means we will have to have more than one label and therefore, as we design more bespoke tools for specific products and issues, we end up with many schemes.

Choice 2 – Just fill the toolbox with as many tools as you want – The argument against this approach has already been made and forms the very rationale for this narrative. The toolbox metaphor works well – it is not just that there are too many tools, the issue is that there are too many tools doing the same job and there are other jobs which have no tools.

Choice 3 – A planned toolbox – If we had the luxury of starting again and had the knowledge we have today, what toolbox would we design? Maybe we could design the standard setting processes for the use of natural resources into a single land and single ocean council. We then have a portfolio of separate product stewardship councils that only focus on their own chain of custody and marketplace messaging, having relied on the land and ocean bodies to be responsible for checking the harvesting of the resource.

In other words, this choice advocates only one body that provides the certification principles for forests, other land and oceans.  This would be a land and ocean stewardship council working in partnership with business and also governments.  This council would be supported by a family of bespoke product stewardship councils which focus on the unique supply chain and marketplace dynamics of different products which originate from land and oceans.

This model might work if we were starting from scratch but today’s reality means that the process, politics, cost and distraction of forcing it to happen would probably do more harm than good. However, the logic remains compelling.

The other flaw in this approach is that it makes the assumption that the only issue being solved here is land and ocean stewardship. We will still have schemes designed around people or animal welfare, energy or water use, or schemes that provide more of an ideological choice like organic farming.

One suggested strawman solution

Choice 4 – The toolbox approach – This is a process of working with the existing schemes, helping them find a unique role and space in the range of applications needed for them to make an important and unique contribution.

This works on the principle that a well-organised toolbox will have “a tool for every job, and a job for every tool”. When you think this way the list becomes very straightforward.

1.     On land use – forests

2.     On land use – agriculture

3.     Underground land use – agriculture land

4.     Oceans

5.     Fish (and marine algae) farms

6.     Tourist / travel destinations

7.     Buildings

8.     Efficient use of energy and water in consumer products / services

9.     People welfare

10.    Animal welfare

Against these we have what the tools want to achieve. It might not need to be any more complicated than the good, better and best offer most retailers use in defining ranges of similar products.

‘Good’ in forest products equates to forest laws being applied along with import restrictions for illegal timber.  PEFC may fall in the good or better category for choice editing, whereas FSC could be the best, representing the highest goal that could, in some cases, attract a market premium.

What the certification movement could do is begin to plot the different schemes and the different issues against a good, better and best matrix. This idea of plotting the schemes could be relevant at a national and global level as the principle is the same. We would then see where we have gaps or unnecessary and harmful duplication.

By creating a simple 10 x 3 matrix we can soon estimate that a well-managed certification landscape needs around 30 schemes. Given this paper listed over 60 we can conclude that we already have too many.


It appears at the moment that even if there was a momentum to solve this problem, there is neither the political will nor process to do this. If we sit back and accept that there is no problem to solve now, then how many schemes will we have when it does become a problem?

It is perhaps easier to muddle along with the existing system against the enormity of the challenge to tackle the web of the myriad of interlocking schemes and then to emerge with a toolbox that works for both the users and consumers.  The certification bodies themselves would be reluctant to question their valuable work and would be keen to protect their own fields of expertise.  However, the toolbox approach would not undermine their skills but would use them to contribute to the solution.

There is no doubt, however, that the impetus must come from the major brands and retailers as it is their requirements that have been proven to effect change.

It is possible that a refining of the structure for stewardship councils would simplify the processes for these users – as well as encourage a direction for sustainability which governments, business and society will endorse as working for both nature and the economy.

So what now?

Whilst it is appreciated that 10 tools within a good, better best matrix is too simple for all the world’s issues and all the world’s products and services, it does provide a template to identify the gaps and overlaps in the schemes. It also firmly embeds the principle that the best way to manage this complexity is to plan for it rather than having to react to a worsening situation.

What is required is a two-pronged approach:

  • a group of manufacturers, brands and retailers express a preference for coordinated and managed toolbox for certification schemes to better meet their needs. They then could compose their own version of the choices outlined here.
  • certification bodies to work with each other as the experts of certification standards and understand where on such a 10 x 3 matrix they think they should be and to report on where there are overlaps and duplications, and where there are gaps.

At some stage a coming together of these two conversations might result in a common vision between certifiers and users. One way to make this manageable is to start in just one area, maybe oceans or forests.

It is a debate worth having? I think so.