GreenBiz Article: Using Sustainability Labels to Drive Performance

My latest article is “Using Sustainability Labels to Drive Performance.” Intro, excerpted text and link to full piece below.

There are hundreds of environmental and social certifications and labels in the marketplace. Recent studies have explored their marketing impact, including recognition and purchasing influence. That’s an important question, since brands often bear costs for certifications and responsible consumerism continues to rise. Yet, perhaps a more important question is whether these labels really signify a significant investment and positive outcomes. With the diversity of options available, companies have the opportunity to choose one that drives higher improvement and real change. That’s an opportunity I hope more companies will take as it’s essential for the greater good and better for business in the long-term.


Using Sustainability Labels to Drive Performance
By Melissa Schweisguth, for GreenBiz, 10/28/09

It seems like a new sustainability certification or standard is announced weekly. As these increase, along with corresponding logos and taglines, so too have questions about their validity and meaning for stakeholders.

As reported, current research tells us that as labels proliferate consumer confusion is increasing and individual labels are incrementally losing value. BBMG evaluated consumer recognition and purchase influence for an array of labels. The recycling symbol, Energy Star and USDA Certified Organic topped the charts, with a steep drop for others on the list.

It’s certainly important to understand how efforts to communicate sustainability practices resonate with stakeholders and support business goals (SeeGreenBiz’s recent webinar on this.) Yet, there’s another critical question to explore: How might labels, certifications and standards play in driving higher-level sustainability practices? We know we’ve got a long way to go toward sustainability, and some imminent issues to rectify. Why not seek, and promote, standards and certifications that drive significant improvements that really push the envelope and achieve what’s needed to sustain society, the economy and the planet?

How might a business determine what standards to shoot for? Aligning with sustainability priorities is a good start, so long as those address an enterprise’s biggest impacts, needs and opportunities. This will maximize positive impact where it’s most needed, for the business, stakeholders and the environment. With a well-developed strategy, these will align with consumer concerns, advancing both sustainability and marketing goals… [text excerpted here]

When specific areas are identified, a good next step is to identify applicable standards and certifications and choose those with the greatest real impacts (inside and outside the business), and that lie above current performance and the status quo are. Companies can do side-by-side comparisons for various standards and talk to peers. [text excerpted here]

More comprehensive, third-party verified certifications will also confer wider benefits than their simpler, looser counterparts. As an example, USDA Organic goes beyond “all natural” to prohibit synthetic agricultural chemicals and ingredients, yielding greater benefits around emissions reduction, clean air, water and soil, and farmworker health… [text excerpted here]

Shooting for standards above current performance needn’t mean that a label can’t be used immediately, which would defer the communications opportunities that companies and stakeholders value. It may just mean that only some products, brands, product lines, facilities or other subset of a business would qualify. From here, a company can map out a plan to scale up and meet the criteria for a given label across the board…[text excerpted here]

As a final consideration, one must also ensure a given label is founded in good governance policies such as third-party verification, transparency, non-conflict of interest and broad stakeholder involvement in development. [text excerpted here]

Viewing certifications and standards as an opportunity to set and meet stretch goals is essential to create more sustainable business models that address our social, environmental and economic challenges with an appropriate scope and scale. It offers a transparent way to stay accountable over the long term, as well as a solid basis for communicating with integrity in an era of increasing concerns about greenwash. It also stands to help filter our standards and certifications that represent little more than business as usual, helping restore and build consumer confidence in this key area. By doing the right thing for the right reasons with real integrity, the rest of the sustainability labeling puzzle will fall into place.

Read full article: Using Sustainability Labels to Drive Performance

This entry was posted in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) & Sustainability Strategy, Sourcing & Supply Chain, Writing & Presentations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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