My latest GreenBiz article in online: 10 Must-Answer Questions When Mulling Third-Party Certification. It focuses on determining when to use third-party certifications versus in-house initiatives to implement, evaluate and communicate sustainability programs and attributes. An excerpted version is below with a link to the full piece.
10 Must-Answer Questions When Mulling Third-Party Certification
Melissa Schweisguth, for GreenBiz, 8/30/10
After reading my recent article on choosing third-party labels, my colleague Natalie Reitman-White stressed the importance of a point referenced only briefly there — determining whether to pursue certification or implement independent initiatives, which may bring greater benefits for people, planet and business. In some cases, certification is preferable. In other cases, well-designed in-house initiatives, such as purchasing guidelines, supplier engagement and producer capacity building may yield equal or better returns for all involved. It’s important to understand your requirements, impacts and capacities and compare outcomes of each path.
Here are 10 questions to help you focus:
1. What are your needs and options? List the practices and attributes you want to verify and communicate, what’s required to do this, why you feel external programs might be necessary and what your alternatives are. This will narrow down potential options to refine as you continue your inquiry.
2. Is relevant terminology regulated? Some terms can be used only if certification is obtained, such as organic on food products. The launch of the updated FTC Green Guides, backed by increased policing of claims, makes legal savvy particularly critical.
3. What will yield the most significant positive difference? The requirements underlying your efforts alike should be measurably better than the status quo and legal requirements, or they’re effectively greenwash and won’t differentiate your brand.
4. What’s most appropriate for suppliers? Producers will face significant demands, particularly small-scale farmers and others father down in the supply chain. It’s essential that requirements are culturally appropriate and shaped by producer input, and that costs are reasonable.
5. What’s most cost-effective? Verification can often be done efficiently with direct business activities and first-tier vendors. Things become more resource-intensive when dealing with stratified, globalized supply chains, aspects that are farther removed in influence and geography, and multiple entities.
6. Do you have the right knowledge? Creating appropriate guidelines, conducting a valid assessment and addressing identified shortcomings all require expertise with industrial processes, technology, science, agriculture, economics, cross-cultural diversity, relevant international frameworks, applicable laws and the like.
7. Are you willing to share data if you go it alone? Unverified claims have little value in the market. Many companies are hesitant to share potentially competitive data but leading-edge transparency abounds, such as TAZA Chocolate, which shares production specs by lot code, Nike, which publicizes manufacturing locations and Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles.
8. Do stakeholders require specific certifications? Labels can be deal breakers with some buyers.
9. Does labeling measurably improve reputation and revenue?
10. What delivers the greatest return on investment? Third-party standards and in-house initiatives both bear costs such as audits, licensing fees, compliance improvements, implementation and monitoring. Comparing program ROI is critical.
Additional suggestions, insights and questions are always encouraged in the comments section. Whatever your path, may it raise the bar and drive the real change that’s needed for business, people and the environment.