Pros and cons of voluntary certification standards for conservation and livelihoods - new IUCN publication

Honolulu, HI – As more voluntary certification standards are adopted for a wide range of materials, such as forestry, fisheries and palm oil, not all of them are effectively delivering environmental and social impacts, according to a new publication released yesterday at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

Forest Photo: National Geographic

The latest edition of Policy Matters: Certification and biodiversity - How voluntary certification standards impact biodiversity and human livelihoods, examines the benefits of such schemes as well as the shortfalls. Published by IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), the publication includes 10 peer-reviewed papers by contributors with broad experience in the certification field.

Voluntary certification standards are increasingly being promoted as effective alternatives to regulation and tools for promoting business accountability. However, this report finds that more comprehensive assessments are required for voluntary certification standards to have a real impact on biodiversity conservation and livelihoods.

“If voluntary certification standards are to contribute to ensuring corporate social and environmental accountability, we need greater insight into the methods and challenges of evaluating their impacts,” said Aroha Te Pareake Mead, who is the chair of CEESP.  

For example, the authors note how some certification schemes contribute to the value of indigenous products, while at the same time helping to preserve the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples. But other schemes fail to take account of the environmental impacts that are important for ensuring the long-term viability of biodiversity-dependent communities.  

“After decades of developing certification schemes to protect the environment and ensure better conditions for producers, these standards still lack a comprehensive framework that takes account of biodiversity and the cultural diversity of the people who most depend on these resources,” said Diana Shand, co-ordinator of the Policy Matters editorial team and Chair of CEESP’s Theme on Social and Accountability of the Private Sector.

The editors, led by Dr Pavel Castka, a CEESP Member from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and Dr Danna Leaman, a Member of the Plant Conservation Sub-Committee of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) and Co-Chair of its Medicinal Plants Specialist Group), address this issue from different perspectives. For example, they ask the authors: what are effective mechanisms to measure the impacts of the certification systems; how can stronger synergies be created between voluntary certification standards and regulatory frameworks; how can competition among schemes be limited to avoid lowering the performance bar; and, how does good governance influence the outcomes of the certification schemes?

The publication highlights numerous controversies associated with current voluntary certification schemes, such as: the negative effects of compromising between conservation and economic demands of certification; antagonism from some governments towards voluntary certification, resulting in suboptimal outcomes; and the often narrow focus of certification programmes that may result in improvements of certain aspects of sustainability but ignore the bigger picture.

“The research finds that certification in some sectors, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), is doing the work that governments are failing to do in regards to setting sustainability standards.  Therefore, where government regulations and aspirations are lacking, certifications may help,” said Pavel Castka. “However, certification standards should not be the lone drivers of societal goals for protection of biodiversity and human livelihoods.”  

Another conclusion is that well established certification schemes, like Fairtrade, may not benefit producers, where there is a strong overlap between biological and cultural diversity. The publication finds alternative mechanisms, such as informal trademarks and labels, are being used for bio-cultural heritage-based products.

Overall, this edition of Policy Maters underscores the need for further relationship building between voluntary certification schemes and public institutions. “Policy makers, certification schemes, companies, academics and other stakeholders must continue to work together to get the most out of certification,” added Dr Castka.

“IUCN believes that voluntary certification can be an effective tool to complement regulatory frameworks and can help hold businesses accountable in meeting sustainability standards,” said Gerard Bos, Director of the Business and Biodiversity Programme. “However, we need to have a better understanding of the conditions that make these voluntary systems effective. Unfortunately, the experience to date shows that not all certification systems are designed to have a positive impact.”

For more information: 

Download the Policy Matters publication:

Visit the CEESP website.

Note to Editor:

CEESP released the latest Policy Matters publication on 4 September 2016, during the IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place from 1-10 September in Honolulu, Hawaii. The IUCN Congress includes a number of events that are exploring voluntary certification standards in relation to biodiversity conservation, and what can be done to strengthen the effectiveness of these schemes.


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