Ten principles to identify a trustworthy sustainability system

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From mitigating and adapting to climate change, to addressing human rights’ abuses in supply chains, to contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, businesses are increasingly expected to play their part in tackling the big issues facing our planet and societies.

Getting serious about sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also a business imperative. Banks and shareholders are demanding disclosure on environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks, consumers are rewarding brands that share their values, and policymakers are introducing new due diligence requirements and public procurement policies.

Sustainability systems — such as standards and certification schemes — can be invaluable partners in supporting businesses to achieve their sustainability goals. While the focus and scope of sustainability systems varies greatly, core characteristics include defining responsible practices, assessing how these are implemented and measuring their impact over time.

But with so many sustainability systems out there, how can businesses know which tools are best placed to help meet their objectives, whether that’s developing deforestation-free supply chains, ensuring workers’ rights, promoting gender equality, supporting regenerative agriculture or managing climate and water risks?

Is the system reliable enough to deliver? Is it trustworthy and transparent? Does it add value and make a difference where it matters?

ISEAL’s Credibility Principles address these questions by defining the foundations of good practice for sustainability systems. We developed the first version of the Credibility Principles in 2013, which quickly became an international reference point for credible standards and certification schemes. The principles are also the basis for ISEAL’s own Codes of Good Practice.

Now, following extensive consultation, we’ve updated the Credibility Principles to apply to a broader range of market-based sustainability initiatives, reflecting current developments and stakeholder expectations.

The ten principles help businesses, governments, and civil society to identify systems that can be effective partners in delivering against shared sustainability objectives. They outline the key attributes of a trustworthy system, and why these matter for improving sustainability performance and delivering impacts.

A credible system achieves sustainability impacts where it matters. It defines and clearly communicates its objectives and how it plans to achieve them (its theory of change). Some sustainability systems cover a broad range of issues across many sectors, while others have a more specific focus — both approaches can be equally valid, but it’s important that businesses and civil society partners clearly understand the scope of the system.

A credible system should be able to demonstrate measurable progress towards its sustainability objectives by collecting and analysing relevant data. This analysis also drives learning and continual improvement.

A system should be open to collaboration while having a viable business model that creates value for all users. And it should be inclusive and non-discriminatory in its stakeholder engagement, empowering a diverse group of stakeholders to participate in decisions and hold the system to account.

Some of the principles cover the technical components of a system to ensure it can actually deliver the intended outcomes. Reliability and truthfulness are essential: assessments of users’ performance should be accurate and trustworthy, as should any claims that a system allows its users to make. This is crucial for avoiding misleading claims or outright greenwash; labels are only credible if their meaning is clear, and they can be checked and substantiated.

Finally, impartiality and transparency are vital: a credible sustainability system earns trust by being open and honest, making information publicly available and easily accessible.

The principles are being launched at a crucial time. Later this year, the UN climate conference in Glasgow should raise ambition on combating climate change, while the Convention on Biological Diversity COP will set new goals for conserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity. We’re also now a year into the “Decade of Delivery” for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Businesses are under increasing pressure to show their commitment to tackling these and other key issues of our time. The Credibility Principles can help them deliver on these commitments in a way that really makes a difference.

ISEAL supports ambitious sustainability systems and their partners to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges. Learn more at www.iseal.org