complex certification systems. While all of these mechanisms are worthy of consideration, third-party certification1 systems have emerged over the past 15 years as a tool with some promise. There has been anecdotal evidence of success, particularly in niche markets, but to date the overall impact of certified goods and services (in terms of making a particular market more sustainable) has been small. Moreover, definitions of sustainable vary across sectors and markets, and rigorous assessments of these programs have been few and far between. These programs are designed to be market-based interventions, and thus are not specifically designed to target certain root causes of unsustainable practices (e.g., endemic corruption or dire poverty). Still, it seems to be an area ripe for further inquiry, to uncover the potential for certification systems to influence more sustainable consumption.

In order to take a step in learning from this field of practice, the National Academies’ Science and Technology for Sustainability Program held a workshop in January 2009. A committee of experts was appointed by the National Research Council to develop the workshop and write a report based on the discussions. The workshop was organized to illuminate the decision-making process of those who purchase and produce certified goods and services. It was also intended to help clarify the scope and limitations of the scientific knowledge that might contribute to the economic success of certified products. The workshop involved presentations and discussions with approximately 40 invited experts from academia, business, government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (see Appendixes A and B for agenda and list of participants).

The workshop featured a ground-clearing discussion of certification practices and panel discussions. Workshop discussions were focused on four main objectives:

  • To identify strengths and weaknesses of certification as an approach to encouraging sustainable consumption

  • To identify problem-driven research topics which might be taken up by academia and the analytical community

  • To determine whether or not there is an opportunity for a traditional, National Research Council (NRC) consensus study to articulate guiding principles for scientifically reliable certification systems

  • To highlight what is needed from the various institutional actors to foster improvement in certification systems (i.e., governments and regulatory bodies, businesses, NGOs, research organizations, public-private partnerships, and the academic community)


The term “certification” will hereinafter be used to refer specifically to third-party certification programs.

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