Future Research Directions
Like other policy tools, one would expect that certification programs will continue to improve, as producers gain experience, knowledge is passed on, and consumer awareness increases. However, this process of improvement could take decades to unfold, in the absence of more targeted research and guidelines for enhancing the effectiveness of certification. More importantly, if certification programs begin reaching a tangible share of consumer markets, it will be critical to identify how and where these programs are leading to positive environmental and social outcomes. Given the pressing need to mitigate the negative impacts of global consumption, and recognizing that certification is one means to this end, workshop participants were asked to identify some of the top areas in need of improvement or innovation if certification is to become an effective tool for more sustainable development. Participants attempted to identify some problem-driven research tasks, and also discussed the potential for a cross-sector assessment (to be carried out by the NRC or a similar body) to help articulate some guiding principles.
Many participants pointed out that there is a great deal of activity already underway to study certain aspects of certification programs. However, some of this research is agenda driven, and little of it is coordinated in a way that learning can take place across sectors or industries. Three specific areas identified were measuring impacts, establishing credibility, and mainstreaming standards. Participants also noted the need for additional forums, such as this workshop, in order to keep up the open exchange of ideas and potential paths forward.
IMPACT INDICATORS AND BASELINES
There is a keen interest in understanding where and when certification programs are delivering on their promise of moving markets towards sustainability. Sustainability may be a moving target, but the general feeling among participants was that certification programs could nonetheless be doing a much better job in demonstrating and communicating their effectiveness. Further independent research on endpoints, in terms of land use, human health, environmental quality, and other factors could serve as guideposts for more effective certification programs. This would be useful in developing more meaningful metrics within a system, and could also be broadly applied across systems. Monitoring and evaluation are key components of certification programs, but as participants noted, they are not benchmarked well. Standards are being developed without set goals, and are based on theories of change that are untested.
Given the amount of experience within the field of certification, there is also an opportunity for some external evaluations of current programs. Understandably, certification programs have not generally taken a critical look at their impacts. Often times a program focuses on scaling up its efforts, but, as many participants noted, scaling up the intended impact is much more effective at advancing sustainability goals. Science can play a role in evaluating the impact of previous certification program outcomes and contribute to developing future baseline criteria. With cooperation from certification programs, it might also be possible to conduct long-term impact assessments.
One of the challenges to identifying and then measuring impacts is that certification never occurs in a vacuum. More work is needed to understand how voluntary standards are interfacing with policy and regulations. Progress here could shed light on how to measure impacts and unintended consequences, and most importantly, identify the contexts in which certification seems to be the appropriate tool. This may be a way to identify some of the unexpected impacts, both positive and negative, resulting from certification efforts. These include outcomes, such as multiplier and spillover effects of certifying specific products and services.
OUTLINING A CREDIBLE PROCESS
Earlier discussions of credibility focused more on the certified label or seal, and whether or not it was meaningful or merely contributing to green noise. Credibility from a consumer standpoint is one issue, but credibility also matters to NGOs, businesses, and governments who support certification schemes. Many participants emphasized that credibility should apply
to the entire process, from initial development of the standards all the way to point of purchase. This might also include more focus on delivery of certification programs, e.g., how they are financed and governed.
Some of the questions participants identified include:
Are current certification programs delivering a sustainable product?
Are programs well-organized?
How does a certification program fit in a particular regulatory structure?
How, if at all, does the certification program evaluate free riders and cheaters?
Given the diversity of certification regimes, and their rich experiences, a compilation of comparative case studies could prove useful. As several participants pointed out, the literature in this area is expanding and could be usefully mined, though it currently exists in several different disciplines. One approach several participants suggested was to study both manufactured products and resource management schemes (e.g., agriculture) and examine proven outcomes, that is, asking if the certification programs are making a difference and delivering on their stated goals. Comparative case studies could look at “what works and why,” revealing the processes that lead to success or failure of a certification program.
This sort of work could also contribute to the discussion of what a credible certification process looks like. Though there will continue to be experimentation and “reinvention of the wheel,” deeper analytical work could contribute to templates or blueprints to make certification more efficient, and ultimately more effective. Some of the key points deserving exploration include tipping points (e.g., the market share at which demand actually drives the process) and other variables that can affect those outcomes or goals. An assessment may not necessarily reveal universal standards or definitions of “success,” but should highlight the importance of following a credible process. Such an analysis may also evaluate the mechanism of change (not simply the theory) in a few certification programs.
Participants noted that government agencies such as the FTC may be open to advice on when and/or where to regulate nonsensical claims of “sustainable” products and services, thereby helping to remove falsely labeled items from the market. Furthermore, agencies such as NIST, who focus on technology standards and measurement, and FTC, who focus on consumer protection, could benefit from more rigorous analysis of the proliferating standards and claims of sustainability.
MAINSTREAMING AND MARKET TRANSFORMATION
Mainstreaming, as participants defined it, refers to the process of moving sustainable production and consumption from niche or competing markets into industry standards. It does seem possible that standards can be mainstreamed, possibly industry by industry, and several participants referenced the coffee sector, where much work has been done, and standards appear to be converging. If the goal of a particular scheme is to become mainstream within its sector, the goal of those promoting certification is ultimately one of market transformation, so that markets adequately reflect the full environmental and social costs of production and consumption.
Participants noted that certification programs could play a vital role in market transformation, but they should not be created and implemented in a universe parallel to government policies. Put another way, certification should not be considered as an alternative to or substitute for regulation. Potentially, certification programs can be developed alongside complementary government regulations/standards, with the idea of mainstreaming concepts and performance standards. In the developing country context, several participants noted that certification has been proposed as a mechanism to fill the void of lax or nonexistent regulation in some sectors. However, experience so far has shown that certification has been slow to take hold in developing countries. These countries have sometimes raised concerns that their interests are not being represented by certification programs—this becomes problematic when a program then needs to rely on developing country participation in its capacity building or scale-up efforts.
Some participants suggested that environmental health and nutrition concerns may be a vehicle for mainstreaming certification programs and changing the markets. There is some emerging evidence that, for example, consumers buy organic products primarily for reasons of personal health, even though these alleged benefits are minor compared to the benefits to local ecosystems and agricultural workers. In fact, the USDA makes no claim that organic foods are any safer or healthier than conventional alternatives.
Many participants suggested that more work be done engaging economists and social scientists who research firm behavior as it relates to science and certification standards. Social marketing is another field that warrants further study in the context of promoting behavioral change. An examination of such marketing strategies may include an analysis of the “push” element of certification standards used by industry to help “pull” consumers into a market.
Although some research exists, many participants noted that more work is needed to understand how to build consumer preference for sustainable products and what the market impact will be if consumer demand
for certified products increases (e.g., Will consumers begin expecting more products to be certified?). Participants noted that the research community can help consumers understand lifecycle issues for particular products—especially if current research models or tools are marketed for use by the general public. For example, Earthster, an open source, web-based lifecycle assessment tool, offers lifecycle analysis (LCA) to companies so that they can record, assess, and market their environmental and social performance. Many participants questioned whether or not certification programs can be built to drive the demand side and not simply the supply of products and services.
AREAS FOR FURTHER INQUIRY
In general, workshop participants felt that many more questions needed to be answered to address the optimal implementation of certification programs. In order to better understand their role, it is critical to examine not only the certified portion of the market, but to analyze the market as a whole. To do this, one should look at the drivers affecting the larger portion of the market that is not certified (approximately 95 percent), and conduct a comparative analysis examining multiple variables that need to be cumulatively moving in the same direction in order to advance the sustainability agenda. A rigorous, hypothetical reduction might need to be carried out to help identify these dependent variables. How effective was a particular certification program or approach at tackling a particular problem as opposed to regulation or education or other mechanisms? How does the performance of certified products compare to their uncertified competitors, in terms of environmental or social impacts?
Among certification programs, there are also some comparative studies that could shed additional light on effective approaches. Some specific comparative research questions put forward by participants include:
Does a performance-based standard that focuses on measureable impact reductions (e.g., LEED for green buildings) lead to more significant outcomes than a standard that focuses on changing practices (e.g., Forest Stewardship Council or Marine Stewardship Council), or is this more a function of one being quantitative while the other is mostly qualitative?
What has been the experience of tiered systems (e.g., with a gradient for compliance at different levels) versus pass/fail systems?
What role has power dynamics played in the implementation and success of certain certification programs? How have certification programs worked in specific country contexts, and with existing configurations of political power? How have certification programs worked in conjunction
with more targeted programs to address root causes of unsustainability, such as poverty or corruption?
There are also topics that might be researched and analyzed in a “myth or fact?” format—a challenge in building the knowledge base on certification systems is that certain myths seem persistent, and certain truths remain undiscovered. One such example is to analyze several existing schemes to understand net costs and benefits, and to where they accrue. This could add clarity to discussions of barriers to adoption, compliance costs, and viable financial models to sustain a program.
Overall, participants did not agree on a single methodology to address these questions. Several participants suggested that a small set of case studies would be illustrative, and that certain sectors, such as the coffee industry, were already well documented. Other participants noted that fisheries, for example, are such a distinct and complex case that they might need to be studied separately—lessons drawn from other sectors’ experiences may not apply.
Participants emphasized that there is much to be gained by assembling and assessing what has been done, or is already underway, and outlining a methodological approach to answer the core questions on certification’s effectiveness. Some industries suggested for analysis included agriculture, marine fisheries, timber and tea. Several participants suggested learning from the rural sociology literature, which is rich on impacts and implications of standards programs. Furthermore, while acknowledging that standards setting is often a political process, participants wondered how evidence-based knowledge could be better integrated at the formation of a standard, so that it is meaningful and effective at achieving results that contribute to sustainable development.
Finally, consumption, in general, is an issue area in need of additional research attention. A number of participants suggested that a follow-on forum could look more broadly at the role certification and its alternatives might play as we sustain a human population of 9 billion by 2050. As many noted, certified products do not offer guidance on how much we can sustainably consume. Developing world economies are beginning to promote and experience more domestic household consumption, and the ramifications of this trend are poorly understood. Knowing more about global consumption and opportunities to reduce or more equitably distribute it may help address overconsumption in developed countries and help developing countries as they transition to less resource-intensive economies.