Different Kinds of Voluntary Sustainability Standards

12:14 PM, July 08, 2015

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VSS, , Standards

National vs. International Standards

National standards are developed and published by national standardizing bodies, generally for implementation within a national territory. National standardizing bodies may be those that are recognized as such by governments, but they may also be nongovernmental. A “national” standardizing body is not necessarily a government entity. International standards are developed by international standardizing bodies and intended for international use. The legal definition of an international standard is complex and requires consideration of what constitutes a recognized international standardizing body and what are the appropriate processes for standards development. The definition of an international standard is particularly significant because recognized international standards are accorded a special role and status in international trade. National and international standards may be identical in terms of their content. Standards that were developed at the national level may subsequently be adopted as international standards and, conversely, countries may adopt international standards as their own national standards.


Public vs. private standards

The term “private standard” is sometimes used to describe standards that are developed, published, or owned by nongovernmental organizations, whether those organizations are businesses, nonprofit organizations, or multistakeholder associations. By implication, the term is used in contrast to government-developed – or “public” – standards. However, the distinction between private and governmental standards is often very unclear. National and international standardizing bodies may be governmental or nongovernmental. The international standardizing body ISO is sometimes thought of as a governmental body, but it is technically a nongovernmental organization whose members include both governmental and nongovernmental entities. Governmental standardizing bodies may also develop, publish, and own standards on behalf of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, or associations.

LCA standards vs. sector-specific standards

Whereas many sustainability standards focus on specific issues or sectors, lifecycle analysis (or lifecycle assessment, LCA) standards aim to assess the full range of environmental impacts across a product’s lifecycle – from production of its raw materials to its end-of-life disposal. LCA standards focus on assessing environmental impacts of production, not on prescribing actions designed to manage or mitigate such impacts. Generic LCA standards are applicable across all sectors and product types. Key advantages of this approach are that businesses can identify the aspects of production where there is most potential for environmental improvement, and that product claims based on the LCA need to consider impacts associated with all the phases of a product’s production and use. This addresses a concern associated with issue- or production-phase-specific schemes – that they could be used to promote products that perform well on one issue, or in relation to one phase of production, but could have negative impacts in relation to other aspects. In contrast, advocates of sector- and issue-specific standards (and related claims) argue that these standards respond to – and are designed to – address specific issues of concern to the public (e.g., unsustainable forest management or unsustainable fishing), rather than to make general claims about product sustainability. Full lifecycle assessments are technically challenging, often costly, and do not generally cover the social aspects of sustainability such as land-use rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, or workers’ rights. Although there are clear differences of philosophy and approach between LCA-based and sector- and issue-focused sustainability standards, there are some signs of convergence. Issue-specific standards based on a lifecycle approach are being developed (e.g., focusing on water use or greenhouse gas emissions), whereas issue- and sector-specific standards are exploring ways to ensure that they are not used to generate misleading claims.

Sustainability standards may be grouped according to the sector or issue that they aim to address. The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is expected to focus initially on sustainability standards that apply to producers and businesses in the food and agriculture sectors. Other examples of sector-focused sustainability standards are those covering aquaculture, fisheries, forest management, and mining. Standards may be more or less narrowly focused within a sector: agricultural standards may cover the full range of agricultural production systems, or may be limited to certain crops, to horticulture, or to animal husbandry. Standards may focus on a limited range of aspects of sustainability, for example on social issues or on environmental issues. Within such broad categories, they may also be more narrowly focused: Environmental standards may focus on particular issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use, or biodiversity; social standards may focus on labor rights, on support for small-scale farmers, or on trade conditions for producers in developing countries. Standards may focus on a particular phase of a product’s lifecycle (e.g., its energy or water consumption in use, or whether it can be recycled) or may cover the full lifecycle impacts of a product from production through to disposal (considered in more detail below).

Management system vs. performance standards

Management system standards specify procedures for organizations to follow to meet their objectives. Management system standards are typically based on the concept of continual improvement. Environmental management system standards, such as the widely used ISO14001 standard, apply the general concepts of management systems to the management of an organization’s environmental impacts. A key characteristic of management system standards is that they do not define threshold performance requirements. It is up to each user to determine the level of performance that it considers appropriate for its circumstances. In contrast, performance standards specify a level of performance that a product or organization has to achieve in order to claim conformity. System-focused and performance-focused philosophies are quite different in principle. In practice, however, many sustainability standards incorporate both system- and performance-focused elements.

Processes and production method (PPM) standards are standards that specify the methods by which a product is produced, rather than the characteristics of the product itself. A distinction needs to be made between PPM standards that result in physically different products, which can be referred to as product-related (pr) PPM standards, and PPM standards that do not result in physically different products, which can be referred to as non-product-related (npr) PPM standards. Sustainability standards that relate specifically to the conditions in which a product was made, the impact of that process on the environment, or the conditions of workers involved in producing the product are typically considered to be npr-PPM standards. The significance of the distinction between pr-PPM standards and npr-PPM standards is contested, but some trade experts believe that regulations based on pr-PPM and npr-PPM standards would be treated differently in international trade law.

Source: UNFSS: Voluntary Sustainability Standards, Part 1: pages 43ff.

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