Evolution of the Voluntary Sustainability Standards

12:12 PM, July 08, 2015

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VSS, , Standards

1970s – Emerging of the sustainability movement
The first voluntary standards go back to the first half of the 20th century. They were mainly private organic standards, such as the Soil Association, founded in 1946 in the United Kingdom. With the emerging of the sustainability movement in the 1970s, the concept of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) assumed shape: the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was established in 1972; the “Blauer Engel” was the first consumer label introduced in 1978 in Germany; and in 1988 in the Netherlands, Max Havelaar was responsible for making Fair Trade an accepted certificate on the consumer market.

1990s – Environmental and social standards
The 1992 Earth Summit pioneered the creation of important initiatives that have improved our understanding of environmental and social standards. These new standards have aimed to develop a global consensus on sustainable practices for particular industries and sectors. Well-known examples are, among others, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Network (RA-SAN), and Social Accountability International (SAI).

2000s – The multistakeholder approach
A third generation of voluntary sustainability standards emerged after the turn of the millennium: The multistakeholder approach became a central instrument for exchanges between business, civil society, and legislative powers. The Global Compact of the United Nations is one of the best-known multistakeholder-driven initiatives. Another example are the “roundtables” created by WWF to bring together stakeholders from industry, NGOs, and government to develop standards for commodities with known negative impacts on the environment. Best known is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

2010 and beyond – Consolidation and cooperation
Over the years, the landscape of VSS has become confusing. The market for eco-labels alone consists of more than 430 labels in 195 countries. In the future, coordination, consolidation, and governance aspects will be the focus of discussions on this topic. The newly formed ISEAL Alliance is such an example. It was founded to enable collaboration between its members. The idea behind the Alliance is the recognition that the various VSS do not operate in isolation. A practical example is the 4C Association, which collaborates with the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International, and UTZ Certified to develop “stepping up” programs. Thus, these cooperations allow particular standards to specialize and provide their users with a broader sustainability model.

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