From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published November 8, 2011 05:07 PM

International Sustainability Standards: Pros and Cons

Sustainability is an economic, social, and ecological concept. It is intended to be a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society and its members are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals indefinitely. Sustainability affects every level of organization, from the local neighborhood to the entire globe.

With that said how do you specifically define what is sustainable? Economic needs are fairly easy to figure out; ultimately it is do you make a profit or not. Social needs will depend on the society involved and every society is different. There is a difference between urban and rural needs for example much less North Africa, China, and the US. Ecological standards will also vary because it is far from clear how much resilience that an ecosystem has and as a result there will be constant and shifting debate on those standards.

Over the past two decades a growing number of voluntary sustainability initiatives and other multi-stakeholder alliances have emerged to improve the livelihoods of the millions of commodity-dependent producers and manufacturers around the world. The growth of such initiatives represents an important opportunity for all stakeholders to participate in the greening of global supply chains and improvement of producer livelihoods.

The multiplication of these initiatives makes it increasingly challenging for all stakeholders to stay abreast of the latest developments and best practices across the voluntary sector. Moreover, it is exceedingly difficult to assess their utility and performance, let alone the steps required to mainstream best practice.

There are a number of international groups trying to put out sustainability standards such as:

  • International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) 
  • International Finance Corp (World Bank Group)
  • ISO 14000 (International Institute of Sustainable Development
  • International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) 
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

There are also other initiatives on a private level trying to set individual company goals.

In all cases to set such goals it is needed to determine what is acceptable. What is acceptable will vary from location to location ultimately because social and ecological conditions vary so much. No one set of standards, except the most general ones, can fit all sustainable situations.

Here is one set of proposed standards for example (IFC):

  • Performance Standard 1: Social and Environmental Assessment and Management System
  • Performance Standard 2: Labor and Working Conditions
  • Performance Standard 3: Pollution Prevention and Abatement
  • Performance Standard 4: Community Health, Safety and Security
  • Performance Standard 5: Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement
  • Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resource Management
  • Performance Standard 7: Indigenous Peoples
  • Performance Standard 8: Cultural Heritage

As written these are quite general. It is in the application that it is difficult.

There is no easy way to set up such standards and it may not be achievable except as general goals on an international level and letting local standard bearers handle the specific location or industry needs. The international level can set up a method of measuring the success of the sustainable efforts but they cannot set the specific standard. Even so the measure being used must be flexible to adjust to local conditions.

Image credit: Shutterstock, A1Stock

For further information: http://sustainablecommodities.org/ssi

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