Issues We Work On

Sustainability Standards Systems

Over the past two decades, there has been a rapid increase in the number of people who have looked to align their social and environmental values with the way they spend their money. This nascent shift in capitalism spans from the certified organic food people eat, to the ethically produced shoes and clothes they wear, to the Socially Responsible financial investments they make for retirement. Partly in response to this emerging societal phenomenon, companies large and small and other institutions (including government and the financial sector) are also seeking to work with suppliers and partners that have a positive track record regarding their social and environmental practices.

In a world where businesses understand the clear benefits of being seen as good social/environmental performers, they will market themselves as such, even if this means baseless self‐promotion or “greenwashing.” So in this emerging values‐based, “ethical” economy, how does one begin to meaningfully and accurately differentiate the good companies and products from the bad? A significant part of the answer is standards‐based, ethical certification schemes, which we now call “sustainability standards systems”.

Yet the growing role of sustainability standards in global commerce is only one part of the equation; another is their changing role on public policy. Private standards have long interacted with and are often developed in response to public lawmaking and regulatory efforts (or lack thereof). They have been perceived to act as gap‐fillers for public law, to be the technical foundation for existing public laws, to be precursors to new public law, or even at times, to be preemptive efforts (typically by industry) to retard or derail public regulation. Understanding the appropriate role for sustainability standards in relation to public governance is vital.

Even while many practitioners might recognize that the role and influence of sustainability standards are continuing to grow, policy makers, NGOs and the general public are all either unaware of, or struggling to conceptualize the issue. Without better and shared understanding about their importance and role, however, sustainability standards will not be able to fully realize their true potential in advancing sustainability. The Pacific Institute aims to shed light on these poorly recognized phenomena and demystify key concepts and emerging issues relating to sustainability standards and development.

To achieve this goal, we believe that the issues need to be “framed” in ways that are more accessible to various stakeholders. To do so the Pacific Institute, in collaboration with its partners, has developed two websites that identify major issues facing standards systems, principles about the relationship between standards and public governance, and framing tools that help better communicate the value of standards.

Sustainability Standards Tools