- What makes a successful certification or labeling program (especially one that encourages corporate adoption and provides accurate information to consumers)?
- What are the biggest influences on fashion brands to adopt sustainable / eco-certifications, and how are brands monetizing their adoption?
- Do you have any other insights pertaining to the topic of communicating sustainability to consumers?
Q. What makes a successful certification or labeling program (especially one that encourages corporate adoption and provides accurate information to consumers)?
A. In the simplest terms, a program should be credible (designed and operated through strong governance standards and processes), demonstrate positive impacts, and provide value to producers and all actors involved.
A successful program is one that levels the playing field - in terms of costs and benefits, access to market, ability to meet standards - across all players. We are currently too focused on the brands and consumers and we are not considering the importance and considerations of other actors in the supply chain (e.g. processors, producers, large global organizations, and small- and medium-sized enterprises), especially those that may have limited personnel, technology, or appetite for investments.
We need to shift to industry-wide solutions. We must be consistent with requests for suppliers, as well as be inclusive and supportive of small- and medium-sized enterprises. We must explain to suppliers and producers what they should measure, and why. If we can demonstrate the business case for doing so, can most effectively drive improvements.
You may note that I have not addressed the "product labeling" portion of the question. As I discuss in more detail below, I don't believe traceability and product labels are essential for a successful program. In fact, I believe they can hinder a program's success by diverting resources from farmer training and capacity building efforts, innovation and investments, access to quality inputs and other on the ground (at the impact) endeavors.
Q. What are the biggest influences on fashion brands to adopt sustainable / eco-certifications, and how are brands monetizing their adoption?
A. While I do believe there are brands that are adopting certifications with the intent to make measurable improvements on the ground, many brands are justifying their support of certification schemes because these schemes provide marketing opportunities to their consumers. This is one reason why many brands want schemes with a traceability system that allows for product labeling.
The issue is not what certification scheme a brand adopts, but what a scheme can deliver to that brand. Take the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) for example. BCI is aiming for one-third of global cotton production to be Better Cotton, or approximately 38 million metric tons (MT) by 2020. However, only 623,000 MT of Better Cotton was produced in 2012 - just 1.6 percent of the 2020 goal. Out of that number, retailers obtained just 21 percent of the Better Cotton produced in 2012, according to BCI. This is not intended to criticize BCI but to illustrate the challenges with getting certified material into end products.
At the same time, initiatives such as BCI will need the industry - not simply brands and consumers - to embrace BCI. Unfortunately, many of the actors won't, in part because many supply chain actors are required to do additional tasks (e.g. undergo audits, register and upload data into management systems, complete individual brand surveys and questionnaires) without any compensation or other business benefit. Many studies indicate that while brands often benefit the most from certification schemes through improved reputations, producers bear the majority of the cost.
I understand why brands have a lot of say when programs are designed and employed - because they pull the product through the supply chain - but they cannot do it alone. If we can gain the support of all actors in the supply chain we will create a more efficient and effective way to promote positive change and link demand with supply. For example, we should look at the merchants - who are in direct contact with producers and specialize in linking supply with demand - as "pulleys" that can relieve some of the heavy lifting the brands would have to do otherwise.
Q. Do you have any other insights pertaining to the topic of communicating sustainability to consumers?
A. First of all, I recognize the important role consumers play in supporting sustainability programs - namely buying responsible products and supporting responsible brands. Money does matter. Still, I am not sold on the idea that consumers should be considered the end goal of any initiative. I fear we may be placing too much importance on their individual purchases. I believe that if we could communicate challenges, improvements, and goals at the brand level, we could open up more efficient, creative and larger scale solutions. Brands could benefit from developing a stronger relationship with consumers by building brand loyalty and inspiring consumers to promote the brand through social networking. Such an effort would eliminate the need to trace goods through the complex supply chain that product-level marketing requires.
In the end, I recognize the value that certification schemes have and continue to play in advancing the sustainability and responsible sourcing agenda. However, they cannot be the only tool in our toolbox of solutions; we need other options if we are going to engage entire industries and reach the scale of positive change we seek to achieve.