Introduction to Certifications at SU


Photo by Abby Anaday

One of the main things we aim to do here at Sustainable Urban is to recommend products that are not only functional but also meet the definition of sustainability we laid out in "What makes a product sustainable". To accomplish that sustainability goal, we’ll be making use of a set of highly-regarded certifications. These certifications help us decide what to suggest to you and provide easy access to the resources you need to make informed buying decisions.


First, let’s talk about what we mean by “certification”.




What is a certification?


It’s always good to start with a definition. This article in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources uses the term “Voluntary Sustainability Standards” and defines them as:


“….a form of entrepreneurial authority, whereby a private actor must persuade other (private and public) actors to recognize its authority to develop its own rules, standards, or practices, and therefore the legitimacy of these rules. These standards include a broad and diverse portfolio of instruments, ranging from NGO-led certification to company codes of conduct and geographic indications that identify products originating in a certain region.”


Basically, it’s rules that companies adopt that govern production. The rules are designed to decrease the toll the production takes on the environment and the people involved. An example includes Fair Trade Certified, in which companies agree to greater worker involvement in company decisions and to invest a portion of profits in the workers’ communities. In order to obtain the certification, the company must adhere to these “rules”.




Where did these certifications come from?


Photo by Joel Mott

My favorite part: History. There’s not a single answer to this, but in the 1980s there was increasing attention to the impact human consumption was having on the environment and the people involved in production. One of the original sets of standards (or rules) came from the Global Reporting Initiative in the 90s. These standards required companies to disclose their impact on the climate and other social/economic issues. The GRI and other organizations developed powerful allies to begin putting serious pressure on companies to report and consider the impact of their production.


But probably one of the most intense sources of pressure for companies to sign on to these standards has been from consumers. The terms “organic” and “green” came on the scene in the late 90s and early 2000s and the market for sustainable products has been growing at a steady 7-12% for years now.


The combination of consumer demand and organization pressure has led to the proliferation of certifications, with more than 400 certifications in 199 countries across 25 industries. These certifications cover large percentages of the production of coffee, chocolate and palm oil.




Why use certifications?


Consumer demand for sustainable products has in some cases incentivized companies to make claims about sustainability when their products meet few, if any, of the criteria set by different standards. This may be partially just a way to side-step costly implementation, but it could also just be because, as we’ve said before, sustainability is a hard target to hit.

These certifications help us evaluate which products have been evaluated as sustainable and by what criteria. And generally: We like data. Ideally we’re able to apply a standard evaluation to each individual product we offer, but that wouldn’t be “sustainable”. So these certifications are a way to leverage the great work groups like Fair Trade Certified are doing to assess production impact.




What are we looking for in certifications?


As mentioned in the "What makes a product sustainable" article, we focus on four pillars that define sustainability. So any certification we’re going to use would need to cover at least one of those pillars. Additionally, in order to be able to recommend products we need the certification to provide information about which brands are certified. If applicable, we’d like to know whether individual products are certified, rather than assuming that all products under a certain brand meet the certification. You can take a look at the Biodegradable Products Institute for an example of a certification that is product-specific.



Also, since these certifications are so prolific, it seems reasonable to expect that we can use these certifications to apply sustainable criteria to everything we buy. That means, food, clothes, cleaning supplies, packaging and so on. Early on our journey, we’re going to be aiming to include certifications that apply to most, if not all, of our websites’ product categories. As we move forward, we’ll look to include more specific certifications (e.g. clothing-only) to fill in the gaps.




The certification profile


Photo by Samuel Zeller

Hopefully we’ve convinced you by now that certifications are generally useful and important. We’d like to further convince you that the certifications we’ve chosen to feature on our website are appropriate because they meet the criteria listed in the previous section. To do that, we’ll be releasing a set of articles containing “certification profiles”. Basically, they’re a deep dive into what a certification’s mission is and how it relates to the criteria we’ve established.





Here’s the general template:

  • Certification overview: Here we’ll give some information about the certification’s mission and some of the key criteria it uses. We’ll also provide links to the standards information they provide.

  • Four pillars of sustainability: We will detail how the certification relates to one or more of the four pillars. The certification either does not relate to a pillar, relates in a way that is not the main focus, or relates in a focused and central way.

  • Data availability: Certifications will either provide us with information at the brand level or at the product level.

  • Scope: We will detail how many product categories are covered by a certification. That means it’s either specific (e.g. just clothing), limited (i.e. covers a handful of categories) or broad (i.e. covers most or all of the categories)

  • Summary: Basically, a summary of why we decided to include it.



Worth noting here: We’ve reviewed a lot of certifications to make these decisions. But not all of the certifications we’ve reviewed will get profiles. So the only ones you’ll see are the ones we’ve decided to use.



Hope that all makes sense to you. If you have any questions, or if you just want to talk certifications, data, or how you feel about the weather, feel free to get in touch.


Much more to come!

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