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Voluntary certification standards have far to go, say experts
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Voluntary certification standards have far to go, say experts

A comprehensive study of voluntary certification standards (VCS) finds that comprehensive protection and conservation of biodiversity has yet to be achieved.


  • Certification should be combined with other standard public policies to promote sustainable forest management principles, say experts.
  • Experts point to a need for more relationship building between voluntary certification schemes and public institutions.
  • Effective certification requires the cooperation of policy makers, certification schemes, companies, academics and other stakeholders.

An expert assessment of a globally popular alternative to regulation – voluntary certification standards systems – has found that results are not always effective. Of the increasing number of voluntary certification standards (VCS) for materials in forestry, palm oil, and fisheries, many are proving ineffective at achieving comprehensive protection and conservation of biodiversity.

Scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) explored why the effectiveness of VCS systems are getting such mixed reviews. In a collected publication of 10 peer-reviewed papers, “Policy Matters: Certification and biodiversity – How voluntary certification standards impact biodiversity and human livelihoods”, the scientists investigated the impact of VCS in protecting biodiversity and people dependent on nature.

Compiled from authors with expertise in the certification field, Policy Matters was released on Sept. 4 during the IUCN World Conservation Congress. The congress is held once every four years.

“After decades of developing certification schemes to protect the environment and ensure better conditions for producers, these standards still lack a comprehensive framework that takes account of biodiversity and the cultural diversity of the people who most depend on these resources,” said Diana Shand, co-coordinator of the Policy Matters editorial team in a statement. Shand also chairs the IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP)’s Theme on Social and Accountability of the Private Sector.

The study was led by Pavel Castka, a CEESP member from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and Danna Leaman, a member of the Plant Conservation Sub-Committee of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and co-chair of its Medicinal Plants Specialist Group.

Chief among topics tackled by experts were the efficacy of biodiversity conservation, how to increase production, and challenges in implementing certification.

“The research finds that certification in some sectors, like the Forest Stewardship Council or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is doing the work that governments are failing to do in regards to setting sustainability standards,” said Castka in a statement.  He added that areas of lacking government regulations and aspirations could be helped with certifications. But he warned that certification standards “should not be the lone drivers of societal goals for protection of biodiversity and human livelihoods.”

Examples of what’s working and not working in different countries also played a large role in the study. Researchers found that although VCS for biodiversity conservation has potential, the actual impact can be negative.

For instance, the Forest Improvement Act in Nova Scotia, Canada aimed to tackle mature forest logging. The Act was dubbed a form of greenwashing after failing to understand the influence of regional logging and pulp companies and the definition of a ‘mature forest’. There was also Costa Rica’s Payment for Ecosystem Services which ultimately did not contribute to slowing deforestation.

The report cites stakeholder conflicts as a factor that weakens standards for things such as eco-labeling for marine and agricultural commodities and environmental corporate responsibility.

Ultimately, VCS has thus far failed to bridge the gap between economic and conservation priorities. VCS systems have been unsuccessful in prioritizing conservation over for-profit resource extraction. In addition, there has been a demonstrated inability to set up biodiversity conservation guidelines and a lack of sufficient monitoring standards.

The report authors conclude that can be changed.

“IUCN believes that voluntary certification can be an effective tool to complement regulatory frameworks and can help hold businesses accountable in meeting sustainability standards,” said Gerard Bos, Director of the Business and Biodiversity Programme, in a statement. “However, we need to have a better understanding of the conditions that make these voluntary systems effective.”

Several examples of successful VCS systems established from a strong cooperation between stakeholders are highlighted in the report. These partnerships resulted in economic payoffs and clear standards of biodiversity conservation that were implemented at the local level.

Some of the best examples are REDD+ in developing countries as payment for economic services and eco-labeling schemes on Colombian coffee. The Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certification program for Baja Californian lobster in Mexico and Fogo Island shrimp in Canada has also made progress.

Researchers also found that grassroots stakeholders are sometimes willing to contribute significantly. Some local communities are willing to pay to conserve charismatic species and to cover conservation costs.

For instance, certification on Baja California lobster and Fogo Island shrimp are not endangered, but sustainable catch techniques such as limited catch sizes have helped their numbers grow significantly.

A common denominator for success points to harmony between conservation and economic goals. Clear and easy methods to monitor biodiversity conservation targets, typically at a species level, are also important.

Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network certified Colombian coffee has clear guidelines on biodiversity-friendly practices at the species level. The practice is believed to be responsible for a higher native biodiversity than on uncertified farms.

In terms of government roles, nations such as Indonesia, Cameroon and Peru have stepped up to address biodiversity conservation and human livelihoods that are dependent on forests. Forest Stewardship Council certification has had an impact on some social and environmental performances, including increased cooperation in Peru and addressing indifference in Cameroon.

However, certification is not the only tool to improve environmental and social sustainability. Researchers note that it should be complemented with other standard public policies to promote sustainable forest management principles.

Overall, the most recent edition of Policy Maters underscores the need for more relationship building between voluntary certification schemes and public institutions.

“Policy makers, certification schemes, companies, academics and other stakeholders must continue to work together to get the most out of certification,” said Castka.


Castka, Pavel and Leaman, Danna J. 2016. Certification and biodiversity: how voluntary certification standards impact biodiversity and human livelihoods. IUCN Policy Matters.