Sustainability is more than a vow to a concept, sustainability is a collection of active commitments to a process or lifestyle. Businesses that care about sustainable development are going beyond promoting the importance of the environment, people, and the future. Growing more well-known, sustainable development brings out transparency and accountability when looking at business practices. One of the best views of what’s going on inside a company is through sustainable certifications.
Certifications promoting sustainability occasionally come into question for their legitimacy. This suspicion often comes from the idea that sustainability reporting is a self-regulated market with no true defined version of “sustainable”. Many certifications rely on voluntary reports of sustainable practices and define their own standard of what is considered “sustainable”. Despite this, it is safe to acknowledge certifications that make an effort to clearly communicate what they define as “sustainable” while involving third-party experts to verify sustainability reports.
What are the most common sustainable certifications?
Nothing is perfect. Taking a step back, the general point of sustainability certification is to:
- clarify a defined standard, which can vary depending on the certification and topic
- have transparency to evaluate, report, and record sustainable business practices
- have accountability that can be verified through reported data, or a third party to avoid a conflict of interest
Common certifications that are popular at the moment take a holistic view of how a company is meeting their sustainable development commitments. Here are extremely common certifications that hold sustainable businesses accountable:
B Corp certifications rate companies on a performance of social and environmental standards. Companies under this certification must follow a legal commitment of changing their corporate governance structure in the interests of all stakeholders, not only shareholders. Ratings from the B Corp certifications are made public by B Lab.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a rating system monitoring the environmental performance of buildings. Sustainable practices are evaluated for both the construction and the use of the buildings. LEED examines building design, interior design, operations and maintenance, neighborhood development, and homes.
Energy Star certifications hold businesses accountable for energy performance and management, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Certifications must be reviewed annually, and information provided by companies must be verified by a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) or Registered Architect (RA) to be eligible for approval.
Leaping Bunny certifications signal to consumers that no new animal tests were used in the development of any product displaying the Leaping Bunny logo. Sustainable businesses follow this certification to be cruelty-free by removing animal testing at all stages of product development. Participating companies renew their commitment every year, and cooperate with third party audits.
Fair Trade certifications focus on rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. Reports highlight practices that empower individuals, build strong communities, and protect the planet. Specifically, Fair Trade creates transparency around responsible sourcing and respect for stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain system.
Finding Sustainable Certifications for the Product Field
Different fields of business connect to sustainable concerns that exist in a way specific to that field. For example, most people agree that waste and surplus is a valid environmental concern. Waste in the fashion industry and waste in the food industry have a common theme of waste, but the solutions and barriers in the two fields look different from each other.
People Helping People is currently working on sustainable product development in a crafts related field. The following certificate suggestions are initiatives that sustainable businesses can consider if they are developing, launching, or reimagining a craft product.
Green Seal certifications monitor the impacts that happen throughout the product life cycle (such as raw materials extraction, manufacturing, packaging, use, and disposal). Companies are evaluated for practices that protect human health, preserve the climate, ensure clean water, and minimize waste.
Rainforest Alliance is a nonprofit that works with individuals, educators, researchers, and business to build sustainable practices that benefit agriculture and forests. Their certification program measures a company’s commitment to sustainable agricultural production and responsible supply chain practices.
TRUE certifications emphasize zero waste facilities with a lens on materials flow. Ultimately, the certification defines methods for companies to have products that can be reused in some way. The materials-focused approach is meant to close the loop on consumption, and make resources more efficient.
Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certifications assess the safety, circularity, and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance. The five categories include material health, product circularity, clean air & climate protection, water & soil stewardship, and social fairness.
How many sustainable certifications does a business need?
The number of sustainable certifications a single company needs depends on which sustainable practices the business chooses to work on. One sustainable certification partnership for responsible sourcing is sufficient. A business doesn’t need two. What may happen is a business achieving a sustainable certification for responsible sourcing, another for energy management, and another for being cruelty-free. Of course, there are also more general certifications, like B Corp, that can be an addition to communicating sustainable development commitments.
Sustainable product development wants to lean away from the idea of virtue signaling or “checking off a box”. Working to benefit the environment includes a proactive mindset in finding where more improvements can be made. Having general certifications as well as certifications monitoring a specific concern are the commitment of a company dedicated to increasing their sustainability footprint.
Get certified, or wait?
Certifications require reports and data, which may make it more difficult to get certified in the early stages of a business. This is actually great news. Sustainable development relies on verified sustainable business practices. In a time where there can be interpretations and greenwashing, it is helpful for businesses to be prepared to provide reports or wait until they can.
Sustainable companies in the early stages of business can focus on working with sustainability consultants or running mock reports. Working with a sustainability consultant points companies in the direction they want to go, helps connect companies with resources, and helps companies reflect on what they believe is sustainable about their business practices. Mock reports can be completed by doing research or having conversations on how to prepare for a specific sustainable certification. Either method is to help sustainable companies gain insight on how their business practices measure up before looking to be certified.
To be clear, the aim is to get certified eventually. Building a company with sustainability in mind gives a business an early start to possibly being certified. Becoming a certified sustainable business is an active commitment of transparency and accountability.