We are living in the golden age of certified products, ensuring us of containing sustainable raw materials, being produced with respect for the environment by fairly paid workers in a safe environment. Certificates are necessary and great because they ensure that companies didn’t make up their sustainability claims from thin air, however, in some cases, they can enable greenwashing. Let’s jump into the rabbit hole of sustainability certifications and see if they are worth the hype!
As we have talked about earlier, sustainability has many faces, and subsequently, so do certificates. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, there are more than 400 voluntary sustainability standards operating around the globe. That is plenty to choose from even if not all of them apply to every industry. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the sheer amount of certificates and the varying standards can be overwhelming for consumers and companies alike.
Sustainability certificates usually focus on one or more of the following aspects: environmental quality, social equity, and economic prosperity, and cover environmental, social, or ethical practices. Some of them focus solely on one industry, for example, food, or fashion, and others can be applied across industries.
Certificates were made necessary - or at least useful - due to the lack of regulation over certain sustainability buzzwords in the bigger part of the world. Any company could use fluffy statements for their products such as “green”, “clean”, or “sustainable” as these claims were or are not regulated but sound convincing from a marketing perspective. (Fun fact: in 2022, Denmark - where Beyond Leather operates - tied the use of the word “sustainable” in marketing materials to strict requirements such as supporting the claim with documentation in the form of a lifecycle analysis. This is a huge step forward in battling greenwashing.)
Certifications verifying a manufacturer’s or producer’s sustainability claims are essential for creating trust in both the end consumers and B2B partners. In the era of greenwashing, customers are more educated and more skeptical, and they don’t take declarations at face value. They need hard evidence - preferably from an independent third party - that whatever the producer claims, be it producing in an environmentally friendly way, using - or not using - certain raw materials, or providing fair working conditions to employees is true. Certificates create transparency, that creates trust, that creates sales. It’s a virtuous cycle that every producer and retailer should aim for.
Besides, certifications are a great way to measure where the company stands in terms of environmental, social, and ethical practices and there is space for development. For an organization truly committed to doing better in these spheres, these certifications can be tremendously useful tools.
The most obvious problem with certificates is that they are voluntary. They were born out of market needs and lack of government regulation, created by NGOs and business consortiums, therefore, in a lot of cases, they function as businesses. This means that their standards and prices vary greatly which can be misleading for the consumer and challenging for companies seeking to achieve certification.
A certifying agency can establish any standard which sometimes doesn’t rely on anything more than self-assessment like in the case of the PETA-approved Vegan certificate. This is not only a problem because it gives an opportunity to less-ethical business owners for greenwashing but also because if consumers are not familiar with the requirements of certain certificates they might get confused or misled. For example, the widely used cruelty-free Leaping Bunny certificate on personal care products certifies that a product was not tested on animals, but it doesn’t verify if it is vegan which for most consumers also falls under the term of cruelty-free. Another example of potentially misleading certificates is Carbon Neutral certifications. Being certified carbon neutral does not mean that a company does not produce CO2. It means that they pay off their emissions by purchasing carbon offsets. The problem with this? They don’t treat the root of the issue, rather allowing the emissions to continue while it’s hard to follow where the investment ends up and it’s hard to quantify the actual effects of the varying carbon offsets.
Another challenge posed by certificates is their pricing. Many small and medium-sized companies cannot afford to pay the hefty sums the certification process requires that sometimes they need to repeat on a yearly basis. It might be more beneficial to build close relationships with local suppliers and experience their processes first-hand than relying purely on certificates that might not live up to their promises.
We have also seen examples in the past where certificates were abused or failed to prevent certified companies from acting against their standards. There were concerns about Better Cotton Initiative’s transparency as its “mass balance” system allows farmers and manufacturers to mix Better Cotton with conventionally grown cotton which makes traceability difficult. In another instance, in 2014, a SOAS research found wages and working conditions at Fairtrade farms in Ethiopia and Uganda were worse than at other, uncertified establishments in the region. The Forest Stewardship Council has also been criticized for inadvertently providing cover for illegal timber trafficking. These examples demonstrate the importance of transparency and traceability within the system as trust goes both ways - a certificate validates a product or company but if the certificate’s validity gets questioned that has consequences for the certified brands as well.
As a product intended to provide a more sustainable alternative to animal and faux leather, there is an obvious need for certifications proving our sustainability claims. Earlier this year, we performed a preliminary environmental impact screening that showed hotspots where we can do better and what we need to perform a full lifecycle analysis. We plan to execute the LCA as soon as we scale up our production to provide sufficient data on our emissions and various use cases of Leap.
We are in the process of achieving Leap’s first two certificates: one proving the bio-based content of Leap, and one proving that the material is 100% animal-free. The composition certificate is important for us because it keeps us accountable and highlights Leap’s biggest strength, its 80% bio-based content. And although we don’t identify with “vegan leather” it is important for us to prove that Leap is completely animal-free and it is an essential feature for many of our customers.
Of course, we are not stopping here. Our long-term plans include achieving a Cradle to Cradle certification because we don’t only want to produce a waste-based, upcycled material, we want it to slip back into nature with as little trace as possible. Moreover, we aspire to become a B-Corp certified company as it is not only Leap’s sustainability credentials that we focus on but inclusion, independence, and credibility through the entirety of Beyond Leather Materials.
There are a tremendous amount of certificates that a sustainably conscious brand can pursue. Finding the most authentic and relevant ones takes time and thorough research but in return, they will strengthen the brand and provide additional value to both the company and the consumers.