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Linking Assurance, Learning, and Impacts in Voluntary Standards Systems

There is a growing awareness that current standards systems are too rigid and an impediment to progress in sectors where lack of capacity is a serious constraint in scaling up certification. Recognizing this challenge, the ISEAL Assurance Community, including representation from all ISEAL Full and Associate members, appointed Aidenvironment and Jinke van Dam Consultancy to identify models and lessons for improving the effectiveness of assurance in achieving a balance between compliance and learning.
The ISEAL Alliance is the global membership association for sustainability standards systems and the backbone of the movement for credible sustainability standards and certification. Standards systems provide demonstrable evidence that the requirements relating to a product, process, system, person or body are met. Most have developed elaborate rules to ensure the quality of the assurance process, with an emphasis on impartiality and consistency.

Our research identified several examples from within and outside the “standards community” that provide new insights into how standards systems can help to bridge the capacity constraints. The examples published in the report show a range of different approaches, which deviate to varying degrees from the “business as usual” approach. The question is how fundamental the changes in current systems should be to maximize the effect on learning and sector-wide improvement. Is it enough to tweak certain instruments, or is a complete reconfiguration of current systems required, including rethinking the interplay between standards design, assurance, incentives and support activities? Some key lessons cut across the examples presented in this report. They include the following:

•    Embrace participatory approaches in assurance and use assurance processes to provide (customized) support that drives learning and improvement.
•    Provide incentives based on improvement in performance rather than a fail/pass compliance approach linked to a specific threshold.
•    Create incentives for capacity-building efforts and ensure the quality of these efforts.
•    Enable trust-building (rather than mistrust) as a basis for co-investments in improvement and increased compliance.

Much innovation takes place outside the “standards community”, with potentially large impacts on learning, improvement, traceability, and assurance. To keep standards systems relevant in sectors in which capacity building is a prerequisite for certification, it is recommended that they either invest in capacity building and learning approaches or team up with the current innovators and define clear complementary roles.

For more information contact Jan Willem Molenaar.