Voluntary Sustainable Production Standards (or VSS) are products of market demand. They’re voluntary and not applicable to governmental law and regulation. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Examples like the certification systems of the Forest Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council or others show how certification of products can mean something for some consumers. Often these are middle class consumers that have enough resources to make sustainability a criterion for their consumption choice. Less affluent segments of the population, however, do often not have that luxury of choice and have to rely on uncertified products.
And here lies the dilemma. Many of the markets that will influence demand in tomorrow’s world are in what are now emerging or middle-income economies around the world. Together these are poised to increase their share of global consumption significantly between now and 2050. And these countries do not always have a consumer with possibility to choose certified products, nor is there a culture of sustainable consumption choices.
Regardless the projected changes in the in global macroeconomic balance in the coming decades, the fear of VSS losing traction may be overstated. Currently it is mostly companies and conglomerates from developed countries that produce uncertified goods in developing countries. Therefore a more reasonable approach to ensuring the potentials of voluntary certification systems should be that companies that are owned or headquartered in developed countries, or by residents on those countries, should first walk the talk and revamp their production to be in line with environmental and social standards. This is regardless of whether their consumer base now or tomorrow is in developing or developed countries. Once such production apparatus and standards are fully part of the normal production cycle in any country it will matter little where the final consumers are.
In light of the above, it is important for governments and citizens to support the mainstreaming and use of such standards. Governments can do so through their own procurement practices. Governmental or public procurement of products and services can account for a quarter of to one third of GDP, which makes public procurement a significant leverage point for mainstreaming more sustainable modes of production and consumption, because sustainable procurement can create and drive a demand for VSS.
Citizens can also do their share by selecting certified products that adhere to more strict environmental and/or social standards in their production and along their supply-chain. To enable this, awareness raising is important, as are simple and clear labels and certification systems, which provide clear information to the consumer for example about where and how a product was produced and through which means it has reached the end consumer. Ensuring that labels and certificates tell the truth about the product can be a challenge, especially in countries with weak governance systems in place, which in developing countries can often be the case. Here the onus should lie with companies who should realize that in order to ensure market share for the future, it is becoming increasingly important that they produce in manners that are environmentally (and socially) sound. Blockchain technology can help with this, as information about products can be tracked and shared via distributed ledger technology that cannot be altered or manipulated once it is confirmed on the blockchain. There are ample examples of such already in place, referring to other articles in this series for more details on this discussion.