Bearing the standard
These standards offer Chinese companies, officials and NGOs new ways to take part in setting the rules of the global economy, and a powerful instrument to help the country's companies gain market rewards for good social and environmental performance. This is a soft-power strategy worthy of attention.
These standards are usually set by businesses and NGOs in a process that involves transparent consultation with corporations, governments and other interested groups. This "co-regulation" of global trade to codify common values means that consumers often trust these standards more than those set by companies or governments alone. And such transparent and wide engagement ensures that all voices, from poor producers to rich consumers, are represented.
Voluntary standards are a crucial element of the global economy, offering transparent, traceable and credible mechanisms that, within key global commodities like tea, wild caught fish, forestry and many others, already certify over 10 percent of global production.
They cover everything from sustainable fishing (the Marine Stewardship Council) to labour issues in factories (like SA8000) to farmers' income (Fairtrade) to environmental sustainability in farmed fish (the Aquaculture Stewardship Council) to how water itself is used by factories and communities (the emerging Alliance for Water Stewardship standard).
Standards bodies and their partners work to build capacity in producers to ensure they can continue to comply with standard criteria. These producers or factories are subsequently certified or evaluated for compliance by independent third-party certification bodies. And, completing the loop, these independent certifications are audited by standards bodies.
Finally, many standards have a logo that is easily recognized by consumers. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo, now carried by everything from paperbacks to train tickets, represents sustainably managed forests. The FSC logo is recognized more than any other voluntary standard by European consumers, with 67 percent recognition in the Netherlands and approximately one in three in the UK. A 2009 WWF Hong Kong survey suggests that about 15 percent of the Cantonese-speaking population (covering Hong Kong, Guangdong province and other parts of southern China) recognize the FSC logo.
Rather than being a burden, such labels can help small and large businesses reach new markets and build trust with high-end consumers. In the case of Fairtrade, the logo sends the message that the farmer who grew your fruit, coffee, tea, chocolate or other agricultural commodity is guaranteed a sustainable income. Farmers, especially farming co-operatives, can apply for group certification and gain a fairtrade premium (extra income) that is used collectively by the community on projects like schools or training in sustainable agricultural practices. Other standards, such as the FSC, help businesses buy and sell sustainably harvested lumber that meets European Union and United States timber requirements while also catching the eye of consumers.
With global brands like Tetra Pak putting FSC labels on their ubiquitous containers and Unilever using the Rainforest Alliance mark on its Lipton-brand tea to demonstrate care for workers and the environment, it is clear these standards are becoming more than something it is simply nice to have: they are increasingly critical to consumer acceptance.