Sustainable development:
Economy and the environment

Claude Martin

Claude Martin
Honorary Advisor, WWF-International, and Director General, 1993-2005

A Swiss national, Claude Martin was born in Zurich in 1945. His WWF career started in the early 1970s, when he lived in Central India studying the ecology of the threatened barasingha deer. He was Director General of WWF International from 1993 to 2005. Since 2006 he has been the chairman of the International Sustainability Innovation Council of Switzerland (ISIS).

NGOs and consumers

The environmental third way - independent certification

The limits of regulatory approaches to stop degradation of nature and the limited impacts of field projects led environmentalists and enlightened industry leaders to turn to a third way to balance market forces with conservation: independent certification.

One of the more disappointing experiences in international conservation and environmental protection of the past three decades has been that national legislation and international treaties have failed to control the continuing degradation of nature. The 1980s were dominated by a certain enthusiasm for more and tougher regulation.

There were uncontested achievements, e.g., in air and water pollution control. At the beginning of the 1990s, however, the limits of this approach became evident. Environmental treaties and legislation often proved ineffective against the environmental impacts resulting from increased consumption of resources and energy.

For example, measures to contain the rapid loss of tropical forests, such as the Tropical Forest Action Plan launched by the World Bank, UNDP and the World Resources Institute in 1985, failed to change the framework conditions driving the destruction. Treaties aimed at a more sustainable use of the global commons, notably marine fisheries, proved equally ineffective.

Although the early 1990s have been marked by agreement on two new international conventions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), at the UNCED Conference in Rio in 1992, as well as the widely acclaimed rapid progress of the Montreal Protocol on ozone depleting substances, market forces in an increasingly globalized world continued putting further pressures on the natural resource base. Deforestation rates in the tropics continued at a rapid pace, marine fisheries plummeted, and freshwater ecosystems suffered major degradation from excessive use of water for agriculture, as well as due to pollution.

It became clear that environmental problems of a ubiquitous nature could never be solved exclusively through a regulatory approach and a number of field projects, whose effects, by their nature, remain site specific. It was at this juncture, around the time of the Rio conference, that some NGOs started contemplating a third way, one that had the potential of harnessing those market forces in favor of sustainable development.

NGOs had previously reached out to consumers and used their buying power to create market signals, and there have been many well-publicized actions by the producers themselves, attempting to assure critical consumers of their socially and environmentally responsible behavior. Yet, creating a globally recognizestandard, verified through a certification mechanism and identified with a label through the entire chain of custody, is an undertaking of a completely different magnitude.

Certification is only valuable if producers and consumers actually use it.

However, this is what a group of NGOs, led by WWF-International and some producers and retailers, set out to do in order to create a market instrument that would support sustainable forest management. It led to the creation of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993, today the most effective certification mechanism for forest products in the world, with over 80 million ha of certified forest area. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies sustainable marine fisheries, was created in 1997 in a partnership between WWF and Unilever, and modeled after the FSC.

However, creating a certification mechanism is only valuable if producers as well as consumers can be found who actually use it! For WWF and other NGOs, this latter aspect has perhaps been the toughest lesson - to realize that the existence of an instrument is only just the beginning. The equilibrium between supply and demand of certified products has to be monitored constantly and requires communications and promotion at both ends of the supply chain.

Numerous other certification schemes are built on social as well as environmental standards and are in various stages of development. Yet one must recognize that not every label represents independent certification. More often than not a label signals a self-declaration of "good" behavior or adherence to certain principles (e.g. ISO 14000). This, however, is different from a certification mechanism that monitors actual performance through the chain of custody, and includes the withdrawal of the label in case of non-compliance. And although the often confusing multiplicity of labels bears witness to the concerns of consumers, there are vast differences with regard to the credibility of individual labels.

Participation in the development of certification mechanisms, for an organization like WWF, entailed multiple relationships with producers and retailers. This inter alia led to a set of principles for partnerships, experience with the private sector in general, and even a certain philosophical change in the organization in favor of more cooperation and leveraging through market instruments.