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3.3.2.3 Certifications

Many organizations mention certifications in their sustainability reports, on their websites, and in other materials they publish for internal and external stakeholders. My interviewees representing cities (e.g., Portland, Fayetteville), state governments (e.g., South Dakota), college campuses (e.g., University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Arkansas), and nonprofits (e.g., Ecotrust, Heifer International®) talked with me about their LEED-certified buildings. The Arbor Day Foundation certifies cities and towns. The certification or endorsement an organization seeks depends on its sector (e.g., government, industry) and its output (e.g., services, consumer products). For example, quickly skimming the Tyson Foods 2012 Sustainability Report, I saw they had Global Food Safety Initiative certification and 73 of their US facilities had British Retail Consortium Global Standard for Food Safety certification. In this section, I identify some sustainability standards and certifications and talk about factors influencing the decision whether or not to certify.

What Are Sustainability Standards and Certifications?

Sustainability standards are voluntary, usually third party-assessed, norms and standards relating to environmental, social, ethical, and food safety issues associated with an organization's performance or specific products. The range of new sustainability-related standards significantly increased over the last decade.

The trend started in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the introduction of ecolabels and standards for organic food and other products. Some of the common ones involving consumable products are the Fairtrade label, the Rainforest Alliance, and Organic. Builders would be most familiar with the USGBC's LEED standards and FSC certification. Previously, I talked about FSC certification, and identified how AASHE awards universities with STARS.

Other organizations award important certifications. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides requirements, specifications, guidelines, or characteristics that can be used to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are safe, reliable, and of good quality. The ISO publishes and sells over 19,500 international standards but does not certify companies. Management system standards include ISO 9001, ISO 14001, and ISO 31000. The ISO 14000 family of standards (14001:2004, ISO 14004:2004) focus on environmental management and provide tools for organizations seeking to identify and control their environmental impact, as well as improve their environmental performance. In terms of the social dimension of sustainability, the ISO 26000 standards provide guidance for how businesses and organizations can operate in a socially responsible way. Standards for operating in a socially responsible way are also offered by Social Accountability International (SIA). SIA publishes the SA8000 standard, an auditable social certification standard for judging decent workplaces. Structures and procedures that companies must adopt are described and continually monitored. The group AccountAbility publishes their A1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard (AA1000SES), an open-source framework which supports the group's AA1000APS Principle of Inclusivity. Blackburn (2007) describes a wide range of other certifying organizations.

Numerous groups stand ready at the international level to certify that organizations are operating in environmentally and socially sustainable ways. Communitylevel sustainability initiatives also exist. I found local certification programs occurring in two communities I traveled through, Missoula, MT, and Lincoln, NE. These programs epitomize sustainability-related communication challenges and opportunities at the local level. Missoula, MT, is in a state characterized by small businesses. The community started investigating the idea of sustainability in 2000 and by 2002 a group had formed which was interested in promoting sustainable business. Today their Sustainable Business Council (SBC) has about 180 paying business members. The SBC works to advance sustainable commerce by supporting and connecting businesses that strive to become more sustainable and educating consumers about sustainable business options.

Susan Anderson, who was their administrative coordinator when I was in Missoula and a founding board member, told me:

We have tried really hard, coming from a community that had some polarization with the environmental movement, to make certain they [business owners] understand that we are not out to put them out of business. We want to help them do business better. We want to help them prepare for the future that is coming. I think the key behind that is when you look at markets right now the messages are not correct. There are signals that are not in the market that really need to be in terms of the impact of environmental damage or the impact of social damage on the long term viability of the business.. .. A friend of mine, who wrote the book, Green Business Practices for Dummies, often says to people to get their attention: 'Is your business ready for a carbon-constrained environment?' Right now we're actually seeing a drop in our fuel prices.. .. But they are not going to stay that way. So people who use the savings they get right now to get ready for the future are the ones that I think are going to survive better, healthier in the long term.

Susan described their Strive Toward Sustainability program which includes an education, self-certification and a graduated recognition program, a membership appreciation event, and annual sustainability awards. The Strive Toward Sustainability program begins with a half-day workshop. Then companies complete a selfassessment, select areas for improvement, and receive information on how to improve. The program has a set of seals that can be put in the windows of local businesses and appear on the SBC's website. Their program was replicated in several other communities, including Lincoln, NE. Carrie Hakenkamp, Executive Director of WasteCap Nebraska, described how the self-assessment covered nine areas: management, energy, facilities, transportation, waste, community, customers, employees, and purchasing. There are standards and questions addressing each standard. If companies meet the minimum standard in an area, they receive a badge in recognition. If they meet the standards in enough badge areas, then they earn a gold seal. Carrie explained:

When you read those questions you learn about things, the gaps that you have, and get some ideas on other projects you could do.. .. What we have found is that so many companies have already done something. They have a recycling program. They have switched out their lights. But most people in the company don't even realize it. So now you have an internal marketing program. You have something that demonstrates your values as a company to your employees, your customers and people on the outside. It is just a really great first big step. The first step is the hardest, but once you start down that path then [they think] here is something else we can do, and here is something else. And it gets easier to implement projects because more people understand what your values are.

WasteCap Nebraska ultimately discontinued using the Strive for Sustainability program and began working with B Lab, a nonprofit organization that created the B Impact Assessment and the B Corp Certification. Certified B Corps are companies that use the power of business as a force for good. B Corps are different from ordinary businesses because they meet a higher standard of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. There are more than 1100 Certified B Corps in 120 industries in 40 countries, including Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's, Method, Dansko, and Etsy. More than 20,000 companies have taken the free, online, and confidential B Impact Assessment. Companies can compare themselves to other companies that have taken it. To be certified, a company must score at least 80 out of 200 points and be audited. WasteCap Nebraska combines the B Impact Assessment with their “Good Company” green team training, which helps green teams organize and learn a system for selecting, implementing, and managing projects and measuring and reporting achievements. It includes training and information about writing a sustainability plan and report and about audience analysis and communication.

The Decision to Certify or Not?

Organizations have various reasons why they seek certification including in response to industry isomorphism, to symbolically communicate their legitimacy, to utilize a framework to guide internal processes, to reap reputation and efficiency related benefits, in response to a contractual or regulatory requirement, to meet customer preferences, to aid in risk management, and to help motivate staff by setting clear goals. Cities use frameworks to guide decisions which will hopefully enhance the livable of their communities. In this section, I pay particular attention to financial reasons, employee productivity, and stakeholder perceptions.

Businesses often adopt ISO1400 and similar international management certifications when they are dependent on international trade or need bank financing since financial institutions are concerned with long-term financial and environmental risks which might threaten their investments. Others seek certification believing employee productivity may increase. Surveying 5,220 French firms, Delmas and Pekovic (2013) investigated the relationship between ISO 14001 certification and labor productivity. Firms that adopted environmental standards enjoyed one standard deviation higher labor productivity than firms that did not adopt such standards. The authors concluded the adoption of an environmental standard signals that an organization is committed to improved environmental performance which is likely to lead to a more positive reputation. If employees feel proud of their organization, they often perform better at work, engage in more cooperative and citizenship-type behaviors, and become ambassadors for their employer. Also, environmental standards require the adoption of management practices such as new environmental policies, internal assessment (e.g., benchmarking, accounting procedures), environmental performance goals, internal and external environmental audits, and even employee incentive programs based on an organization's environmental performance. Companies are required to identify, minimize, and/or seek to manage environmental risks, liabilities, and impacts. Efficiency may improve as new systems gather additional information used to monitor environmental performance. Communication, cross-functional teams, and employee training are essential elements of ISO 14001 implementation. This can result in more effective and knowledgeable employees, increase human capital, facilitate knowledge transfer and innovation, and thus increase productivity.

Certifications are symbols meant to denote an organization's legitimacy. If

message receivers are aware of the meaning of the symbol, they will quickly process it and assume the organization is trustworthy in multiple areas. Parguel et al. (2011) used attribution theory (see McDermott 2009) as the basis of their study of the role of independent sustainability ratings on 177 French consumers' responses to companies' CSR communication. Attribution theory explains that when people communicate, their decisions are based on the attributions they make for their own and others' behaviors. The authors distinguished two types of causal attributions for CSR communication: attributions to the dispositions of the actor (intrinsic motives) and attributions to environmental factors (extrinsic motives). When faced with CSR communication, consumers must decide whether it conveys a genuine environmental consciousness (intrinsic motive) or is an attempt to take advantage of sustainable development trends (extrinsic motive). If an organization makes claims about its CSR engagement but provides no other information, consumers assume extrinsic motives. They may believe the organization is greenwashing if they don't green highlight. Sustainability ratings from independent agencies provide information which suggests intrinsic motivation.

In building their argument, Parguel et al. (2011) refer to the three elements of Kelley's covariation model: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency. Do others in similar circumstances adopt the same behavior (consensus), does this behavior occur only within a particular situation (distinctness), and is this behavior repeated across time (consistency)? Consumers are more likely to attribute extrinsic motives if most of an organization's competitors engage in the same behavior at the same time (social consensus), if the company only engages in one CSR activity (distinctiveness), or when CSR engagements are infrequent company practices (no consistency). A positive global sustainability rating, provided by an independent and credible third party, suggests the company enacts sustainability in various ways (i.e., its engagements are nondistinctive) and on a frequent basis (i.e., its engagements are consistent). Consumers are more likely to attribute the CSR message to the organization's intrinsic motives resulting in an increase in positive brand evaluation. However, poor sustainability ratings should drive CSR engagement attributions to more extrinsic motives. The researchers conclude that sustainability ratings can deter greenwashing and encourage virtuous firms to continue their CSR practices. Attribution theory also has implications for how employees and supply chain members respond to CSR-related messages.

For some organizations, the decision to seek external certification is not easy. The management team of a plastics recycling organization I consulted with disagreed as to whether or not to certify an innovative new product they had developed. Opponents expressed concerns about recouping the costs associated with the certification process, whether or not most clients would even care and whether clients who did care would commit to doing enough future business to make the certification process financially worthwhile. Given the confusing array of certifications available, others were unsure which certification was appropriate and would be most persuasive to potential customers. As part of the decision-making process, we identified the most common certifications appearing on the websites of their competitors and potential customers. Some organizations developed their own certifications, a clear case of greenwashing since they lacked the legitimation associated with external evaluation. Action Plan: Investigate which certifications appear most useful in your particular industry. Consider talking with your management about seeking certification.

 
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