Sustainability Certifications for Food Manufacturers

As sustainability gains momentum throughout the food industry, we’re seeing the increasingly popular use of ecolabels and certifications like organic, Marine Stewardship Council, and Pesticide Residue Free by primary producers. Third party certifications provide a valuable and credible way for these businesses to tell potential customers about their sustainability efforts. While most current certifications focus on primary producers, third party verification can also play a valuable role in advancing food manufacturers’ sustainability efforts.

The certifications that are currently available for food manufacturers focus mainly on the social aspects of sustainability, like the Fair Trade and Fair Labor certifications. While these examples of socially focused certifications cover part of sustainability, they don’t go into detail on environmental impact.

Manufacturers can also fit into “chain of custody” certifications, which track a product through its supply chain from a primary producer to ensure traceability of certified material. The Marine Stewardship Council’s chain of custody for tracking seafood from certified fisheries to the consumer is one example. While valuable for food manufacturers, chain of custody certifications are largely driven by other groups in the supply chain.

Marketing Advantage

Food manufacturers can gain a marketing advantage by having a third party verify specific claims about their products despite the lack of sustainability certifications. On a basic level, third party-verified claims are trustworthy because they eliminate bias and prevent “greenwashing,” the misleading use of green marketing claims to sell something that really isn’t validated to have a more reduced environmental impact than a competing product. Similarly, when an industry group or association certifies its own product as “green,” there is an inherent bias for the group to make the certification easy to achieve so that member businesses can market their products as green.

One key type of third party claim that can be used in the food manufacturing industry is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). An EPD is a specific, quantitative statement about the environmental impacts of a product that is based on international life cycle assessment standards (ISO 14025). Creating declarations about products using a third party-verified method like EPDs can help manufacturers prepare for future sustainability programs, because policy and supply chain requirements are likely to be based on this standardized methodology. EPDs are used widely in Europe and are already gaining traction in the United States.

An Important Trend

EPDs reflect an important trend—measuring and reporting environmental impacts is becoming a necessary business practice. Retailers, consumers, and regulatory agencies are requiring more transparency about the environmental impacts of products, and third party-verified claims are the most credible way to communicate information about them. Certain retailers are already requiring third party certifications from those wanting to become their suppliers.

Whole Foods recently announced that it is requiring third party certification for all cosmetics labeled “organic,” and Wal-Mart has set a goal of sourcing all wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for U.S. stores from Marine Stewardship Council -certified fisheries by 2011. These programs are just the beginning; more retailers are likely to require transparency from their suppliers.

Being more sustainable can help manufacturers prepare for the future by staying at the forefront of the sustainable food movement. The greater goal of third party certification is to help companies make progress on the triple bottom line—so that they profit while providing benefits to the planet and people as well.

Dodson is managing director of food and agriculture at Scientific Certification Systems. He is an ISO 9001 Lead Auditor, with extensive background in certification program management for the U.S., Mexico, and Latin America. Reach him at or (510) 452-6399.

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