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Guillermo Zucal and Dana Kissinger-Matray, ISO/COPOLCO: 'What can standards bring to the sustainable consumer?'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Guillermo Zucal, ISO/COPOLCO Chair, and Dana Kissinger-Matray, ISO/COPOLCO Secretary, explain why international standards are key when it comes to supporting consumers to make more sustainable choices, and encouraging all stakeholders to play their part in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. 

AUTHOR: Guillermo Zucal and Dana Kissinger-Matray

Can our consumption habits affect the sustainability of the world we’re living in?

It is clear that the answer is “yes”: from morning to evening, whatever we do as consumers affects our immediate environment, whether directly or indirectly. Collectively, these impacts can have a positive or negative effect on the sustainability of our society as a whole. 

Sustainable consumption includes meeting the present needs for goods and services in ways that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable – that is, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet these same needs.

Both individually and collectively, we share responsibility for sustainable consumption: informed consumers, government, business, labour organisations and civil society organisations all play important roles. In particular, informed consumers are vitally important for promoting sustainable consumption through the effects of their choices on producers.

Ideally, consumers also need to work with governments to promote their implementation of environmental, health and safety standards for goods and services, yet aiming to avoid standards becoming barriers to trade.

Standards move into the sustainability space

Since 1947, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been producing voluntary standards that codify internationally accepted good practice in a wide variety of technical fields, which its member experts discuss and agree by consensus.

In recent years, ISO has increasingly followed a demand from its national members and from its Committee on consumer policy (ISO/COPOLCO) to develop standards in areas of societal concern. Early achievements were the successful development and publication of environmental management system standards in the 1990s, and ISO 26000, Guidance on social responsibility, in 2010.

Originally designed to facilitate trade, International Standards are equally vital to enhancing consumer protection, especially in jurisdictions where legislation in a given field is inadequate or non-existent. Most recently, ISO 22059, Guidelines on consumer warranties/guarantees, responding to a need expressed by a number of developing country ISO members, was published just a few weeks ago.

Challenges for the sustainable consumer

Responsible choices are not easy to make in today’s market environment, even though businesses are increasingly responding to consumer demand for sustainable products. Too often, a product goes to disposal rather than being repurposed or recycled. Packaging is too often unnecessarily wasteful. It is also harmful to the environment, with consumers still not fully understanding the sustainability impacts of the goods and services they purchase. The proliferation of ethical labels making incomplete or misleading claims certainly doesn’t help the situation either.

Being a sustainable consumer requires access to sustainable alternatives for meeting daily needs, the ability to make informed choices and, increasingly, new and more sustainable business models aided by new technology. A mapping of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals shows how standards can – and do – help in all of these areas.

Sustainable choices for meeting daily needs

We need fuel to heat and light our homes and transport us to work or school. In the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy, for example, standards help consumers and businesses consume less energy and transition to renewable energy sources, spurring innovation and creating more sustainable lifestyles. More than two hundred standards exist covering offshore wind energy, solid biofuels, solar power, electric cars and hydrogen technologies. For water services, ISO standards disseminate best practice for effective drinking water provision and wastewater management. ISO 24521 provides guidance on management and maintenance of basic on-site domestic wastewater services. The standard is key to improving the lives of some 2.4 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation services.

In related efforts, COPOLCO, as the consumer voice within ISO, propelled development of standards on assessment and improvement of services for energy provision, and drinking water and wastewater services. Consumers International representatives engaged with ISO have participated actively in the development and advocacy of these standards

Making sense of sustainable claims

It is often difficult for conscientious consumers to choose among multiple and often competing claims. The ISO Committee on conformity assessment (CASCO) worked with COPOLCO, Consumers International and other partners to publish technical specification ISO/TS 17033, Ethical claims and supporting information – Principles and requirements, to address this confusion and give organizations a tool to make credible, accurate and verifiable ethical claims, such as for animal welfare, local sourcing, fair trade and child labour, just to name a few.

This document draws on the ISO 14020 series on environmental labelling and declarations, as well as the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information as part of their 10YPF Consumer Information Programme. It also complements existing guidance such as the ISEAL Alliance's Sustainability Claims – Good Practice Guide.

When making purchasing decisions online, consumers can now also rely more confidently on online reviews for sites that implement ISO 20488.

The sustainable consumer is acutely aware of the need to reduce waste, conserve precious natural resources and cut costs. Consumers International was instrumental in launching the development of the first internationally recognized best practice in cross-border trade of second-hand goods in 2014 (revised in 2017), setting minimum safety and performance requirements for these goods, and providing a tool against indiscriminate cross-border dumping of exported waste.

Thanks to consumer-driven initiatives, the ISO community is now working on capturing and replicating best practice for the sharing economy and the circular economy

Fortunately, evolving values and consumption patterns, aided by technology, are helping consumers – and standards underpin the necessary knowledge transfer for this to happen. ISO and its stakeholders are continuing to work together with Consumers International and other partners to develop solutions that will hopefully contribute to building a more sustainable world, with the consumer at its heart.

 We invite Consumers International members to join us in promoting and protecting the sustainable consumer, by joining the ISO community in your country. Let’s put our sustainability aspirations into actions, together. To find out more, contact Antonino Serra, Advocacy Manager, Consumers International (aserra@consint.org