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World Standards Day 2020: Protecting people and planet with standards

Today is World Standards Day 2020. Standards impact most areas of everyday life, from universal symbols and signals to assurances about product quality, performance, composition and processes. Standards also help protect consumers by making the world easier, safer, more sustainable and more accessible, as well as allowing comparison and benchmarking across a broad array of sectors.

The United Nations’ Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP) are the only set of global recommendations for government, business and consumer groups to advance consumer rights. The UNGCP promotes both sustainability and establishing minimum standards, which shows the link at the international level between sustainability issues and the use of standards.

Since Consumers International’s creation in 1960, we have worked to ensure consumers have a voice in standardisation. On World Standards Day 2020, which focuses on “protecting the planet with standards”, we are promoting the vital role of standards for a sustainable future. Read on to explore three areas where standards are critical for protecting both consumers and the environment and the work we are doing to ensure continued safeguarding.

Standards and plastics

Earlier in 2020, we released our report, co-written with the UN Environment Programme, “Can I Recycle This?”: a Global Mapping of the Standards, Labels and Claims on Plastic Packaging. This report examines the current global landscape of sustainability communication to consumers on plastic packaging, highlighting good practices and areas for improvement. Reliable, relevant and clear labels on plastic packaging, which are underpinned by international standards that are relevant and ambitious, can inform consumer behaviour and reduce the problem of plastic pollution in the environment.

There is some catching-up required in the current standards landscape on plastics. Setting strict definitions of common terms seen on plastic packaging, for example ‘made of recycled plastic’ and ‘ocean plastic’, is an avenue for standards to grow and develop to reflect humanity’s production and use of plastics today and our projected consumption, to reduce the environmental impact.

Progressing towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Standards can help to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) already links each of the standards they develop to the relevant SDG which it contributes to.

ISO 50007 examines the delivery of energy services to consumers, and contributes to SDGs 7, 11, 12 and 13. Consumers International has supported the development of a range of new standards to support consumers and proposed and supported the first version of ISO 50007, which was the first time that a standard proposed by an NGO became an ISO international standard.

Consumers International is proud to work towards the achievement of SDGs and ensuring that no-one is left behind. We co-lead the UN Consumer Information Programme of the One Planet network, which is one of the official implementation mechanisms of SDG 12. We also coordinate the Green Action Fund, an annual grant scheme supporting SDG 12 with the aims of promoting worldwide awareness and advocacy activities which encourage sustainable consumption patterns.

Making sustainable consumption the easy choice for consumers

Consumers International believes that sustainable consumption should be the easy choice for consumers. Celebrating World Standards Day by thinking about the planet, how to protect it, and how we can work with standards to promote and enhance sustainability is a good opportunity to consider how consumers should be aware of standards as a tool to promote and improve sustainable consumption. For example, our work on the development of standards for the Sharing Economy is also aimed at enhancing tools to make the circular economy reliable and trustworthy for consumers.

While there are many international standards on plastics, including by ISO and regional organisations such as CEN, many of them are not known by consumers or need more engagement from consumer advocates and representatives. We believe that there are significative opportunities to bring consumer insight to these standards and to work towards a better understanding of how standards for plastics can be used as a tool to protect the planet.

As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, states: “If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves”. As the world continues to get to grips with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, standards can play a central role in helping to bring some control to the new normal that is emerging and contribute to the protection of our environment. Together we can be a driving force to ensure that sustainability is in the centre of any endeavour and standards can support this.