Sustainability Exchange

Technology Innovations in Sustainability Standards

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From the ISEAL 2015 conference, session on Technology Innovations: Until recently, audits were one of the few sets of "eyes on the ground", but now technology is producing a wave of opportunities for standards to have a window into the social and environmental conditions at both a small and large scale. How are solutions like GIS mapping, mobile technology, satellite imagery, and social media influencing how standards operate and helping to ensure that interventions are successful?  How is technology allowing more of a two-way conversation with producers and allowing standard-setters to give new benefits back to their certification clients? Speakers from: Rainforest Alliance, Accreditation Services International, World Resources Institute, and 2Degrees Network.

The presentations can be viewed by clicking on the hyperlinked organisation names up here.


The mainline of the presentations was on (meta)data exchange. Sönke Fischer of ASI argued for seamless information exchange between actors, leading to an Integrated Assurance Approach. Present challenges are that information flows are not in real time, that different systems capture data differently and thus data analysis is hampered.

Rainforest Alliance’s Anna Paula Tavares reported progress in spatial data validation. RA’s priority is with information management for the producers: ”groups themselves should manage progress and compliance”.

Oliver Hurrey of 2Degrees Network promotes the visualization of data, and shows his network’s Global Collaboration Maps. Also he believes in data sharing: “there is so many best kept secrets”.

Sarah Lake of World Resources Institute acknowledged the tendency of data visualization and data sharing. In addition to the maps of the site of Global Forest Watch, The Institutes actively promotes open data sharing by making their own data sets available on


Focusing on the remark of Anna Paula Tavares that Rainforest Alliance has its priority with information management for the producers: "groups themselves should manage progress and compliance".

It seems that the Rainforest Alliance approach is not common amongst sustainability initiatives:

From a recent note of a standard owner: "Independent third party verification is the most essential element of ensuring compliance and continuous improvements of connected companies regarding the sustainability criteria of the standard. This is especially important to ensure the credibility of sustainability claims." Others have concerns that producers often not capture data, or at least not in a way that is consistent and with a high level of quality. 


Where do you think the focus of data collection and management should be in safeguarding the integrity of certification? With the producers/operators or with the certifiers?

June 29, 2015 11:45

Thanks Michiel for kicking off this conversation.  Data gathering has traditionally been a one way endeavour - we come in and ask operators for information about their work, whether for compliance checks or impacts monitoring.  We need to get better at making data collection and management more of a two way street where operators receive feedback on the information they provide in ways that are relevant and stimulating for them, and that will increase the value they perceive from engaging with standards systems and other data collectors.  There is some interesting experimentation around peer comparisons amongst operators as a way to stimulate improvements.

I also think there are some interesting opportunities around combining self-reporting and third party audits to improve the efficiency of certification, while using better data analysis to improve the integrity of self-reported data and to focus the independent audits on the issues that matter most or where non-compliances are more likely.  So yes, there is a role for operators to be more engaged in data collection and to derive more benefits from it

June 30, 2015 20:10

Thank you Patrick,

What do you mean by "a two way street where operators receive feedback on the information they provide in ways that are relevant and stimulating for them"?
It almost sounds like operators collect data for the certifiers? Yet, most of the data collected should be collected anyhow for the sake of management information:

  • If you want to work under a certain sustainability standard, and market your product with a certain claim, there must be a internal drive for managing that claim. If you can't measure it, you cannot manage it.
  • The bulk of data collected for the sake of compliance, such as member numbers, acreages, harvest estimates, is or should be collected for commercial reasons as well. If you don't know your member, how can you make a market forcast, how can you make a financial or ligistical planning? Again, if you can't measure, you cannot manage.

I personally think it should be a one way street in which operators collect data, in the first place for the sake of management information, in the second place for internal (compliance) reasons and in the third place for third party verification.

I see a second reason for keeping the responsibility of data collection and processing with operators, and that is that operators are 24/7 yearround there. Inspectors/certifiers only visit once a year, often don't know the local habits and culture. By default, external eyes are more expensive and see less.

In other words, I rather see a one way street, with

  • operators providing the bulk of information;
  • standard owners making sure that their requirements are as much as possible in line with management operations, while;
  • certifiers concentrate on data analysis and risk assesment, and;
  • focus inspections on risk areas.
July 01, 2015 21:37

I fully agree with your statements, Michiel: data need to be collected by the producer organisation or the company primarily for business and quality management purposes: to know the production that is available for sales, to optimize the production system by analyzing the data, to know the impact of your operations. This needs to start at farm level: if farmers can use their own data for improving their yields and profitability they are likely to engage in record keeping. Using the data for certification then becomes a nice secondary effect. Simple tools like the Record keeping template and the Crop details database (see Library) can already be useful for this purpose, although there are definitely more sophisticated systems like Farmforce or Group Integrity.

July 08, 2015 18:27

Dear all,

Thank you very much for opening the discussion(s)!

I call it discussion(s) because it seems we are tackling two (main) topics simultaneously:

-          Firstly, the question of how big is the potential of new information technology to benefit all stakeholders involved? And how to harness it?

-         Secondly, the question of whose duty it should be to collect that information


My answers in short:

Q1: Huge!

Q2: It really depends on the purpose of this information. If it is collected for assurance purposes then I would argue for a shared data collection responsibility between operators/ producers and sustainability systems. From a credibility point of view, we need to be careful not to confuse data availability and ease of processing with data quality and remain aware of natural conflicts of interest that are inherent to our systems.


...and in more detail:

Q1: The potential of new information technology

New technology –be that satellite imagery to monitor deforestation or tablet technology for instantly uploading audit information into a cloud database- will continue to make life easier for all of us (producers, auditors, or standard systems).

These technologies represent a huge step forward in terms of the efficiency of data collection, analysis and availability. Moreover, they are likely to contribute to “making data collection and management a two way street”: For instance, increasingly sophisticated tools for analysing data will make it much easier for sustainability standards to “feed back” meaningful information to producers. This in turn, will raise producers’ interest in reporting and ensuring data accuracy.

The biggest challenge here is not so much the use of the new technology itself, but to ensure that data collection is streamlined across different systems in order to allow for aggregate analysis. ISEAL is the perfect forum for making this happen, as the working group on Impact and M&E clearly shows.


Q2: Whose duty should it be to collect information?

"Independent third party verification is the most essential element of ensuring compliance and continuous improvements of connected companies regarding the sustainability criteria of the standard” (recent note of a standard owner)

“Groups themselves should manage progress and compliance” (Anna Paula Tavares, Rainforest Alliance)

I see no tension between these two statements. Indeed, I would agree with both of them. It all depends on the type and the purpose of the data we are talking about.

There can be no doubt about the necessity for groups to manage their progress and compliance. Independent of any sustainability standard system, it is in their own best interest to do so.

However, we should not confuse the management of progress with proving compliance for the obtainment of a license. For the latter, there needs to remain a “third party element”. This is because all of our systems share at least this one basic conflict of interest:

From the perspective of a producer seeking to obtain license recognition, to self-report critical non compliances just does not make a lot of sense.

However, when it comes to determining the level of necessary “external oversight”, Patrick rightfully points out, that there are interesting opportunities around combining self-reporting and third party audits to improve the efficiency and focus of certification.

Indeed, this is precisely what the 4C Association has been practising and advocating for since its establishment in 2006. Producers self-report on their performance. Their assessment is then regularly verified by auditors in the field.

New technology in general, and database logics in particular, can go a far way in identifying risks and checking for plausibility of data. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that plausibility (the avoidance logical contradictions) is not synonymous with credibility but rather one of its basic preconditions. Safeguarding the integrity of standard systems cannot be reduced to a mere technical question.

July 09, 2015 14:45

Thanks Michiel for bringing up this topic! I can only speak of my experience with certified producer groups in Africa but there you can clearly see (in only a few years) that the technology revolution has  opened up many doors, even for (certified) farmer-based organisations with less financial means. But although technology is extremely useful, it must also be deployed for the intended purposes and be used correctly. In Africa almost everyone knows how to handle a mobile phone but only a few know how to handle software (applications) or a PC. And many POs do not yet know of the huge potential data has to improve their operations. 

Also I have seen that for POs it is not easy to determine which data needs to be gathered, how and then what to do with the information they gather. Also, most data gathered is confidential and many POs won’t be happy to just share information from their members. Data gathered is not always reliable or publicly available. But when we’re talking about streamlining data collection and management in line with sustainability criteria, I see an interesting (joint) task for standard setters to provide guidelines for open sustainability data sharing that is relevant for certificate holders, standard setters and other stakeholders. Useful guidelines for certified POs that are willing to share sustainability data on what topics they can collect and share.

With our AuditAide solution we not only provide tools to collect, manage and analyse data (e.g. mobile application or an MIS), but we also provide support in data collection and management processes. With AuditAide we can introduce new and affordable technologies with the additional support POs so often need to also get a return on investment from the newly implemented tools. Our support is often very basic but very essential and necessary: determine what data needs to be gathered, how to design a good internal inspection form, set up a good scoring and sanctioning (assessment) system, training of field staff in how to inspect the farms, how to pose the right questions during inspections and use mobile technology. At operator level we focus on how to process and manage data, how to filter data and create reports and sometimes even advice on how to improve based on the results of collected data. So we offer technology, we offer a structure but the content is determined and managed by the user because every organisations has its own data collection/management needs.


July 16, 2015 11:12

Needs and Ways

Producers (farmers & operators) and certifiers have different needs. Some needs do have overlap. Operators can use a
Benchmark module to share their data and compare collected (analyzed) data with stakeholders. This data is relevant management
information. The drive should be improvement of quality and/or impact on sustainability, social and other items. Certifiers
have different interest in data. Data is input for data analyses to check compliance to the standards. As a citizens of the Netherlands I have to sent my financial information to our authorities. Deviations will lead to questions,  actions and/or (more) taxes. In fact this is a one way street. Who is responsible for the delivery of data?

Also certifiers ask for information (data) and the producer (farmer/operator) has to sent it. Analyses of data can be used for more specific risk based inspections.The certifier will respond by sending their findings and results of the inspections (plus invoice).

The keywords for the two ways street are exchange and trust. Farmers can use record keeping templates, etc. and operators more sophisticated programs. Shared information is an incentive for improvement. Especial if groups make their own self assessments and do their peer reviews (farm taks). These assessments are based on exchange of information and trust (secrecy). So Michiel agree: data need to be collected by the producer organization or the company primarily for business and quality management purposes. Certifiers are necessary but not always stimulating. 

Certifiers can anticipate, but should focus on risks (occur & impact) related to their standards.


July 28, 2015 10:50

Thank you Patrick, Frank, Sebastian, Brenda and Leen,


I think Leen gave a nice summary of the discussion so far, saying that producers and certifiers have different needs, that some needs have an overlap while the drivers are the same: improvement of quality and/or social/environmental impact.

About one way or two way traffick:
Patrick writes about a two way street where operators receive feedback on the information they provide;
Sebastian writes about 'feed back'meaningful information to poducers.
Leen introduces a benchmark module to share and compate data amongs stakeholders.
I think that a nice idea. Can you guys please give concrete examples of meaning agregated data feed back to producers?

About data collection and exchange:
Thank you Brenda for mentioning AuditAide. There are some other open source tools like Qualityworx (that I developed), and propriety tools like E-Cert, Farmforce and Group Integrity mentioned by Frank. I wonder how these compare in terms of operating costs, data analysis and data exchange. Anyone an overview?

I am also looking forward for feedback from the participants of the ISEAL session on Technology Innovations.  I think however that most of us are on holiday now. I will approach the persons mentioned in the kick-off off this discussion by half of August to provide feedback.


July 31, 2015 17:33