EO Reps Share Perspectives on the Value, Limitations, and Path Forward for Standards and Certification at ISEAL Conference

Soledad Mills Presents at 2015 ISEAL Conference in Berlin

EO Vice President of Standards and Stakeholder Engagement Soledad Mills (second from left) on stage for the opening plenary panel at the ISEAL Conference in Berlin, “The Big Picture: What can standards do?” on May 21st. (Credit: ISEAL Alliance via Twitter, @ISEALAlliance)

Last month, two EO team members, VP of Standards Soledad Mills and Director of Markets Sarah Coulter, spoke at separate sessions at the ISEAL Alliance annual conference in Berlin. Mills and Coulter shared experiences and insights from EO’s six years of experience as the only independent standards and certification system for the oil and gas industry with representatives of other systems from across industries and around the world. The theme of the conference was “A Roadmap to Change” and the subjects centered on the process of moving from certification to full transformation in the various sectors where standards are being applied. ISEAL’s overarching mission is to provide a framework for helping members and potential members of the alliance to maximize positive impacts of sustainability standards. EO has been a member of ISEAL since May of 2014.

The opening panel discussion in which Mills participated considered the question, “With the earth that we have today, and with the speed of change on the planet, what can sustainability standards do to contribute to the wider transformation that we need?” In response, Mills first explained that at the core of our challenge lies the fact that we as a society are coping with the dual and often competing challenges to provide energy for a growing population and at the same time preserve our natural resources. As such, sustainability standards (and, in the case of EO, social and environmental performance standards) are means of addressing this challenge in a balanced and responsible way. Standards create a global “level playing field” for corporations that wish to do the right thing, lessening the likelihood that they will be undermined or undercut in the marketplace by disreputable producers. Mills went on to explain that standards can take on a self-perpetuating nature in that industry leaders in responsible practices who adopt standards can be publicly recognized for their leadership and in some cases, are able to charge a premium on their products. At the same time laggards in standards adoption can be pushed by investors, advocacy groups and consumers to meet the standards as the practices they embody move from the realm of aspiration to industry status quo.

During the opening panel, Mills also addressed an important question that is often raised about EO’s work: “I hear and read that ‘clean energy has won’ and everything new on the grid is in renewables. Why do we then have a certification programme, and a relatively new one, working in the oil and gas sector?” To this, Mills first noted that if indeed renewables have “won” than it is indeed great news. However, experts have very different outlooks to when and if oil and gas will be fully phased out and that the general consensus is that the world will continue to be consuming these products for many years to come. She also pointed out that while renewables are providing more electricity to power grids, fossil fuels (especially oil) are still heavily relied upon energy sources for transportation. Given these outlooks, EO believes there is a moral imperative to ensure that local economies, ecosystems, communities, and Indigenous Peoples near oil and gas development sites do not suffer because of the needs of cities thousands of miles away. Furthermore, she explained, EO seeks to secure benefits for communities from development activity taking place on their land. Mills then suggested that standards and certifications fill a consumer-producer trust deficit, and rhetorically asked, what industry has more of a trust deficit than oil and gas? In confronting the claim that sustainability and oil and gas are incompatible and that only renewables should be considered, Mills was also keen to note that there are potentially negative social/environmental impacts around all energy generation sources and that EO’s goal is to expand our scope in to all types of energy sources including wind and solar.

EO’s Director of Markets Sarah Coulter (standing, far right) speaks Alongside other Standards-building Professionals on the credibility of standards and certification systems at the ISEAL conference.

In addition to participating in a monitoring and evaluation learning group on the first day of the conference, Coulter spoke on a panel during the third day of activities that was titled “The Road to Credibility,” which was based on a series of questions asked to all participants. Among the questions asked was, “When you started out, had you defined your intended change / Theory of Change? In thinking about the system as a whole how did it affect the standard/did it lead you to make any decisions about other parts of the standard?” To which Coulter responded:

In our early stages, we were implicitly working on a general idea that voluntary standards create positive impact, but more recently, we worked as a team to formally articulate EO’s theory of change. That exercise has provided clarity on the one or two most important impacts and impact drivers in our system, which has helped the team coalesce around our mission and vision. This has had ripple effects on our approach to strategy, planning, and operational focus moving forward, and has also helped us simplify and operationalize our monitoring and evaluation program.

Coulter was joined on the panel by representatives from The Better Cotton Initiative and Golf Environment, who, through answering the numerous additional questions, discussed success stories, learning experiences, and shared advice for those who may be interested in the path from early stages to credibility among standards organizations. Feedback from audience and ISEAL organizers was overwhelmingly positive. Both Coulter and Mills reported that overall the conference was energizing and engaging and that they established some new and valuable connections.

The EO-certified Quifa and Rubiales oil site on the Cover of ISEAL’s 2014 Annual Report, which was distributed to all attendees at the conference

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