Sustainability certifications for plastics, chemicals, and energy

There is a growing demand for sustainability from brands, customers, and other supply chain actors. A study by Accenture has found that while consumers remain primarily focused on quality and price, 83% of them believe it is (extremely) important for companies to design products to be reused or recycled1. Furthermore, two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay extra for sustainable products2. In reaction to this, firms start to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability efforts, and brands that pay attention to sustainability outperform others in sales of consumer goods. 

Often, however, sustainability efforts are hard to verify which creates a risk of greenwashing. One of the means to address greenwashing is sustainability certification. Certificates guarantee that a product or service is truly as sustainable as it claims to be and complies with a set of predetermined standards. Thus, sustainability certifications enhance credibility and trust. 

Currently, there are around 324 active sustainability standards spanning various industries, materials, and topics3. The certification schemes are fragmented, meaning that there is no absolute standard that can be applied across the myriad of industries, which makes it challenging and time-consuming to find a suitable certification when firms decide to substantiate their sustainability efforts. Hence, this article sets out to assist in identifying the most popular certification schemes, with a particular emphasis on those relevant to the plastics, chemicals, and energy industries. The following will be discussed:

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International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 14001

The most widespread sustainability certification standard is ISO 140014. It is part of ISO 1400 family standards, which focus on a range of sustainability aspects along the entire business process, from manufacturing to disposal. This includes standards for environmental management systems, auditing, conducting a life cycle analysis, and managing climate change. 

ISO 14001 scope & standards 

ISO 14001 is a voluntary internationally-recognised standard that sets requirements for an environmental management system5. Such a system helps organisations identify and control the environmental issues associated with their operations. So, firms themselves can decide on an appropriate baseline for performance. 

Some of the topics covered by ISO 14001 are stakeholder perspective, leadership commitment, life-cycle thinking, and strategy. The standards act as a framework that an organisation can use to start managing their environmental responsibilities, rather than the list of conditions to which a product or service has to conform. Therefore, the certification applies to all organisations and organisational levels, industries, and materials, and can act as a good starting point in one’s sustainability journey. Currently, there are more than 300,000 certifications to ISO 14001 in 171 countries.

ISO 14001 certification process

To get ISO certified, you have to6:

  1. Get an overview of existing processes and systems that are relevant to your environmental impact and identify the gaps. 
  2. Set internal objectives for the environmental management system, according to the identified gaps.
  3. Implement the standards. For more information about the standards, take a look at the ISO 14001 document. Furthermore, you can check out ISO 14004 for guidelines on how to implement and maintain the environmental management system.  
  4. Conduct a third-party audit by external certification bodies, as ISO does not provide certifications7. These auditors have to follow the ISO’s Committee on Conformity Assessment Standards. Ideally, auditors also have to be accredited (check the list of accredited bodies).

After successfully finishing the audit, an organisation can declare itself as certified8. However, there are certain limitations. Using phrases such as “ISO certified” or “certified by ISO” is not allowed. Instead, an organisation should state that it is “ISO 14001: 2015 certified”. The use of the on-product logo is also prohibited9

Though ISO 14001 is a good starting point, it cannot indicate a full commitment to sustainability. The certification scheme does not set requirements for a product, leaving it up to firms to decide on the objectives. Furthermore, the ban on the use of the on-product logo might hinder the communication of efforts to consumers. For more industry-specific and product-oriented frameworks that can be used for branding purposes, take a look at such organisations as the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC): ISCC EU, ISCC PLUS, ISCC CORSIA, and ISCC Solid Biomass NL

Compared to the ISO 14001 standard, ISCC sustainability certification schemes are more specialised and product-focused. ISCC is a sustainability certification system that covers multiple stages of the supply chain and all kinds of biobased feedstocks and renewables10. It aims to contribute to the implementation of environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable production and use of biomass11. Currently, there are around 40,066 valid certificates issued for sites located in over 100 countries. 

ISCC scope & standards

ISCC offers 5 sustainability certification schemes depending on the market

  • ISCC EU, 
  • ISCC PLUS, 
  • ISCC CORSIA, 
  • ISCC Solid Biomass NL, 
  • and ISCC Non-GMO.  

All of them besides the last one can be relevant for plastics, chemicals, and energy industries. ISCC provides a sustainable solution for the entire feedstock used in energy, industrial applications (plastics, chemicals), food and feed sectors11. This feedstock can be biomass, biogenic wastes, circular materials, and renewables. 

ISCC EU is a mandatory certification scheme focused on biofuels12. It guarantees compliance with the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) II. ISCC PLUS is voluntary and focuses on all sectors not covered by RED II. This includes biofuels outside the EU, renewables, food, and feed, as well as circular and bio-based products. ISCC CORSIA specialises in sustainable aviation fuels and is used to validate them for the International Civil Aviation Organisation. ISCC Solid Biomass NL applies to the Dutch energy market. 

ISCC certification schemes make an evaluation along the following sustainability principles: 

  • ecological and social sustainability, 
  • compliance with laws and international treaties, 
  • greenhouse gas emissions, 
  • and good management practices11

In the case of the ISCC PLUS, some of the principles (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions calculation) are non-mandatory and can be chosen as add-ons. 

The ISCC PLUS scheme requires the use of either the mass balance or physical segregation chain of custody model. For an end product to get certified, all relevant stages of a sustainable material must be assessed and possess the certification11. For example, for final products containing alternative raw materials (wastes or residues) the first two elements of the supply chain are the point of origin and the collecting point. More details on standards and technical requirements can be found in ISCC System Documents.

Read more about mass balance and how it can help transition to using sustainable feedstock.

ISCC certification process

The certification process can be described in 5 steps13:

1. Decide on which certification to get. 

2. Choose a recognised certification body from the ISCC checklist and sign the contract with them.

3. Register with ISCC. 

4. Get audited. 

  • Provide all necessary proofs, documents, and data, as well as access to relevant locations.
  • Receive the audit report and a list of corrective measures (if necessary).
  • Implement the corrective measures within 40 days (if applicable).

5. Receive the certificate. 

  • The certification body forwards audit documents to ISCC.
  • ISCC reviews the audit documents.
  • ISCC publishes the certificate on the ISCC website.
  • ISCC informs official bodies (if necessary).
  • The certificate is valid for 12 months14.

The ISCC EU, ISCC CORSIA and ISCC PLUS are largely harmonised, which means that 3 certificates can be issued with 1 audit12.

After finishing the verification process, a firm is allowed to sell/buy sustainable materials and use a consumer- and business-facing “Certified Sustainability” label15. When using the ISCC logo or claims, two requirements have to be fulfilled. First, all upstream companies in the supply chain must be certified. Second, ISCC has to be contacted prior for approval13.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles and Criteria Certification and Supply Chain Certification

Another certification system worth mentioning is RSPO which is more specialised and product-focused. Its goal is to limit the negative impacts of palm oil cultivation, particularly rapid deforestation and exploitation of local communities and wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia16. It does so by creating standards together with stakeholders from the 7 palm oil industry sectors17. Currently, RSPO certified 19% of palm oil globally and has more than 5,000 active members.

RSPO scope & standards 

RSPO assess the sustainability of palm oil, which is widely used in many industries including plastics (i.e., biodegradable/bioplastics), chemicals (i.e. for the production of oleochemicals), and energy (i.e., biodiesel). RSPO offers 2 sustainability certifications depending on the position in the supply chain: RSPO Principles and Criteria Certification and RSPO Supply Chain Certification18

RSPO Principles and Criteria Certification applies to growers and makes sure that oil is cultivated sustainably. It includes 3 main goals targeted at prosperity (ethics and transparency, legal compliance and respect for rights, productivity and resilience), people (respect for communities and workers, smallholder inclusion), and planet (conservation of ecosystems)19. The full list of criteria and indicators can be found in the Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil 2018 document. The principles also have National Interpretation documents, which align the standards with the realities on the ground. 

RSPO Supply Chain Certification relates to the requirements for other supply chain actors that distribute oil20. RSPO uses 3 supply chain of custody models: identity preserved, segregated, and mass balance. All organisations along the supply chain that take ownership of the product have to be audited for oil to get a certification. More details on these can be found in the Supply Chain Certification Standard for Organisations Seeking or Holding Certification 2020.

RSPO certification process

The certification process can be described in 5 key steps18:

1. Choose a scheme suitable for your role in the supply chain.

2. Become an RSPO member.

  • Decide which membership category suits you and read the requirements.
  • Sign up.
  • Confirm your membership and sector.
  • Receive an invoice and request for additional documents (if needed).
  • The application gets posted on the RSPO website for 2 weeks.
  • Pay the invoice and send additional documents (if necessary).
  • The application undergoes an internal review and approval.
  • Receive the membership confirmation letter and get published on the RSPO website.

3. Get audited by one of the certification bodies accredited by the Assurance Services International

4. Get the certification as a trader or distributor of sustainable palm oil.

5. Claim the use of certified palm oil.

6. The certification is valid for 5 years21.

After successfully undergoing a certification process, a firm can start using RSPO trademarks. The logos are different for palm oil and palm oil-derived products. In the case of the products containing palm oil, goods certified with the identity preserved and segregated supply chain models are labelled as “certified” or “containing certified sustainable palm oil”, while the ones that used the mass balance model are called “mixed” or “contributing to the production of certified sustainable palm oil”.  

Several conditions must apply to be able to use the trademark logo22. A firm has to be an RSPO member and supply chain certified, with at least 95% sustainable materials in a product. Also, an RSPO Trademark Licence has to be acquired.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Environmental Claim Validation Procedure (ECVP) for Recycled Content and Bio-based Product Content

UL is most popular in North America. It both creates sustainability certification schemes and audits compliance with these standards. UL has 4 categories of standards, one of which is related to environment23. When it comes to environmental sustainability, UL creates independent, procedure-based protocols to assess and validate a variety of innovative sustainable practices. One of such is the ECVP, which helps to showcase that green claims are valid24. The green claims can be about recycled and bio-based content, rapidly renewable content, recyclability, paper-based products recyclability, landfill waste diversion, energy-saving power strips, and some other topics. Of particular interest to plastic, chemicals, and energy industries are the UL ECVP for Recycled Content (2809) and Bio-based Product Content. 

UL scope & standards 

Recycled Content (2809) and Bio-based Product Content standards are material-focused, meaning that an organisation is evaluating the source material content claims, instead of overall product sustainability. UL Recycled Content Standard assesses the amount of post-consumer, pre-consumer, closed-loop, and total recycled content of products25, while UL Bio-based Product Content Validation checks that a product contains biomass resources (such as polylactic acid, crop and wood residues). Products that can be tested for bio-based content are plastics, chemicals, electronics, furniture, building materials, cleaning-paper, and juvenile products. UL ECVP evaluates the environmental claims using a combination of auditing raw material inputs and testing chemical emissions from the product in labs26. Auditing is applicable for segregated and mass balance chain of custody models27.

UL certification process

The certification process can be summarised with the following key steps:

  1. Choose which environmental claim to validate.
  2. Prepare for the audit.
  3. Get audited. For that, you can use UL services28. UL not only created standards but also verifies sustainability claims.
  4. Once the product claims have been validated, details are posted on UL’s SPOT database

Being certified enables firms to use a UL Environmental Claim Validation Promotional Badge on packaging or marketing materials, thus indicating that the product indeed is sustainable29. The badges and marks vary depending on the standard it was certified to or the location30. They also contain a sustainability statement. For example, Recycled Content certification includes a claim that “product contains a minimum of 70%  recycled content”.

How to choose a certification scheme?

Figuring one’s way around this wide array of sustainability certifications can be challenging. A good start for showcasing one’s sustainability efforts is getting an ISO 14001 certification. This standard creates a general framework to transition to more environmentally sustainable practices and is focused on constant improvements. It is suitable for any organisation, including those dealing with plastics, chemicals, and energy. However, it is undesirable to stop the certification process at ISO 14001, as it does not introduce strict technical requirements and leaves it up to firms to set the objectives.

After the first step is taken, an organisation should consider more specialised sustainability certification schemes. There are many different frameworks available. For example, the mass balance certifications, which include Better Biomass, Ecoloop, EU Standards, EUCertPlast, REDcert2, and Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials Advanced Products certification. Other alternatives are also standards mentioned in this article: ISCC EU, ISCC PLUS, ISCC CORSIA, ISCC Solid Biomass NL, RSPO Principle and Criteria Certification, RSPO Supply Chain Certification, UL ECVP for Recycled Content, and UL ECVP for Bio-based Product Content. 

To choose among these sustainability frameworks, answer the following questions:

  • What are the demands of your stakeholders (consumers, partners, customers, and investors)? What are the objectives of your organisation? For example, if the goal is to eliminate the chase of greenwashing, UL certification might be the best option. When the desire is to keep track of sustainable materials used in the creation of a final product, standards by ISCC and RSPO might be the best option. If the goal is to showcase efforts put into environmental management, ISO 14001 is the answer.
  • Which certification scheme that suits the demands can be used for your industry and service/product? 
  • Does the certification scheme work with your preferred chain of custody model?
  • Does your organisation already fulfil the standards or does something needs to be changed? If the latter is the case, create a timeline and a plan for adjusting your operations.
  • Is there a suitable certification body? To answer this question, you need to evaluate several certification bodies and to check if the certification body uses the relevant accreditation standard and is accredited. 

Considering these points will help in identifying what is feasible and most important for your organisation, consequently narrowing down the choice of sustainability certifications.

Summary

Certification schemes guarantee main shareholders that a product or service is truly sustainable, enhancing trust and credibility. Currently, there are 324 active standards. Among them, the following schemes can be highlighted as the main in plastics, chemicals, and energy industries: ISO 14001, ISCC EU, ISCC PLUS, ISCC CORSIA, ISCC Solid Biomass NL, RSPO Principles and Criteria Certification, RSPO Supply Chain Certification, UL ECVP for Recycled Content, and UL ECVP for Bio-based Product Content. While ISO 14001 standards are broad, the rest are more specific. Choosing a suitable sustainability certification system out of the active standards is a challenge but asking practical questions about the goals of certification will help narrow down the options.

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