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Third-Party Certification: An Effective Approach to Market Transformation Part 2: Characteristics of Effective Independent Certifications

By Ella Rosenkranz, SWEEP Intern and Washington University in St. Louis Alumna

In Part 2 of this 3-part series on environmental third-party certifications, we discuss the characteristics of effective certification programs and why third-party certification is the most effective.

The SWEEP–Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Performance–Standard is a set of voluntary performance standards and best practices that allows leaders in the materials management industry to improve their environmental performance, while also benefiting from increased cost and performance efficiency. Municipalities and waste management companies ranging from vertically integrated firms to haulers and materials recovery facilities can become SWEEP Certified, signaling their commitment to and leadership in sustainable materials management.

Third-party certifications like SWEEP are an effective tool because they are a complementary voluntary approach to going above and beyond minimum regulatory standards. Market transformation combines the regulatory push to meet and raise the minimally required environmental performance with a market pull to more rapidly raise the overall performance of an industry, ultimately transforming the market. Third-party certifications go beyond government regulations by developing additional requirements and best practices that are set and reviewed by groups of industry professionals.

When thinking about voluntary market-based standards, it is important to make the distinction between first, second and third-party certifications: in the case of first-party certification, the organization providing the product also provides assurance that the product meets certain standards, while in the case of second-party certification, this assurance comes from an association to which the organization belongs. Third-party certification is different because the quality assurance for both the organization and the consumer comes from an independent, third-party organization. A certification qualifies as third-party when the requirements and standards have been independently developed by a board of experts representing relevant market segments and associations. Having industry experts compile their input on which standards are best is crucial for the development and advancement of these certification programs.

Developing a third-party certification involves getting different perspectives represented, which helps the certification standard cover all of the bases. Rob Watson, SWEEP’s founder, says it is important to have a breadth of membership and to develop a comprehensive sustainability standard for waste. Rob says, “We have incorporated the perspectives of labor, product manufacturing, small and large waste companies, data experts, recycling and composting experts, large and small communities…to name a few. There are a lot of sustainability issues around waste in addition to the diversion rates. Looking at safety, public participation and environmental concerns helps us look at the whole system.” Without these partnerships, it would be difficult to effectively transform the waste market.

“TRUE, LEED and SWEEP provide the opportunity to showcase leaders in the field of sustainability, encouraging others that it is possible,” says Stephanie Barger, Director of Market Transformation and Development for TRUE. She is also a founding member of SWEEP’s Standards Committee. “The high standards set by these three certifications are creating institutional change and making the business case not only for companies but for our communities and cities,” Barger commented. “These leaders are crucial for market transformation and it’s exciting in these challenging times that more and more companies are making the commitment to zero waste.”

If we look at TRUE Certification, for example, companies that become certified show that a circular, closed-loop economy is possible with the benefit of creating new jobs, as well as healthier and safer workplaces. Getting certified also means that they are working to be part of a collaborative market transformation. Some might ask, what does this really mean? How can an individual business contribute to a larger systemic change?

It is important to note that contributing to this systemic change takes more than an individual approach to environmental and social impact. If your business is the only one sourcing sustainable materials, diverting waste from landfills and implementing food waste reduction programs, you’re on the right track to functioning as a responsible, zero waste business. You still are, however, part of a larger industry that continues to sell single-use plastics, generate tons of surplus waste and contribute to toxic landfill emissions. By obtaining a certification like TRUE or SWEEP, you are acting as a leader and are taking part in a larger-scale, collaborative effort to change the entire industry. By adopting these standards, you might even inspire another organization to do the same.

Leadership may be an important value on its own, but in today’s competitive global business climate, it is not always enough. In the third and final piece of this series, we will discuss the other key benefits of third-party certification.

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