Are You Certifiable? 4 Reasons to Get Third-Party Certified

Just as brand alignment and community formation occur when customers identify with the values a brand represents, there is a similar opportunity for social impact companies to connect with customers, and it’s on the basis of sustainability and social responsibility product certifications. Third-party certifications reflect values that can provide a compelling reason for your customers to buy—but only if they understand what the certification is and how it aligns to their ideals.

Therein lies the challenge.

Whose job is it to tell the certification story?

The number of certifications are proliferating for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a single set of standards that can be easily translated to a wide variety of industries. This makes it increasingly difficult to educate consumers on what a specific certification represents. Without that education, however, the certification won’t go far in terms of aligning with customer values—or in making a sale.

Total number of socially responsible certifications and ecolabels (Credit: The Ecolabel Index)

Who is responsible for creating value and awareness for a certification? (Click to Tweet) Is it the certifying body’s job to educate consumers about what its seal stands for, appealing to their values and influencing their purchasing decisions? Does the responsibility rest solely with the business whose product earns certified status?

The reality is that promoting the value of your certification is a two-way street: the certifying body and the business selling a certified product should educate end users about what the mark stands for. The most powerful impact comes when both the issuer and the bearer of the certification promote it collectively.

What are we measuring, how are we measuring, and who decides?

Most social and sustainability certifications measure compliance with a set of established best practices. Beauty product companies display Leaping Bunny certification to let their customers know their beauty or cleaning products are not tested on animals. Apparel companies that use significant amounts of cotton might consider Fair Trade certification to demonstrate their commitment to fair pay for cotton farmers.

Increasingly, however, there’s talk of certifying on a different basis—the basis of whether or not impact goals are achieved without so much concern for methodology. Essentially, it means a certifying body would say to a company, “You need to meet this target to achieve this certification but how you do it is up to you.”

The nonprofit Future-Fit Foundation advocates for something along those lines. Rather than measure progress relative to past practices or short-term goals, Future Fit measures a company’s progress toward an ideal future state. This state is based on the idea that there are benchmarks, goals and do-no-harm thresholds that any company should eventually reach (i.e. all energy is from renewable sources; operations emit no greenhouse gasses, etc.). Sustainability pioneer The Body Shop is currently working with Future-Fit for its latest round of certifications.

How do we maximize the impact of certification?

Those in the know understand the power of certification, but they are few in number. Even the certifying bodies of well known marks recognize that they can’t rely solely on the support of the social impact community if they want to make substantial change—they  have to make their message appealing to the mainstream in order to create a new universal standard.

If large-scale impact of a certification is going to be realized, the certification needs to attract a widespread following of those who appreciate the value it provides and are willing to support it with their dollars. To accomplish that, you must connect your certification’s meaning with your audience’s values.

Making the connection

The tea company Runa serves as a good example of how a company connects certification to their own values, and successfully communicates that connection to customers who share those values. Runa’s focus (their “why”) is to improve the lives of indigenous farmers in the Amazon. They list five certifications that support their “why”—demonstrating that business can benefit the environment, preserve cultural practices and support producers while connecting to consumers worldwide.

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Four good reasons to certify your products:

  1. It can build trust.
    Many businesses choose to self-certify, measuring their progress against their own standards, because they can tailor the standards specifically to their unique structure, realities and supply chain. Plus, they avoid the hefty fees, time and labor required to become certified by a third party. Third-party certifications, however, are more trusted by consumers.

    All Good proudly showcases their certifications at trade shows. Check out their products at allgoodproducts.com.(Credit: All Good Brand)

    A recent study by the Marine Stewardship Council showed that while 57 percent of the seafood buyers surveyed trusted ecolabels, only 37 percent trust a brand’s own promise on its packaging. If this holds true across other industries and types of certifications, it begs the question: is self-certifying alone worth the effort? We don’t think so. In conjunction with other third-party certifications, however, there is potential to build trust with your customer.

    “I want someone else to verify I’m the real deal,” said Caroline Duell, founder of All Good Brand. “Having third-party verification offers accountability and builds trust with consumers.”

  2. It can create value for your business.
    For some B2B relationships, certification is required (literally or implicitly) by other partners in the supply chain. A great example of this is the collaboration for sustainable seafood in which a frozen seafood supplier encouraged one of the fisheries in its supply chain to adopt sustainable practices.Companies are also recognizing that certifications like B Corp help with employee attraction and engagement. We know of at least two companies (Etsy and Warby Parker) for whom having a third-party certification has helped attract better-quality employees.

    Certification can also serve as a means to position your company as a leader in social responsibility, green practices, sustainability or innovation within your market.

  3. It can make a difference to some customers.
    The number of people who seek a specific certification and understand what it represents will be relatively small until the certification and its meaning is better known in the market. And the majority of that small group will be people who are already very informed about and committed to a particular lifestyle, cause or issue. For them,  certification very well may influence a purchasing decision.A 2013 study by The Hartman Group, When Personal Aspiration and Behavior Diverge, found that green certifications, for example, are most important to consumers already deeply involved in sustainable living because they’re the ones who recognize, understand and trust the certifications. The study also found that while 89 percent of US consumers were involved in “The World of Sustainability,” 87 percent were not part of the “core” (and don’t look for or understand green certification marks).

    What this means is that you must understand what is important to your customers, and figure out how to connect the attributes of your certification in a way that has meaning and value to them.

  4. It can simply be the right thing to do.
    Some companies become certified because they feel it’s the right thing to do—for the environment and the health of their employees and customers. Certification pursued for altruistic reasons may in fact be the most highly-regarded in the mind of the consumer.

Why we support certification

When you talk about certifications and connect them to your Purpose–or your “why”–that’s when you begin speaking to the heart of the customer. We support certifications when they’re relevant to the audience, and when the business is committed to telling the certification story. It’s an incredible opportunity to reinforce brand values, and to connect with consumers on a level and in a way that fosters loyalty and promotes lasting impact.

We would like to see more companies telling their Purpose story and using third-party certifications as proof.

What do you think about certification? Has your company done it? Are you considering it? Is it important to your business? Share your thoughts below.

As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..

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