What’s in a Label? Lessons on Advancing Global Health Goals From Corporate Green Standards

This post was originally written for The Wilson Center’s “New Security Beat” blog and published on April 11, 2017.

© Raju Ghosh, Courtesy of Photoshare

© Raju Ghosh, Courtesy of Photoshare

As you walk through the supermarket, you’ve probably noticed labels like “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” “Fair Trade,” or “Green Seal.” These certifications were created to help consumers use their purchasing power to reward companies that treat workers fairly and limit their harm to the environment. What’s missing is health, particularly women’s health. Too often these standards focus narrowly on occupational safety rather than addressing broader, but relevant, health needs of workers.

Some advocates are trying to change that, arguing that the private sector can – through their operations and supply chains – have a major impact on gender equity and health issues like maternal, newborn, and child health; access to family planning; and reproductive health.

The Evidence Project recently published a policy brief documenting some of the successful approaches championed by environmental NGOs and activists, and the lessons that women’s health advocates can apply to their work.

The environmental community has been at the forefront of creating and promoting corporate social responsibility standards and certificate schemes, working with major corporations to adopt policies aimed at addressing climate change, deforestation, and waste, among other issues. But without strong advocates, women’s health has been largely absent in standards and certification mechanisms.

Codes of Conduct

Today, there are more than 210 different corporate standards, codes of conducts, and auditing protocols that focus on the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the global supply chain. These standards are typically organized around specific sectors (e.g. mining, electronics, the garment industry) or commodities (e.g. palm oil, coffee) and seek to improve the processes by which products are grown, produced, and traded.

© ITC Standards Map 

© ITC Standards Map 

While approaches vary from organization to organization depending on mission, goals, and capacity, there are some common tactics used by environmental groups to engage the private sector. Examples include public-private partnerships, social media campaigns, financial and reporting initiatives, and scorecards and ranking reports. Beyond the business case, storytelling has also been found to be an effective way to persuade private sector actors.

Someday, you may find yourself buying “Equality” certified products

One approach increasingly being used by environmental groups and large conservation organizations is the development of standards for the production and harvest of commodities through multi-stakeholder groupsWorld Wildlife Fund (The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Roundtable on Responsible Soy Association, Forest Stewardship Council, and Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef), The Nature Conservancy (The Alliance for Water Stewardship), and Conservation International (The Sustainable Coffee Challenge) each support such programs.

This approach brings together diverse sets of stakeholders and strengthens the credibility and buy-in necessary to drive collective action across producers, processors, and buyers. Ultimately, a shared set of benchmarks enables companies that voluntarily subscribe to these standards to minimize harm to the environment, respect human rights, and maintain good labor conditions for workers in their supply chain.

Lessons Learned

While there remains much work to be done in many of these sectors, there are lessons that can be learned for health organizations:

  • Collective action is required to tackle the hardest global challenges. Companies, NGOs, and governments increasingly recognize that a multi-stakeholder approach is the most effective way to address complex environmental and social problems. Systemic issues cannot be solved by any one actor alone. And the benefits to collaborating can be significant: credibility, effective dialogue, the emergence of shared goals, and much greater scale and impact.
  • Voluntary standards and certification schemes, though imperfect, are effective for spurring dialogue among corporate and NGO stakeholders and decision-makers. Despite varying views on the effectiveness of voluntary standards and certifications in improving social and environmental outcomes, it is generally agreed that, at a minimum, these standards have raised awareness among companies of their global impact and have changed the conversation on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.
  • The business case for sustainability is essential but not itself sufficient to drive changes in corporate policies and practices. Environmental NGOs and leading corporations have increasingly demonstrated the business case for more efficient use of natural resources, reduction of waste, and greater efforts to avoid environmental harms to communities. Yet, there are limitations to quantifying and monetizing social and environmental impacts. Storytelling adds the crucial human element to complex social and environmental problems that can be difficult to comprehend in the abstract.
  • External pressure can be useful, but so is cooperation. The “carrot and stick” approach has been highly effective for some environmental issues, with NGOs like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network acting as the “stick,” via hard-hitting campaigns and protests, coupled with NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Environmental Defense Fund operating as the “carrot” through solutions-oriented projects. It is important to find a balance between pushing for change and recognizing progress and legitimate achievements.
  • Progress may be slow, as it takes time to gain momentum and see results. Long-term engagement between NGOs and the private sector can yield major benefits, but requires perseverance to succeed.


The policy brief also puts forth six recommendations for how the global health community can build on these lessons to promote corporate engagement on women’s health:

  1. Bring together multiple stakeholders for collective action on workplace health and women’s empowerment. A wide range of health and development organizations have been working on women’s health, empowerment, and wellbeing in partnership with corporations and their global supply chains. Examples include the UN Foundation and UNFPA’s Business Action for Family Planning Initiative; Business for Social Responsibility’s HERproject; the USAID-funded Evidence Project and Marie Stopes International Cambodia’s joint workplace health initiative; Gap’s P.A.C.E. Program; and Levi Strauss & Co.’s Improving Worker Well-being Initiative. Yet, there is no mechanism for these and others to share information and evidence, coordinate activities, and develop broader strategies.
  2. Develop a multi-faceted strategy to address maternal, newborn, and child health; family planning; and reproductive health in corporate standards. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a natural entry point for addressing workplace health, as they recognize that the private sector plays a major role in achieving development objectives. A comprehensive strategy would provide a framework for how to think systemically about the role of business in health, including identifying connections between the SDGs and FP2020 commitments and emerging corporate initiatives that are addressing business and human rights, gender equality, living wages for workers, and financial incentives.
  3. Set targets for workplace health policies and practices that can be used to benchmark progress. Better data on health at the workplace, effective policies and practices, and related demographic information is necessary to develop workplace targets and indicators. There is very limited information on basic indicators, such as the number of women workers in various industries, and sex disaggregated data is currently not required as part of many reporting structures.
  4. Engage existing stakeholder and industry groups and corporate social responsibility reporting and ranking initiatives. The global health community can start new conversations and relationships through multi-stakeholder platforms and industry groups. It will be important to start with those initiatives where global health can have the most influence, which likely means industries with a significant proportion of women workers (e.g. ready-made apparel, electronics manufacturing, and agriculture).
  5. Leverage existing relationships between organizations working on environmental and population health issues. These programs, which often fall under the rubric of population, health, and environment, or PHE programs, aim to address unmet need for family planning as part of an integrated strategy for conservation, natural resource management, and sustainable development. For example, the Sierra Club has a work stream promoting reproductive rights and has worked closely with PAI, which holds a monthly PHE Policy and Practice Working Group meeting. The Nature Conservatory and Pathfinder International collaborate on Tuungane, a project that is creating solutions for environmental issues and addressing barriers to contraception through integrated approaches.
  6. Document the stories of real women – and men – whose health has been helped or harmed by workplace policies and practices. Highlighting real experiences can be a powerful motivator both for companies and the public. These stories can be incorporated into larger advocacy efforts, such as social media campaigns, to bring a human element to an abstract issue. It is important to highlight positive as well as negative stories and document the companies and workplaces that are adopting better practices.

For those committed to improving gender equity and health outcomes globally, corporate codes and standards represent a largely untapped opportunity for change. While isolated workplace health programs make an impact, large, multi-stakeholder corporate standards and policies programs can help create more systemic change. Someday, you may even find yourself buying “Equality” certified products at the market.