Sustainability standards as tools for transparency and objectivity in the context of corporate social responsibility

Not only since Greta Thunberg and Friday for Future, the term „sustainability“ has been on everyone’s lips. However, the current movements in environmental protection and resource awareness among the population have given it an enormous boost across all levels of society. But what exactly is sustainability? Hardly any other term has become so rapidly established in the general social consciousness over the past decade as that of sustainability. Accordingly, many approaches to definition can be found in the literature. The first use of the term „sustainability“ in German in the sense of a long-term, responsible handling of a resource can be found in Hans C. v. Carlowitz 1713 in his book „Silvicultura oeconomica“, which is dedicated to the sustainable handling of resources in forestry.  Many newer determinations of the term today share the core idea of the 1987 Brundtland Report of the United Nations. According to this, sustainability is a normative model for ecological, economic and social action with the aim of „development that ensures that future generations are not worse off in satisfying their needs than those living today“.

Sustainability in economy and procurement

One thing is certain: no company nowadays can avoid positioning itself on the topic of sustainability or on the related topic of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and taking it into account in its business activities. Depending on the company and industry, sustainability can have different characteristics: From the production of sustainable, i.e. durable products, to sustainable production and disposal, to a sustainable and transparent supply chain, which goes hand in hand with the obligation of suppliers or subcontractors to act responsibly towards the environment and society. In many large companies, the publication of a sustainability report as part of the annual report has become a fixed element of shareholder information. However, just as there is no conclusive definition of a term, the implementation and documentation of sustainability is not subject to any fixed rule in many areas. It should also not be forgotten that targeted sustainability in business does of course not serve exclusively an unselfish general purpose, but always has also an image-promoting PR background. Sustainable action creates a reputation in society and thus contributes to the value of the company.

Sustainability standards: An extract

The creation and application of sustainability standards is an approach for documenting sustainability in a structured way, making it verifiable and measurable. With their help, the efficiency of sustainability can be objectively measured and evaluated based on specifications and target values. Companies commit themselves – as far as it does not already originate from legal requirements – unsolicited to adhere to defined standards as an expression of their corporate responsibility. In recent years, many sustainability standards and labels have been developed that affect not only B2C but also B2B business. However, the multitude of sustainability standards also leads to a heterogeneous, almost unmanageable conglomeration of approaches, driven by various interest groups and market participants. This leads to considerable differences in content and quality in the measurement and presentation of sustainability. Below you will find a brief, non-exhaustive overview of important sustainability standards and sustainability audits.

International standards:

  • ILO standards (International Labor Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations) concerning labor and human rights
  • Principles of the UN Global Compact
  • OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) guidelines for multinational enterprises


  • ISO 14001: Environmental standard
  • ISO 9000: Quality standard
  • ISO 26000: Sustainability Line
  • SA 8000: Social standard
  • EMAS: Eco-Management and Audit Schemes

Branch standards

  • Code of Practice of the RBA (Responsible Business Alliance) within the electro industry
  • ASI Aluminum Stewardship Initiative: Merger in the aluminum industry with the aim of sustainability and transparency
  • DETOX: Greenpeace-champagne regarding clothing detoxication
  • Slow Food: Movement for pleasurable, conscious and regional food

Many standards are subject to independent audits and/or certification by third parties, e.g.:

  • WRAP audit (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production)
  • SEDEX audit following SMETA (SEDEX Members’ Ethical Trade Audit)
  • ICS audit (Initiative for Compliance and Sustainability)
  • BSCI audit (Business Social Compliance Initiative)
  • ISO certification

The standards of the Global Reporting Initiative are given increased attention in the reporting process.

You realize the choice is enormous. Which standards are the right ones for which company in the future, however, cannot be generalized and must be checked individually. ADCONIA is happy to support you in the selection and implementation of your sustainability goals in order to achieve them efficiently, transparently and in a way that promotes results.


Jessica Murawski

Consultant, ADCONIA GmbH (Oberhausen)

Sinja Krauskopf

Consultant, ADCONIA GmbH (Oberhausen)