Interview With Paolo Bray, Founder & Director, FOE, World Sustainability Organization

The World Sustainability Organisation (WSO) started with eco-labels for products and services which respect and protect the marine environment. Where did the inspiration come from and how did you come to a sustainable fashion eco-label?

We have come a long way since the concept of sustainability first started to echo on people’s minds in the early nineties. At that time, it was far from being a word in our everyday vocabulary, but some pioneer initiatives opened the way, especially in the seafood sector. One of them is the Dolphin-Safe Tuna project, which I had the opportunity to help develop. This program saved millions of dolphins from dying in tuna fishing nets by motivating fisheries – and the seafood industry in general – to reduce their impact on the marine environment.

This experience made me realize how certifications could be an essential tool to achieve tangible conservation results. This is why, in 2008, I decided to launch Friend of the Sea, currently the major certification program for products from sustainable fisheries, aquaculture, and other products and services which respect the marine habitat. Later in 2018, we launched the Friend of the Earth certification of sustainable agriculture and farming products.

Today, over 1.000 companies in more than 70 countries rely on Friend of the Sea and Friend of the Earth certifications. This success has helped us push forward conservation projects to protect endangered species. It’s a virtuous circle.

However, there’s still much to be done. For this reason, we’re trying to expand the movement towards economic sectors that urgently need to become more sustainable. Fashion is one of them.

How to convince everyone of the importance of sustainability? We’re starting to see clients unwilling to buy brands who don’t pay enough attention to ESG, but is it enough?

Sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the resources available for future generations. Long-term growth in any country passes through sustainable development to protect the planet’s ecosystems, species, and resources. Thus, we need to think about sustainability in a transversal way.

Indeed, recent polls show that consumers and brands are increasingly embracing sustainability, both in developed and developing countries. Consumers are even willing to pay extra for goods certified sustainable.

The World Sustainability Organization’s mission, through our programs Friend of the Sea and Friend of the Earth, is to help advance this process. It is never a straightforward process, but it is necessary and the only one that can make sense over the years.

I’m convinced we can achieve sustainable development in a joint effort and collaboration between Governments, companies, NGOs, and research institutes.

What are the challenges of leading an organization like WSO nowadays?

The field of sustainability is still a bit of uncharted territory. Sustainability claims are not regulated by law nor verified in most countries. This has led to a plethora of self-certifications. Any company can currently make sustainability claims about its own products without expecting controls of any sort. Several certifications out there are also not really third-party certifications delivered on the basis of a continuous auditing process.

For us, it’s crucial to maintain our independence and prevent any conflict of interest with the industry we certify. We believe that certifications independent of the industry are more reliable and will gain consumers’ trust in the long term.

In addition to this, we’re in a constant search to expand the scope of our work on several fronts: improving monitoring and controls, creating new innovative certifications, and investing more resources in conservation programs.

How is the process of certifying the sustainability of a company and achieving an eco-label done?

Over the years, we have developed strict controls to ensure that only sustainable and ethical companies receive our certifications. It’s an ever ongoing process.

We’re a third-party certification. This means that external auditors from independent certification bodies carry out all Friend of the Sea and Friend of the Earth’s audits. At the same time, these certification bodies are audited and have to be accredited by the National Accreditation Bodies, such as UKAS in the UK, Accredia in Italy, SLAK in Sri Lanka, and Kan in Indonesia.

This makes us much more credible to consumers. The products and the entire production line are audited based on our strict certification requirements, whether it’s fisheries, agriculture, or fashion. All our standards include social accountability requirements and criteria regarding energy efficiency, waste, and water management.

Once the eco-label has been granted, how is it controlled that the company complies with the standards?

Again, we’re continuously working to improve transparency controls which are the basis for consumers’ confidence. Audits are carried out every year. We are also increasingly relying on new technologies such as satellite information, CCTVs systems, drones, or unannounced augmented reality audits. Thanks to these new tools, we can carry out onsite audits remotely, video record them, and save them on BlockChain. This way, we’re able to collect much more evidence of compliance than traditional audits more safely and efficiently.

The rest of this editorial will be published at a later date.