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from Bernd Eberle

What seals does sustainability need?

It is undisputed that companies today need a sustainability strategy in order to be future-proof and competitive. Sustainability is an important criterion for decisions: Consumers decide which products to buy, retailers decide which product ranges to list, employees decide which employer to work for and, last but not least, investors decide where to invest their money.

It is not only crucial to be sustainable, but also to communicate this credibly. Certificates and seals are becoming increasingly important in this context. They create credibility and stand for specific content or processes in the area of sustainability. However, there is now a flood of seals and certificates and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain an overview.

The presentation is also somewhat complex because there are different levels and points of reference. These can be individual aspects of sustainability or the entire company, or they can combine different aspects. There are different senders such as private companies, state institutions or associations that deal with certain topics. And some relate to individual content or entire processes and supply chains.

We would therefore like to shed some light on this jungle of seals and provide some clarity with an attempt at subjective structuring.


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1. organic seal

Organic farmers are not only concerned with healthier food, both in their basic intention and in their practical implementation, but also with sustainability aspects and a healthy earth. Organic labels can therefore also be described as sustainability labels, even if they do not include all aspects of sustainability. However, the organic labels are not only about agricultural production, but also about processing by the manufacturers, so they also cover the supply chain to a certain extent.

The most widespread is now the so-called
EU organic label
. This is a state seal at EU level. It contains the common denominator that the EU member states have agreed on and thus sets the minimum standard for organic farming. The identical standard is also represented by the German organic seal, also known as the
Künast seal
which was supposed to be replaced by the EU organic seal, but can still be found on the front of packaging because it communicates organic better than the EU seal, which is purely a pictorial symbol. In some cases, these seals are supplemented by certificates of origin, such as the “
Organic Baden-Württemberg
“, which we were allowed to develop for the Ministry of Agriculture. Other federal states also use similar seals of origin and organic labels.

The so-called association seals, which are backed by organic farming associations, demand much stricter requirements for cultivation and processing. The best-known growers’ associations are
the largest association in Germany,
which, with biodynamic agriculture, sets the most demanding requirements and is internationally oriented.

2. climate seal

Climate change has made the documentation and communication of climate friendliness extremely important. An important anchor point is the Paris Climate Agreement with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees and the commitment to the
17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)
. These not only relate to climate protection, but also include all dimensions of sustainability and form the guiding principle for the development of sustainability goals and strategies for many companies and institutions.

There are currently no official or state seals that certify climate friendliness or climate neutrality. So if you want to be climate-neutral, net zero or climate-positive and communicate this with a seal, you either have to design one yourself or use seals that have usually been developed and launched on the market by private companies such as sustainability consultancies. Examples include our “CO2-neutral” label, our “
climate positive
” seal or seals from the consultancy firm ClimatePartner.

Private-sector or company-owned seals are serious and credible if they fulfill a number of requirements:

  1. The emissions were determined using a recognized method. The GHG Protocol (Greenhouse Gas Protocol), for example, is internationally recognized for the accounting and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Serious reduction targets were defined, ideally as insetting projects within the company or within the company’s own value chain.
  3. The remaining emissions are offset via compensation projects that are UN-certified and meet a standard such as the Gold Standard.
  4. The whole thing is made transparent accordingly. In particular, the so-called Scope 3 emissions, i.e. the emissions that arise along the value chain.


An overarching initiative based on the United Nations’ 1.5 degree target and scientific criteria is the
Science Based Targets Initiative
. A collaboration between CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Put simply, the aim is for companies to define reduction targets in order to reduce their emissions to such an extent that the 1.5 degree target can be achieved. The Net Zero standard was defined for this purpose in October 2021. Over 1000 companies have already joined this initiative.

3. social seal

Another category of sustainability seals relates to the social dimension of sustainability. This usually involves fair partnerships and fair treatment of the people working in the supply chain. This is particularly relevant when it comes to countries of origin where social standards cannot be taken for granted, such as the treatment of farmers in Africa and Latin America.

The best-known seal in Germany is the
fairtrade seal
. Here, too, there are private company labels, such as the “
” of the Rapunzel company. While these two seals focus on the food sector, there are also seals for other sectors that deal with social components, such as the state seal “
green button
” for the textile industry.

There are also many other initiatives, but most of them are more of a commitment than a verifiable certification. One example is the
Diversity Charter
. This is an association under the patronage of the Federal Chancellor. Those who sign the charter promise to work for a tolerant working environment without prejudice.

4. certification of management systems

Certifications of methods and management systems are recognized proof of active environmental and sustainability management. Systems are created for structured processes and methods to achieve the sustainability goals. They help companies to obtain information on their sustainability performance, but can be very resource-intensive and are therefore more suitable for larger manufacturing companies.

Examples of this since 1996 are
ISO 14001
has been a globally recognized basis for environmental management systems. It covers all aspects and defines the establishment, implementation, maintenance and continuous improvement of an environmental management system – for the continuous improvement of environmental performance.

The Eco Management and Audit Scheme is an EU system based on the ISO standard. Environmental indicators must also be recorded, published in a report and reviewed as part of an audit. Only then may the Emas logo be used as a seal.


5. standards for sustainability reporting

The standards for sustainability reporting form another level. They are methods that specify the topics that must be covered in sustainability reporting and make the reports comparable to a certain extent.
They also serve to fulfill the reporting obligation in accordance with the law. This will become more important with the extension of the reporting obligation to the 2023 reporting year and in a second stage in 2026.

Recognized and relevant standards are the DNK and the GRI SRS. The
German Sustainability Code (DNK)
was created by the German Council for Sustainable Development. The standard supports the development of a sustainability strategy across all industries and provides an introduction to sustainability reporting. The
Sustainability Reporting Standard of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI SRS)
is the comprehensive standard and defines indicators for how companies and organizations can measure their sustainable performance. It is internationally oriented and is often used by internationally operating groups.

As a result of the extension of the reporting obligation, the European Union is also currently in the process of preparing its own reporting standard. This should be published in full in the second half of 2022.

This topic also includes the
Global Compact
a United Nations pact that organizations join and thereby agree to comply with social and ecological principles. The members are to report on their improvements on an annual basis. Participation in the pact is seen more as an expression of good will than as transparent reporting.

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6. overarching evaluation systems

In addition, there is a whole range of overarching assessment systems that attempt to combine several aspects and levels, such as sustainability management, transparency, supply chain, sustainability performance, etc. Internationally oriented, for example, is the
BCorb certification
which has already certified over 4000 companies. Following an external audit, the overall social, ecological and economic performance of companies is considered, with a particular focus on responsibility and public transparency.
Economy for the Common Good
aims to establish an ethical economic model. The evaluation model consists of 20 main indicators that are used to assess individual sustainability performance. The result is a common good balance sheet and a final score that enables comparison with other companies.
A comparison is also possible with the
Eco-Vadis rating
which uses standardized questionnaires to compare the sustainability performance of companies. In total, more than 75,000 companies have already taken part.
The relatively new We Care label has also set itself the goal of creating a holistic standard.
We Care seal
has also set itself the goal of creating a holistic standard. It looks at the company, the products and the supply chain.

7. conclusion

Which sustainability seals and certificates should you use?

Especially as those mentioned only represent a small selection – and the use of sustainability labels is often associated with a great deal of effort and cost and has longer-term effects. It is therefore important to start a well-founded strategy process and to deal with the question of objectives, the individual framework conditions and the resulting meaningful strategy, both for sustainability and for the company and the brand. This usually also clarifies the question of which certifications and seals can be used in a meaningful and promising way.

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