For a standard to serve its intended purpose, that purpose must be explicitly defined and understood by all interested parties. Requirements are the mandatory steps and procedures set forth and these have priority in International Standards.
The usefulness of any given standard depends in part on the assumed use and market for the standard. Some standards explicitly aim to facilitate trade and business-to-business transactions based on clear mutual understanding of the quality and characteristics of a product. Relevant standardized terms are an essential starting point for any standards process. Most voluntary sustainability standards are structured as “process standards” or as management system standards.
The goal of continual improvement towards specified targets is recognized as a fundamental concept for sustainability and has been explicitly incorporated in several standards (e.g., ASTM 3066). Social and environmental conditions and priorities inevitably change over time, as does the knowledge base for systems being analyzed, so the ability of a standard to describe how to adapt to those changes can be valuable in promoting sustainability objectives.
These standards provide a snapshot of how and where goods and services are produced in a more sustainable way than competitors or a "business as usual" case. By measuring current practices with regard to sustainability principles, these standards can help chart a course for continual improvement.
Sustainability is difficult to define in a manner that supports consistent, quantitative assessment. The Brundtland Commission Report (1987) defined “sustainability” as the capacity for an activity to continue while maintaining options for future generations.
Thus, other things being equal, activities that conserve non-renewable resources for future use are more sustainable than activities which do not (Dale et al. 2015). However, other social, environmental and economic factors are also important for sustainability in the near term, making it difficult for practitioners to apply the aspirational goal to real world decisions.
Sustainability and Standards Glossary
BETO researchers assisted ASTM International Sub-Committee E48.80 on “Sustainability of Bioenergy and Industrial Chemicals from Biomass” to develop the following definitions relevant to operationalizing the aspirational goal of sustainability when assessing effects of biomass based products:
sustainability, n—aspirational concept denoting the capacity to meet current needs while maintaining options for future generations to meet their needs.
relative sustainability, n—a comparison of two or more options that enables the evaluation of costs, benefits, and trade-offs that apply goals, objectives, and indicators within a specified context.
continual improvement, n—a systematic, iterative process of identifying and evaluating options and selecting those that provide incremental improvements toward achieving defined goals and objectives.
indicator, n—specific, science-based, observable and measurable characteristic.
science-based, adj—applying principles and practices that employ the scientific method. Discussion—The scientific method is a process of testing a hypothesis based on evidence and typically involves objective observation, experiment, critical analysis, verification, repetition, and induction.
stakeholder, n—individual, group, or organization that can affect or be directly affected by the options being evaluated. Discussion—The identification of stakeholders depends on the specific product, process, or project, and its context. Stakeholders may vary over time and can include regulatory bodies, customers, neighbors, employees, suppliers, and surrogates.
Thus, sustainability is not a steady state or an absolute value. For human activity to be sustained over time, change and adaptation are required. To operationalize and apply sustainability concepts, objectives must be defined within a specified context, stakeholders engaged, and consistent approaches applied to facilitate comparable, science-based assessments.
Based on 3 decades of experience working on sustainable development programs, sustainability standards, and on biomass sustainability assessments, ORNL researcher Keith Kline proposes this approach:
"Sustainability involves a process of making informed choices for continual improvements based on opportunities to achieve specified targets, identified through scientific analysis of indicators identified and prioritized by stakeholders, and taking into account expected effects on future generations. The process is always context-specific and must be supported by ongoing monitoring of observable conditions relevant to the indicators and their targets. While no human endeavor is truly sustainable indefinitely, one option is more or less sustainable than another based on defined criteria."