Certifier Certainty

Claims about a lack of sustainability verification are untrue.

By Eileen Kaufman

In “What Price Assurance?”, I was surprised to see the flat, inaccurate statement that “there are no standard requirements of verifiers” of important sustainability reporting. To the contrary, there is a considerable body of requirements for verifiers of both sustainability reports and of sustainability data such as labor standards implementation and environmental management performance. Claims to the contrary overlook the experiences of a significant sector—the voluntary social standards certification systems such as FairTrade, Forest Stewardship Council, and SA8000, which have substantial infrastructure in place.

Third-party accredited certification is used for verifying even more sustainability management systems, and often in far more transparent and structured ways than financial audits. Transparent, consistent, accredited third-party certifications are used in sustainability reporting on natural and human resource management processes. Many of us daily see or use the public statement of compliance in labels or postings about Forest Stewardship [FSC], Marine Stewardship [MSC], ethical workplace practices [SA8000(r)], and Fair Trade [FLO]. Certification to SA8000 and ISO14000 is often cited as evidence that companies are meeting their labor rights and environmental obligations, respectively, as participants in the U.N. Global Compact.

What do these third-party accredited certification systems consist of? International requirements for standards, for certifiers, and for accreditors of certifiers. These requirements are guided by International Organization for Standardization (ISO) codes and social standards specific codes of International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL).

These systems are widespread: A large percentage of any accounting firm’s clients is very familiar with these systems and likely have or require third-party accredited certification to ISO management systems standards, such as AS9000, ISO9001, and ISO14001. That methodology and infrastructure, adapted, serves the more than 1.5 million people who work in SA8000 certified facilities. More than one million work in FairTrade certified production; there are 1.8 million FairTrade certified producers; more than 10 percent of the world’s forests are FSC certified. Certified organizations are of all sizes, locations, and types of businesses, undergoing audits, and implementing management systems appropriate for their size and location.

There are extensive and substantial public requirements for those who perform and oversee social standards certification and also sustainability report assurance auditing. Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) and Accreditation Services International (ASI) oversee certification audits to the FSC, MSC, and SA8000 standards. Similar requirements are in place for FairTrade and RA certifiers. These require finite terms of certification and of accreditation, annual on-site surveillance audits, complaints systems, formal corrective action processes, and publication of lists of certified facilities and accredited certification bodies. Accreditation system oversight runs the gamut from two-person organic certification firms to large international firms. A substantial volume of oversight exists at both accreditation and certification levels: For example, annually for the SA8000 standard, SAAS performs approximately 150 audits of 20 accredited certification bodies, which in turn perform approximately 6,000 audits of 3,000 certified organizations. Similarly, even larger numbers of surveillances take place, according to accreditation requirements and documented procedures, for the FairTrade and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movemement systems.

Additionally, the AA1000AS defines good practice in assurance of sustainability reports, and more than 100 are licensed under those requirements.

Sustainability motivates management systems audits that verify that adequate systems are in place to address issues, deliver reliable compliant performance, and manage supply chain risks. Of course, social certification is no more a guarantee than is a clean financial audit opinion. However, the certification systems are structured to build in requirements that companies address non-conformances so that certification is a meaningful statement of compliance, because third party audits by independent organizations verify there is evidence of good performance and of systems to deliver ongoing compliance.

Eileen Kauffman is executive director of Social Accountability International.

Posted May 9, 2012 in Business Ethics