Before Certification: Comments on “Beyond Certification” by Scott Poynton

The recent publication “Beyond Certification” by Scott Poynton (Dō Sustainability, Oxford, UK, 2015) has a number of valuable insights; however I think that he starts his analysis in the middle of the story and proposes a solution that almost exactly describes the world before FSC certification.

Before I get to the options that Poynton’s book presents, I will start with the bigger picture – not to be negative but as a way to frame the issues that I think are most important.

Lost in the mist of time

I would like to start way back to the before the 1992 Earth Summit and consider the vast amount of effort that was being invested by a host of organizations in the creation of a global code of conduct to govern the behaviour of trans-national corporations. This code of practice was to be a center piece at the upcoming Earth Summit. The code of practice was being prepared under the auspices of the UN Centre for Trans-National Corporations and would govern the conduct of global operations of major corporations. It was based on a broad definition of sustainability – environmental, social, cultural, and economic. Most of us now have never heard of this effort because it died before Rio.

Prior to the Earth Summit a deal, brokered by the Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny was reached with the support of major governments and corporations: it was proposed that the code of conduct be taken off the agenda for the Rio Earth Summit. Instead of addressing trans-national corporations in an intergovernmental forum there would be the creation of an international standard for how corporations addressed environmental issues. The result was the creation of the ISO 14000 system, a set of standards and guidance documents that form an ‘environmental management system’ based on the model of the ISO’s 9000 quality management system standard. It is no accident that in 1992, the same year that saw the Earth Summit in Rio, BSI published an environmental management system standard for the UK which became the model for ISO 14000.

To most of the organizations that worked so hard on the code of conduct for transnational corporations, this development was a large step backwards. Rather than having a code of conduct that could be used to hold corporations to account a voluntary management system standard was proposed. This new standard would contain no minimum performance levels, the first approved version of this standard did not even include the requirement that certified companies comply with environmental legislation.

At the same time as the preparation for Rio was growing a global concern with deforestation. Astronomical rates of deforestation were occurring worldwide with growing impacts in the developing world and on indigenous peoples. One response was undertaken by a small group that formed to create a standard to would allow consumers of forest products to purchase those products that were certified to be harvested from well managed forests and would not contribute to deforestation and the destruction of local and indigenous communities. This group grew to launch the Forest Stewardship Council in 1993. It was a new tool that could apply market pressure to forest companies for global practices, even when nations were powerless to do so. It is a tool that has seen success far beyond the expectations of many of the founders.

I see a direct connection between the abdication by governments of the responsibility to set enforceable limits on the behaviour of transnational companies and the efforts to foster the growth of a market tool that could have some of the same effect.

An FSC vision

The goal of the FSC was to create specific, measurable performance requirements that, while adapted to different forest types in different social circumstances would all conform to a global set of principles and criteria. Nowhere in this vision is the flexibility for a company to be certified for meeting only those parts of the standard that it chooses. It’s and all or nothing proposition.

FSC, as with many other global certifications schemes, strives to set a benchmark that is either conformed to, in which case the products could be certified, or not, in which case the products cannot be certified. No one, I would expect even FSC itself, would say that it has succeeded on all counts and in all circumstances. It is important to note that certification is a positive statement; it does not mean that products that are not certified are from badly managed forests. The pedigree of uncertified products is simply unknown.

Poynton’s proposal

Poynton proposes moving beyond certification to a model in which corporation define their values, that is clearly state ‘who we are’ and then implement transparent, transformative and verified steps to bring their actions in line with their values. To me, this sounds very much like the process described in the ISO 14000 system. Companies define their environmental objectives and then put in place a management system to deliver on their own objectives.

In just about every case presented by Poynton, the prompt for companies to begin to enter into this process is as a result of being targeted by a large campaigning NGO. His central case is that of Nestlé after it had been a target of Greenpeace’s campaigning efforts to stop Indonesian deforestation for the production of palm oil. In almost none of the cases presented did a company change course without significant outside pressure.

Somehow this process of companies coming to learn that their values are out of sync with their practices is once again the responsibility of NGOs; not-for-profit organizations and charities funded by individual donors and foundations. It is hard to imagine that there are enough well-funded NGOs with the resources to launch enough campaigns against offending corporations large and small. It is also worth noting that a number of governments including those of Russia, India, Canada, Egypt, and some US states to name a few that are taking or have recently taken legal and regulatory actions against these same NGOs for challenging corporate practices while major corporations file SLAPP suits against these same NGOs for challenging their practices.

Without certification we are back in a world that resembles the 1980s with campaigning NGOs challenging destructive and abusive corporate practices and calling for action by governments that refuse to take responsibility for environmental protection and safeguarding the lives of their citizens.

This situation is exacerbated by WTO rules that only allow on a limited basis for countries to discriminate based on ‘process and production methods’. As a result countries cannot prohibit importation of products that destroy critical habitat of endangered or at risk species, are produced by workers that are exploited or where indigenous cultures are destroyed. Non-governmental standards offer the opportunity for purchasers to select those products that conform to their values and those of their customers.

Options to move beyond the current practice of certification

Notwithstanding my critique of Poynter’s book above, there are a number of things that certification schemes and their supporters can do to better respond to the problems with certification as it occurs now.

These include (but are not limited to):

  • Not offering certification. Some groups who wish to step up their advocacy and directly impact markets think that if certification works for forests or fair trade then it can work for their sector. Sometimes the best methods available include not becoming a certification scheme. This could mean becoming something like a consulting firm or as a partner to existing companies with a role of offering assurance about the products and services being offered.
  • Don’t go it alone. If you do decide to offer certification there is no rule that says you have to do everything by yourself. If all the big schemes now in operation got together and designed chain of custody rules that can apply to forest products, coffee, chocolate, fish, diamonds, clothing, etc. then there is a chance that chain of custody procedures would be more robust. It is not necessary for experts in each sector to develop and run a unique chain of custody scheme. They could do the same for components that are common to multiple schemes such as worker rights, discharge of wastes, use of pesticides and herbicides, etc.
  • Start with the market, not the producers. When looking at how to transform a market, start by ignoring the producers and start with the companies that process, market and retail products that use raw material in one sector. Often primary producers operate at the thinnest margin. They will respond to their customers but not to efforts to get them to change their practices without some benefit to them.
  • Design a way for the poorest performers to improve. In many cases the causes of environmental destruction and socially exploitive practices are because of extreme poverty and complicit governments. If you focus your efforts on the getting improvements from the bottom 20% of an industry sector by working with them you may get more improvement than by certifying the top 20%.
  • Add value. Spend time with creative entrepreneurs in your sector and find methods and approaches that are being used now by really inventive people. Take those practices and bring them to a wider audience to improve performance across an entire sector.
  • Focus on the workers. Business is always telling us that their real value is their workers. What can you bring to improve the lives of the workers that drives greater value for the company while bringing benefits to workers and their families.

Recognize emerging trends. This includes the growth of south-south trade, the explosion of technology that allows information to be gathered by remote sensors, real-time monitoring and humans that carry cell phones in their pockets.

Final thoughts

The use of certification as a means to transform markets is still evolving. While it is important to critique the use of this tool, it is important to understand that we need to consider both the past (why certification became so important) and the future (emerging trends that are shaping our world).