Certification: all things to all men?

IIED’s Sian Lewis has an intriguing piece on Fair Trade over at the Due South blog. My eye was particularly taken by this section:

Other participants shared Justice’s concerns over the infrastructure for fair trade certification. Jorge Chavez-Tafur, from the Centre for learning on sustainable agriculture (ILEIA), asked “Is it true that fair trade standards are so complicated that companies can’t cope?”

It seems the answer is yes. Even from within the movement itself, there were calls to address standards. Merlin Preza, coordinator of Fairtrade Small Producers in Latin America and the Caribbean, said “the problem lies not in meeting standards — of course producers can meet them — the problem is verification”. She explained that poor farmers, who are often illiterate and live in isolated rural areas, often find it very difficult to navigate all the ‘red tape’ involved in registering products and proving where and how products are grown.

“We are asking for simpler — not lower — standards,” said Preza. “They need to be regionally specific because local contexts and cultures can be very different,” she added.

The same problem pertains to forest certification by FSC et al, and I see similar dangers in the emerging standards and safe-guards for REDD+ schemes, especially in the voluntary market. (I’m not familiar with MSC certification of fisheries, but suppose there is likely to be similar issues.)

The dilemma for certifying agencies, I suppose, is that some investigative journalist comes along and exposes some, perhaps relatively small element of a certification supply chain for, say, having dodgy labour practices. The resulting negative publicity could tarnish the entire brand, so the certification standards bodies put in a rule about that.

Unfortunately this is a slippery slope to massive complexity. I’ve seen FSC certification checklists which extend to more than 200 items. Each criterion or sub-criterion on its own is reasonable and generally not too difficult to deliver, but put all together and it becomes immensely challenging. FSC-certified forest managers nearly always have several Corrective Action Requests on the go; failure to improve by the next inspection could see their certificate suspended.

All of this drives up costs. Sian’s post continues:

A bigger problem for fair trade — especially as it goes ‘mainstream’ — is competitiveness. Being able to compete with big business has always been a major challenge for small-scale farmers, who have fewer resources, less bargaining power and limited access to the latest technologies.

Big businesses are taking advantage of a scheme that was originally designed for small-scale producers and now compete with those producers, creating a major problem, said Preza.

This issue is magnified many times over for FSC certification, which was originally devised to reward sustainable management of tropical forests by or involving local communities, but most holders of FSC certificates are big companies, most either based in temperate zones and/or managing plantations not natural forest. Why? Because they have the resources to meet the myriad demands that forest certification makes, and secondly because if you’re running a pine plantation in Europe, you probably already meet 90% of the requirements as otherwise you’d be breaking the law. Conversely, even for big companies managing forest concessions in the tropics I hear that it is marginal as to whether it is profitable to get FSC certification. One could argue that is a market failure, but nonetheless it illustrates the size of the challenge.

So for anyone working on certification type issues, I have one big plea: keep it simple! Decide what are the most important criteria, and focus on them. If you want to add further criteria, then do it on a Bronze, Silver, Gold or similar type ranking (credit therefore to CCBA who’ve taken this approach), with ascending degrees of complexity. I’m all for setting the bar high, but don’t make it ridiculously high (otherwise you’ll limit take up), and don’t go for so many different bars that we lose track of what it is that we basically stand for.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] from respiratory illnesses due to out-of-control forest fires), but you cannot have both. I have previously argued that the barriers to entry for FSC certification should be simplified, and that would benefit […]


  2. […] myriad outputs to one or more simple metrics would be almost impossible, ref my recent plea for simplicity in environmental certification. Simple metrics will always be distorting, but the merits of simplicity for comparing two rival […]


  3. […] on what would make a ‘good’ REDD+ initiative. All are good ideas, but I would caution against over-complicating things. The most important of these ideas should be regulated by governments; others could perhaps be […]


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