Agriculture, CSR and Sustainability, Deforestation, Stakeholders, Supply Chain

Is sustainability certification worth it?

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The battle lines are being drawn in the merits-of-certification debate 

Could the days of sustainability certification be numbered? Certification of commodities such as palm oil as a tool against deforestation sounds good in theory. If robust assurance is in place, certification can engender confidence in the supply chain and produce environmental and social improvements. But is certification really effective?

A growing body of opinion and evidence holds that it is not. Certification schemes have proliferated but the world’s sustainability problems are manifestly becoming more pressing. Clearly, sustainability certification by itself is not the solution.

According to detractors, certification has many weaknesses. Standards must usually be agreed across a sector or supply chain and might be set at a lower-than-optimum level to encourage weaker companies, rather than exclude them.

Complication creep 

Schemes can be vulnerable to greenwashing. And once criteria are agreed, implementation must happen on an ongoing basis, with a complicated apparatus of monitoring to make sure that it is.

Companies might be spending money and effort on certification to obtain results that could more easily be obtained by other means. A recent study for the Mongabay Tropical Conservation Science journal indicated that certification schemes are less effective in cutting deforestation than company-led moratoriums in which brands simply refuse to purchase from suppliers that fail to protect the forests.

The study looked at the admittedly small sample of two certification schemes – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy – and two moratoriums – the Soy Moratorium, which is designed to protect the Brazilian Amazon, and the Cattle Agreement, which also operates in Brazil.

The study concludes that certification schemes “are based on consensus and have lower requirements for reducing deforestation”, whereas the moratoriums are more black and white – stop deforestation or lose business.

ScottBeyond certification

Another critic of sustainability certification is Scott Poynton, founder of TFT, which works with companies to reduce deforestation. In his new book published in June, Poynton argues that certification allows companies to, in effect, outsource deforestation concerns to someone else, as long as their raw materials arrive with the right labels.

In addition, certification schemes can be a brake on companies taking a more creative role to reduce environmental damage, Poynton argues.

He advocates instead a “VT TV” system – values, transparency, transformation and verification. He says that companies should set their own objectives based on their values, and should become more active in implementing them (the “transformation” part). Through practical experience – by, for example, working with local communities to prevent deforestation – companies will better understand the problems and will start to find innovative ways to tackle them.

Transparency is of course essential. Companies must be able to demonstrate that they are doing the right things, backed up by appropriate verification. In principle, public sharing of results will push companies to ever-greater efforts.

Scheme champions

Not everyone is happy with Poynton. Certification schemes have become industries in their own rights and have their own vested interests and supporters – not least some prominent NGOs. They argue that certification is a work in progress, with schemes being progressively improved.

In a recent commentary published on Mongabay, Greenpeace’s Grant Rosoman questions the sense in trusting companies to do the right thing. He argues that third-party verification and certification has a key role to play before company claims can be believed.

But the bottom line in sustainability should always be hard facts. Neither certification schemes nor moratoriums were able to stop the rate of deforestation in the Amazon suddenly increasing at the end of 2014, after some years of decline.
A rational approach – taking account of the fact, for example, that the situation for small holder farmers in Indonesia is very different than for large agribusiness in Brazil – would be a better way forward. Whatever works best in different places, to ensure that the goals of less harm are achieved, is ultimately what is required.

If you’ve any comments, do get in touch

Upcoming relevant business meetings by Innovation Forum:

How business can tackle deforestation – A make or break issue for Asia’s corporate reputation
28th-29th September 2015, Singapore – For full agenda and speaker list go here.

Ethical Trade and Human Rights Forum (with ETI)
Transforming supply chains for responsible business at scale
October 19-20, London – For draft agenda contact

How business can tackle deforestation
Innovation in sustainable forestry: Technology, risk and collaboration
November 2-3 London – For more information go here.

Sustainability: Why current consumer engagement fails – and how to fix it
November 9th-10th 2015, London – For more information go here.

Sustainable seafood sourcing
How business can manage global risk and collaborate for sustainable improvements
November 25-26 2015, London – For more information go here.

How to engage with – and improve the lives of – smallholder famers
March 2016, London – For draft agenda contact

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks Toby for the thought provoking blog!

    As someone working for a certification organisation (Fairtrade), we would probably be the first to agree that certification is not the total solution to all sustainability challenges, but that does not mean, as Grant Rosoman of Greenpeace says, that it has had its day, or that third party verification of company sustainability impacts is not as much in demand as ever.

    Analysis of the approach taken by some sustainability roundtable models (eg on soy and palm oil) cannot be universally applied to all certifications, as they do not all work the same. Where comparative studies have been done, eg. looking at impact of different certifications in coffee, they have revealed different degrees of impact too – some have supported increases in productivity, others in strengthening business stability for farmer organisations, protection of biodiversity or investments in social and community impact. Increasingly, as certification organisations work to build best practice through bodies such as ISEAL, new forms of collaboration are starting to emerge, to reduce duplication of effort and increase joint impact.

    In Fairtrade, increasingly we are combining our longstanding work on standards, certification and audit with additional programmes so that certification provides the data/insight to drive more positive impact – whether that is in climate change adaptation, access to finance, gender equity, child protection, workers’ rights and living wage. Increasingly the future of certification we believe will not be in just checking for compliance, but in measurement of impact against agreed social, economic, environmental and farmer/worker empowerment goals.

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