Learning about Sustainability Certification Systems
20 November 2013 | Article
As the Sierra Club representative to the Roundtable on Sustainable Bioproducts (RSB), I have been participating in a review of the standards and procedures which are used to evaluate and certify that biofuels and other bio-based products are produced sustainably. Certification systems compete with one another, learn from one another, and most of them conduct periodic reviews to update and improve their programs. To increase my knowledge about better practices, I studied several different certification systems with a particular interest in how they involve stakeholders in developing standards and in reviewing the audits of certified companies.
To evaluate certification systems it is important to understand how different certification systems operate. All are based on voluntary standards for management practices. Standards are established by the certification system and then an independent certification body uses the standards to evaluating the operations and performance of a business or product seeking certification. If it qualifies, it is awarded a certificate, usually called a seal, which can be used for labeling and advertising. Certified businesses advertise their certification and consumers can directly reinforce sustainable business practices by purchasing certified products.
Certification has benefits to businesses and to society a whole. The requirement for 3rd party auditing creates trust in the process and is a way to demonstrate compliance with legislative requirements. Other benefits include the incentive for businesses to switch to better, more sustainable practices; education of business managers about best and most efficient practices; information that enables consumers, activists and investors to identify which businesses have made commitments to better practices; and guidance to governments as to what standards to require of businesses. Although sustainability certification standards are voluntary, some sustainability criteria have been integrated in legislation as a mandate. For example in Europe the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) imposes sustainability requirements on biofuels marketed in the European Union.
One method of comparison is to do a total evaluation of several similar systems. For example, a literature review of several systems of forestry criteria singled out the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being the most environmentally beneficial through its emphasis on superior criteria, but there was a need for more “one the ground” verification of their application.
An evaluation of bioenergy certification found that the proliferation of different certification systems was confusing and recommended: “It is necessary to agree on a common and cross-sector understanding and approach not only regarding sustainability principles and criteria (what are controllable criteria that do not incur high costs?) but also on the certification approach (implementation and verification procedures and methodologies used, common approach on how to verify?).“
The report “MMSD+10 - Reflecting on a decade o f mining and sustainable development” found that “the past 10 years have seen a valuable increase in the number of standards and best practice guidance, helping stakeholders to understand what sustainable development means. But despite good intentions at the strategy level and examples of good practice, the complexity of situations at the mine site means implementation across the sector is highly variable. Questions remain as to whether current verification and reporting regimes are sufficient to meet the needs of key stakeholders – from investors to communities in a large number of cases, there is little idea of how exactly these should be translated into progress on the ground.”
Because of my specific interest in credibility and transparency, I decided to focus specifically on requirements for stakeholder involvement in what many consider to be the best sustainability systems. I wanted to know how stakeholders are genuinely involved in creating standards and then in monitoring their application in the field.
Sustainable Forestry: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) develops its standards and policies with a Policy and Standards Unit in collaboration with a technical working group. (https://ic.fsc.org/standard-setting.212.htm). Stakeholders are invited to comment on proposals before they are presented to the Board of Directors for decision taking. An internal steering committee oversees the process and a working group provides input and advice during the entire development or revision process. Some of these working groups are balanced between environmental, social and economic membership. Interested stakeholders are invited to actively participate in a consultative forum. Public stakeholder consultation is carried out on the first public draft and where needed on following public draft versions before the working group is ready to recommend a final draft for approval by the Board of Directors.
To help assess performance “on the ground” stakeholders are involved in audits of certified companies according to these procedures:
“The certification body shall conduct stakeholder consultation during surveillance evaluations as necessary to collect audit evidence in order to verify continued conformity of the certificate holder with relevant certification requirements. The certification body shall inform the stakeholders at least six (6) weeks prior to the start of the main evaluation site visits that an FSC forest evaluation is due to take place; the start date of the evaluation; the applicant's name and the location of the forest area to be assessed; dhow to acquire a copy of the Forest Stewardship Standard to be used for the evaluation; e)that the certification body is seeking the views and opinions of stakeholders as to whether the applicant's forest management complies with the requirements of the standard; f)how stakeholders may contact the certification body in confidence to let the certification body know of their views and opinions; g)that the team will make arrangements to allow stakeholders to meet with them during the evaluation; of the existence of the certification body’s mechanisms for resolution of complaints or disputes; and that the source of any information is kept confidential on request.”
Sustainable Biofuels: The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels has expanded its focus and is now the Roundtable on Sustainable Bioproducts. They continue to involve stakeholders from many sectors in the development of their standards and criteria (http://rsb.org/about/organization/rsb-members/). RSB then requires comprehensive stakeholder involvement in the audits conducted by their independent certifier, RSB Services.
Sustainable Mining: There are few certification systems for mining companies, but the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) http://www.responsiblemining.net/ is establishing best practice standards that improve the environmental and social performance of mining operations, as well as a system to independently verify compliance with standards that describe environmentally and socially responsible mine operations. Their stakeholders represent five key sectors with a stake in the environmental and social performance of mining: mining companies, downstream users of mining products such as jewelry retailers, environmental and human rights focused nonprofits, affected and indigenous communities, and labor. IRMA differs from other approaches by putting primary emphasis on full third-party development of standards and independent verification in which NGOs, communities and labour unions are full partners along with the mining industry and other businesses who purchase metals for processing/profit. The IRMA System is expected to begin certifying mine sites in 2015.
Sustainable Fisheries: The Marine Stewardship Council website (http://www.msc.org/) describes how their standards are updated regularly.
They have a most impressive and comprehensive process for stakeholder engagement in auditing certified operators.
The opportunity for the public to review draft assessment reports is published on the MSC website. The MSC also notifies stakeholders that the report is available for comment. After reviewing, considering and responding to all comments, the certifier revises the draft report and makes a determination as to whether the fishery should be certified. An email alert is sent to all interested stakeholders, allowing a period of 15 working days for parties to lodge any objections to the decision. During the audit, or at separate meetings, the auditors meet with representatives of fishery and fishery management organisations, and are available to meet with interested stakeholders to discuss matters relevant to the fishery. If no objections have been raised the fishery is certified. If there are objections they are reviewed in a detailed many-step process which may or may not end with certification. The certifications are audited annually and stakeholders are notified of the audit on the MSC website.
It is clear that stakeholder involvement is important to these systems but the procedures that assure that it happens differ in comprehensiveness. This suggests ways one could judge and work to improve other certification systems.
SMART CHOICES FOR BIOFUELS: A joint report from Worldwatch and SierraClub is found available at http://www.sierraclub.org/transportation/downloads/biofuels.pdf
Doris Cellarius is a member of SEAPRISE and Chair of Sierra Club’s Sustainable Biofuels Task Force.