Certifications are Not our Saving Grace

by

Kelly Tobar

Story Time

June 8, 2021

As someone who now has to buy their own household items and groceries, I’ve noticed that I use certifications often when deciding which objects to buy. Certifications are important because they offer a convenient way to inform consumers about a certain product, however does a certification actually have value, or is any corporation with a little bit of extra cash able to acquire it? I have come to the conclusion that some certifications are better than others at doing what they set out to do, but government legislation is still the best way to solve/ mitigate certain issues. 

As a college student, one common certification I see is the FSC, Forest Stewardship Council, certification. So what is the FSC? What does it represent? 

The FSC is an international organization for “voluntary accreditation and independent third-party certification.” They are a “non for profit, non-government organization” that supports “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world's forests”. FSC’s vision for the future is that forests will meet the “social, ecological, and economic rights and needs of the present generation without compromising those of future generations”. To accomplish this vision, the FSC has 3 different certifications with requirements mandating the maintenance of the social and economic well being of workers, the identification and upholdment of the Indigenous Peoples’ legal and customary rights of ownership, etc. While the FSC establishes these requirements for their certifications, the FSC does not issue any certifications themselves. All certifications are issued by an independent third-party on the FSC’s behalf. 

In the past few years, the FSC has failed to uphold the meaning and value of their certification with various scandals and exposés. And it shows with Greenpeace’s decision to not renew their FSC membership.

Recently, I read an article written by Richard Conniff for Yale Environment 360, which in great detail explains some of the scandals and faults that have occurred related to the FSC (Read it here). I strongly encourage you to read it, as Conniff brings up many good research points. I would also like to expand on one of his points about the FSC’s use of third party assessors. The FSC’s decision to use third party assessors to issue their certifications explains why they lack harsh punishments for auditors that choose to certify unsustainable companies. Afterall, due to this process, the FSC is not at fault for issuing certifications to unqualified corporations. The auditors are. This lack of accountability on the FSC’s part has led to the decrease in faith in the FSC’s certification. 

In another case, the FSC has certified industrial logging operations in old growth forests and has also certified the monoculture plantations that have replaced old growth forests as well-managed. In response to the backlash against the certification of monoculture plantations, the FSC has remained firm on their decision, stating that certified plantations are managed in accordance with their criteria and principles, and monoculture plantations can provide “an array of social and economic benefits, and can contribute to satisfying the world’s needs for forest products''. Not only are monoculture plantations harmful because they expose farmers to widespread crop failure and require a large amount of water and pesticide use to make up for the limitations of a monoculture system (ie the lack of diversity, etc), but also these plantations have been found guarded by armed sentries, some of whom have committed human rights abuses against the Indigeous folks displaced by these plantations. In one study, land converted into a plantation was found to have compromised its sustainability and associated forest resources in a way that became “practically impossible to recover in the future”. 

In January of this year, I was given the opportunity to interview a member of the FSC. In response to backlash about incidents of corruption and other scandals, they replied that as an organization operating in 90 countries, it is “very difficult to manage what every single individual is doing”, and there will always be “a few bad apples”. However, they are still working on being more proactive by increasing “integrity in the supply chain” by investing in more supply chain technologies (ie block chain testing, a wood search tool to find FSC certified products, etc). 

The FSC is far from perfect. They have issues with scalability and consistency. Additionally, consumers do not really know what the FSC is and why they should even care about buying something with an FSC certification. For those who do know what the FSC represents, they probably also know of the various scandals and corruption incidents related to the FSC certification. The FSC have designed a system for a perfect world in an imperfect world. However, these issues with the FSC reveal an even greater issue with sustainability and how it is approached today. We, as in consumers and the general population, have been relying on certifications like the FSC to hold industries accountable and solve complex, intricate issues like deforestation for too long by themselves. Certifications must be used in conjunction with government legislation and policies on the national and international level to appropriately attempt to solve issues like deforestation. Without support from government legislation and policies, the FSC, as a voluntary accreditation system and market-based solution, will likely never have the leverage needed to accomplish its goals. 

Despite these issues with the FSC, some certifications can be genuinely successful at what they aim to do. As I’ve begun to learn more about sustainability and have become more interested in sustainable fashion specifically, another certification that I’ve been seeing more frequently is the Global Organic Textile Standard Certification, or GOTS. 

GOTS is a textile processing standard for “organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain”. They have four member organizations which contribute to GOTS, with additional input from international stakeholder organizations and experts. They have a “stringent voluntary global standard” for the complete “postharvest processing of apparel and home textiles made with organic fiber” that prohibits the use of toxic substances and establishes strong labor laws (Read more about what exactly their certification requires here). 

But how exactly do they manage to certify companies for their entire processing system? 

One way is through on-site inspection and certification of processors, manufacturers and traders by accreditation bodies that have demonstrated their qualifications and expertise. There may be unannounced inspections based on risk assessments where samples may be taken for residue testing. Furthermore, these GOTS approved certifiers must adhere to other requirements like the content of their inspection protocol. Another way to check is by mandating that farmers “must be certified according to a recognised international or national organic farming standard that is accepted in the country where the final product will be sold” (Read here for more details on GOTS quality assurance system). 

This system has proven itself successful. In November of 2020, GOTS discovered 20,000 metric tons of fake organic cotton from one Indian company, and from the same company, it has collected “ considerable documentary evidence of systematic fraud and exploitation of the Indian government’s certification system of organic cotton production following surveillance audits by GOTS accreditation body”. All companies related to this fraud have since been banned by GOTS and Textile Exchange

In conclusion, my research into the GOTS and FSC certifications proves that no certification organization sets out to notaccomplish their goal. Of course they want to single handedly solve the issue in their mission. While certifications can be helpful in other ways, like by creating incentives for more ethical and sustainable practices in industry or bringing awareness to the general public simply by existing and exposing people to the issues that these certifications are trying to help solve, certifications can never accomplish their goals on their own. As a voluntary service and a market-based solution, certifications are only as ethical as the industry or region that they are operating in allows them to be. This is where government regulation and international cooperation must come in. 

But, how exactly will governments help solve these climate change related issues? 

Well, on a national scale, in 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which required the Environmental Protection Agency to establish national air quality standards for “common and widespread pollutants”. Later in 1990, the Clean Air Act was amended to address hazardous or toxic air pollutants, acid rain, ozone layer depletion, and regional haze. States were also required to adopt “enforceable plans” and control emissions that drift across state lines. As a result of the passing of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 Amendments, air pollutant concentrations such as particulate matter (particles that are small enough that they can enter your bloodstream through your lungs), lead, and carbon monoxide have decreased significantly and visibility has increased significantly in US parks and wilderness areas (Read more Here). 

On a global scale, in 1987, the Montreal Protocol was passed to protect stratospheric ozone by “phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances” (like CFCs). This Protocol was ratified by 197 parties, including the entirety of the European Union and all members of the United Nations. Despite fluctuations due to variations in stratospheric temperature and circulation, scientists have already observed “a 20 percent decrease in ozone depletion during the winter months from 2005 to 2016 ”. However, over these past few years, scientists have noticed an increase in the size of the ozone hole. This increase was due to the illegal production of CFC-11 in China, which was banned worldwide in 2010. The Chinese government has since cracked down on this illegal production, “strengthening its policies, regulations, monitoring and enforcement”(Read more about the Chinese Government's Response Here). On February 10, 2021, studies published in Nature, an international scientific peer-reviewed research journal, reported a dramatic decrease in CFC-11 since researchers initially observed the increase in CFC-11 production in China in May 2018.

Although both of these policies were established more than 30 years ago, the establishment of the Clean Air Act and the Montreal Protocol prove how the implementation of government legislation, policies, and regulations can succeed at solving climate change related issues. This type of international cooperation is possible. I know there are many concerns regarding cross-border regulation, political and corporate interference, what has to change now to make legislation implementation and cooperation between governments possible, and what type of accountability measures can be enacted to actually get the results desired, and I do not have answers to these concerns. This type of policy enactment will require many difficult, nuanced, and complex conversations, and there will likely need to be new conversations and agreements created for each problem addressed. It will be time consuming and certain groups may even leave these conversations feeling unsatisfied with the parameters set. However, while these frustrations and concerns are valid, our collective effort, as seen in the Clean Air Act and Montreal Protocol, will do more than any of us individually. Until more of this legislative implementation and international cooperation occurs, let’s focus on educating each other, and hopefully, as more people become aware of these environmental issues, more people will choose to make decisions that affect not only their daily lives but also their regional government.

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