Certification Schemes – A Guide But Not A Solution

Written by Claire Bolus.

With consumers becoming more aware of producer practices and product origins, companies realise the need to showcase their efforts towards creating a more sustainable future. By adhering to certain criteria, companies can receive public acknowledgement for their effort. This recognition criterion translates into different certification schemes. 

Certification schemes are developed to encourage organisations, businesses and farms to partake in sustainable practices. In order to earn certification within a particular field (for example, palm oil production, fisheries or textiles) companies need to comply with a set of standards set out by the necessary regulating authority. These independent auditing bodies monitor the production of various products to ensure an increase in socially sustainable and fair-trade items. While certification schemes initially focused on agricultural production, today they focus on many more complex issues, ranging from labour and production processes to lifestyle and end-use considerations.

Many companies adopt certifications, labels and ethical commitments to display credentials to the public and potential users. Certification schemes are becoming more popular, with many of them growing exponentially in the last few years. It is an ever-expanding market as the demand for sustainable and ethical products rise, and companies are determined to match consumer demands and expectations. The Ecolabel Index, the largest global directory of ecolabels, currently lists over 450 labels spread across 25 industry sectors and 199 countries. However, while the concept behind these labels is good, they can aid in company greenwashing.

The nature of certification schemes is to promote certain practices for farmers and producers and assure customers that ethical and sustainable practices have been followed. They have certainly aided in making consumers and producers more aware that sustainable sourcing is a priority. These schemes have encouraged consumers to research and become conscious of where their products originate and how they are sourced. Governments and organisations have also become more aware of sustainability concerns, with many making commitments towards positive change. Certification schemes provide both producers and consumers with a certain level of accountability regarding sustainable sourcing. For companies following the correct practices that these schemes encourage, certification protects sectors and individuals.

While certification schemes did kickstart acknowledging sustainable sourcing, some of these schemes have resulted in more damage than progress. Many certification schemes do not fully uphold their standards, making it easy for a company to receive certification. By lowering these standards, it enables more organisations to get accreditation. Due to a low standard of recognition, this behaviour will make the ‘stamp of approval’ associated with certification schemes obsolete. Rather than the number of certified industry members, auditing bodies should emphasise the quality of the industry members by focusing on improving the standards and striving for continuous improvement of members. 

Certification schemes can also take away from governmental and international regulations, making it difficult for these organisations to ensure uniform compliance across an industry sector. Despite governments and organisations being aware of sustainability issues, their power has diminished as they cannot regulate standards. Certification schemes should not replace current governmental and international regulations in place. A complication also associated with certification schemes is the different standards of compliance for various auditing bodies. Complying with a single universal standard is preferred over complying with multiple different standards. In situations where too many standards are present, it presents the opportunity for loopholes to emerge and creates space for certification bodies to interpret the standards in various ways.

Sustainability reports published by organisations often do not look at the complete picture. For example, the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia Borneo published a report focusing on the progress the plantation made in becoming sustainable and reducing deforestation. However, they did not mention that in order to build the oil plantation, deforestation needed to take place. This information tends to mislead consumers into thinking it is a compliant plantation when in reality the land was a rainforest, home to multiple species, that was destroyed in order to make room for a palm oil plantation. In these situations, the certification encourages consumers to support the company, thus adding to the issue already present. Additionally, certification schemes have been able to manage impact assessment and environmental risks, however, greenhouse gas emissions are not monitored, and neither are environmental areas nor animals protected.

However, if certification schemes are managed and monitored properly they can assist in sustainable development across multiple industry sectors. The standards and related certification schemes act as a communication tool between producers and consumers, which is important for sustainable development. In order for sustainable development to be encouraged, companies need to be transparent and their actions traceable. Certification schemes are being put under pressure by NGOs and scientists to adopt more sustainable methods to ensure that the certification companies receive is not a cover for unsustainable activities.

Adopting responsible policies is crucial in order to commit to continuous improvement and transparency. While these schemes do offer assurance of sustainable practice in some companies, they are not the sole factor driving sustainability forward. Companies are taking it upon themselves to develop partnerships with other companies to strive for sustainable practice and ethical sourcing. This way, they hold themselves accountable for issues faced and do not rely on bodies to call them out if there are problems. Certification has started the conversation about sustainable production, but now it is up to the producer and farmer to implement sustainable practises for the benefit of themselves and the planet.


To read more about sustainability issues of certification, click here.

For more on palm oil plantations and their impact on the environment, click here.