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Certification’s Secret

As global business gears up to show its CSR credentials the role of voluntary third party certification has grown significantly.  Now a wide range of core risk control functions rely on third parties and certification. This covers vetting suppliers, checking on the provenance, environmental and social impact and safety of raw materials and ensuring legal compliance on a wide range of issues.  The demand has generated a huge industry in audit and verification. An industry which grows year on year to match the corporate aspirations of its patrons.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the standard setting bodies who create the benchmarks and audit criteria are somehow in control of the audit and verification industry. But you would be wrong.  Meeting the supply and demand for auditors and their availability is very much in the ‘invisible hands’ of the market. Why?

Let’s go back to the start. As global business seeks to address its problems it tends to form voluntary groups where it works out in a collaborative space what will ‘fix’ the issue under scrutiny.  From the commodity Roundtables to the social audit standards corporate activists work with civil society and occasionally governments to spell out what good looks like.  The principles and criteria are then generally articulated as a ‘public good’, no-one group or company owns them. Then a formal means of proving adherence is agreed.  This is the point when a standard setting process becomes an implementation process and an ‘assurance process’ is developed.

Implementation in reality is generally achieved by appointing professional Certification Bodies to administer the assurance procedures – from point of delivery (factory, farm or forest) passing on the claim through the supply chain in a Chain of Custody procedure.   Specialist procedures such as Bio-diversity, High Conservation Forestry, High Carbon Stocks, social or gender awareness assessments will also involve another tier of specialist assessors.  Each sub-standard has its own criteria and assurance procedures in constant development.  Certification Bodies now have their own auditors and standard setting bodies to check on their performance.

The process by which Certification Bodies assure standards on the ground requires thousands of assessors globally. Who are they and what is their skill set? It takes some detective work just to find out how many of them there are.  As few CSR disciplines have reached the rigour of the financial or food safety audit industry where country registers exist and professional qualifications are monitored; it’s a bit hit and miss in CSR.  All standard setting bodies are working hard to fill the gaps but the recruitment and management of certifiers is in the hands of the Certification Bodies, many of whom are simply commercial organisations.  How they choose to invest their training and management resources is not controlled by the standard setters.  So who does control who becomes an auditor? Strange but in reality no-one centrally.

The decision to pursue a CSR auditor qualification is generally made by the individual as a straight forward career path or business development decision.  Do I invest in getting this experience and these qualifications? Most will generally start as a sub-contractor to gain experience or may have their skills developed in an in-house role and then when the time is right move out to create their own business.  Certification Bodies currently rely heavily on sub-contracted labour to meet fluctuating customer demand for audit work.  There is no public reporting on how many staff in CBs are in house or external sub-contractors to help the public understand their business model.  In the really specialist areas some skills are rare and staff can and do move to those that will treat them best. Who works for who then becomes a moving feast with teams assembled project by project.

So a global industry which is safeguarding some of the key systems of the planet are de facto underwritten by the personal investments of assessors and auditors to build their skills and sell them to the highest bidder.  So whatever the branding and the hype it’s the woman or man with a laptop that really matters.  Keeping them they fit for purpose and able to see where risk lies demands investment and commitment.  Currently it is not transparent where that investment is coming from and in some cases it simply isn’t there leading to major skills gaps. That my reader is all certification systems dirty little secret – who trains and monitor assessors’ quality and skills.

About the author

Liz Crosbie

A sustainability professional for the last 25 years interested in where the world gets its raw materials, who controls and owns their trade and what makes value for all stakeholders. Trying to live a lower impact life as a maker, gardener and restorer. Loves bees, nature, art, crafts and good food.

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