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Certifiably Sustainable?: The Role of Third-Party Certification Systems - Report of a Workshop
RECOGNIZE CERTIFICATION’S LIMITS
To employ certification effectively, one needs to understand the limits of certification. Chief among these appears to be the fact that certification programs do not have enough authority to eliminate weak performers. While no one suggested that certification programs must somehow become more authoritative (through regulation or otherwise), a number of participants did emphasize that certification does not appear to be the right tool to raise performance at the bottom of a sector. Moreover, compromising compliance standards in order to capture more of the market seems likely to have a negative effect on the standards’ credibility. However, participants did point out that some certification programs are linking to complementary initiatives like a legality verification in the case of the FSC, and to a baseline standard in the case of 4C and the coffee industry.
On a related point, certification programs are relying on markets which are not yet robust enough to provide the authority to “force” producers into compliance. Sustainability as an issue appears to have marketing potential, as evidenced in part by the rise of “green” and “sustainable” claims. However, public education on sustainability needs further attention if it is going to become that point of distinction influencing a consumer to select a certified sustainable product over a conventional alternative. Several participants also remarked that international trade will not be a sufficient lever to impose sustainability. To date, certification schemes have focused on northern export markets, primarily the United States and the European Union. Producing countries, many in the global south, exhibit almost no demand for certified products, making them more vulnerable if overseas demand decreases. Trade between southern countries is also growing (e.g., China trading with African nations), but certified products have not been a focal point for these markets. In any case, government can play a catalyzing role in shaping markets and demand for certified products by requiring certification in its procurement mechanisms.
There is also a yet unanswered question regarding the scalability of certification schemes. Many of them were created in the belief that they could function as an incubator for what might eventually become industry standards. This trend, though, has been hampered both by competition among schemes in a given sector, and by the fact that schemes have focused on the top performers in the market. Most participants agreed that more thought may need to be given to where certification programs provide leverage to start moving the market, and at what point they may need to give way to regulation or other alternatives to mainstream sustainability standards.
Certification might be best viewed as a learning tool. A certified seal is shorthand for consumers, but it is also shorthand for merchants and buyers in business-to-business transactions. Certification could help merchants