Beyond Certification

Beyond Certification

by Scott Poynton


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Beyond Certification by Scott Poynton

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Is certification the solution? Can it deliver urgently needed improvements to complex problems like deforestation and the exploitation of people? In this controversial new book, Scott Poynton, founder of The Forest Trust, makes a compelling case for a new approach to social and environmental problems that goes "beyond certification".Certification emerged from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit amidst great hope. Since then, despite a proliferation of certification schemes in twenty-five industry sectors, the destructive and irresponsible exploitation of natural and human resources has grown still worse.

Beyond Certification reviews the positive aspects of certification, of which there are many, but argues that we can no longer afford to gloss over its failures.

The book offers an alternative model, VT-TV, based on Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification, which the author has been exploring and implementing with over 70 companies and industries around the world.

These companies are transforming the story of the raw materials they use – wood, palm oil, pulp and paper, stone, charcoal, soy, beef, sugar, dairy, rubber, coffee, cocoa and coconut. Mining companies are also exploring this approach, making decisions aligned with fundamental values and what they know to be right.The results? Trust is emerging as former combatants awake to the importance of working together.

Guns have been removed from forests, land set aside for protection, worker rights and conditions improved and long-standing conflicts have been resolved as people confront their legacies.

Beyond Certification does not claim that this VT-TV model is the only solution. Rather, it shows how new and seemingly radical thinking can catalyze positive change. Included: the limits of roundtable certification illustrated with real, practical examples; the intricacies of the change process – how companies move from destructive to more responsible practices; how to implement more holistic, economically effective, durable systems to better protect people and the environment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781910174531
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Series: DoShorts Series
Pages: 76
Product dimensions: 5.78(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.21(d)

About the Author

Scott Poynton founded The Forest Trust (TFT) in 1999 and has led the organization since. In addition to his experience in Australia, Poynton has worked in Africa, Europe, across Asia and the Americas and has a wealth of experience bringing change to a variety of industries, particularly the forest and wood, palm oil and pulp and paper sectors. He was deeply engaged in the certification movement for many years but has become a concerned and increasingly vocal critic since disengaging in 2012.

Read an Excerpt

Beyond Certification

By Scott Poynton

Do Sustainability

Copyright © 2015 Scott Poynton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-910174-54-8



And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good – Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?


ALMOST EVERY WEEK since I agreed to write this book, something has happened that reinforces my view that certification cannot deliver the deep, transformational change we require, and that we badly need to go beyond its narrow constraints as quickly as possible. A two-day meeting I attended on ethical recruitment strongly reinforced my sense of urgency. It involved a great cross-section of folk from the business community, recruitment agencies, civil society, government and the UN, all working on migrant issues. The organisers had convened this multi-stakeholder group because they wanted our input on their new certification scheme to accredit recruitment agencies. Their hope was that a multi-stakeholder body could be set up to design and run the scheme and, through it, help transform the recruitment industry.

I was only able to attend the second day of the meeting, the focus of which was accreditation and licensing frameworks, monitoring and compliance mechanisms, and complaints procedures. I was to share TFT's experiences in helping folk comply with standards. Discussions on the first day had apparently bogged down very quickly over a draft of ten (why does it always have to be ten?) principles for ethical recruitment. Nothing was resolved; further discussion and process were required. I spent much of the morning of the second day just listening. By lunchtime I had a list of words – 'certification', 'licensing', 'accreditation', 'systems', 'standards', 'hoops', 'credibility', 'regulations', 'auditing', 'monitoring' and 'simplicity', the latter spoken as a plea that the scheme not become an unmanageable burden. These words had come up again and again as people shared their thoughts on what might be done to get the scheme up and running, to ensure it remained credible and simple. It wasn't an inspiring discussion. Quite the contrary. Everyone's dry mulling on the issue lacked any hint of the passion that had brought us all together.

Then, just before lunch, a fascinating thing happened. One of the recruitment agency guys jumped into the fray and broke ranks, broke away in fact, from the dry discussion of the past day and a half with a passionate speech about doing the right thing. 'We don't need anyone to tell us what's right or wrong, we already know!,' he almost yelled in exasperation. 'We know it's not right that these people pay recruitment agencies. We know it's not right that they have their passports taken. We know these things. They're self-evident.'

'We just need to do what's right!'

He didn't bang on the table, but he physically rose up. His words were full of emotion as he expressed with great passion what were clearly intense feelings and strongly held values around ethical recruitment. 'We have to respect these people! We have to value them, treat them as human beings,' he pleaded. He had something deep inside him that he really needed to get out, and nothing was going to stop him. His parting shot – he was leaving the meeting at lunchtime – was to mention the need to 'do the right thing' at least five more times. His outburst was borne of frustration, of the need to tap back into that well of inspiration that had brought him and everyone else together, but that had so far failed to find expression.

It was terrific to see his passion burst forth. But even more incredible was to see everyone else in the room light up from his spark. The energy was palpable, extraordinary. In a frantic 30-minute burst everyone else fought to seize the moment, the opportunity, that his breakaway had created. Each and every person jumped in with their own passionate statements about 'doing the right thing'. No one mentioned the words on my list. There was nothing about certification schemes, systems, accreditation or regulation. People just spoke from their hearts about 'doing the right thing'. Instinctively we all knew what the right thing was, and now we just needed to get on with it.

Wow! Right there in a nutshell, the problem with certification. For one and a half days this group of great people, of true believers, who had come together on the common ground of a deeply held passion to do the right thing on ethical recruitment, had been anaesthetised by long, fruitless discussions on the ins, outs and intricacies of an ethical recruitment certification scheme. Those passionate people didn't have to build a certification scheme. They could have dreamed a different approach. But from the start they had chosen to stick with someone else's agenda. Certification is what everyone does, right? It's the thing. It's how you control people. So that's where the discussion had focused from the start. There was no room for creative 'what if' or 'beyond certification' thinking, no attention given to any different approach. The participants were there to tick someone else's boxes, to speak on someone else's agenda. It was only when that spark of passion re-entered the room through the red face, emotional voice and raised veins on the neck of the breakaway that the energy that drives the transformation they all prayed for became present.

What the group might have done instead is the focus of this book. It is fundamentally about harnessing the energy, passion and spark created by breakaways in those moments when they cast off the layers of control and speak only from the soul. It's about how we might use that enduring power, that extraordinary life force, to come up with a different approach beyond certification, and create real, transformational change in the way we interact with each other and with nature. It's about just doing the right thing.

It's a hopeful, whimsical story about a positive exploration of what might be, about a journey we might all take to a different place, if we're brave enough to reach down into our souls and touch that passion, that knowledge, that lives within us all to just do the right thing. It's a story about what some companies have in fact already done when they have acted according to their hearts and true beliefs, and broken away from the shackles of control imposed by certification.


Certification's Record

"We had also, to all the visitors who came over there, been one of the bright shining lies."


I PERSONALLY BELIEVE that certification is one of the brightest bright shining lies of the sustainability movement. I have seen the evidence too many times. Now, 20 years into certification, we have reached the point where we must take an honest look at certification to discover both its achievements and its fatal flaws. Despite the many people who declaim 'What do you mean certification has failed?', it is essential that we take this hugely important early step on a path toward change. While I prefer to focus on solutions, they only make sense if we understand where and why they're needed. I hope that some of the following review will shed light on our blind faith in all things certified, and move us toward doing the right thing – and quickly.

Come on, it's not all bad!!

Let me be very clear – certification is not all bad. Much has been written about its positive aspects by a variety of organisations and people. There is broad consensus around the seven positive contributions of certification schemes that I summarise below. Other people would surely add more.

They get protagonists together. The FSC brought NGOs, companies, communities, experts and other folk together to develop and agree to the first ever Principles of Forest Stewardship, a global standard that could be applied to any forest management context. It established the concept of multi-stakeholder standard setting and regular meetings to review and vote on new concepts and agree on new directions.

They have a strong foundation in democratic principles. Certification schemes embody democratic governance such that all members can voice their opinions and aspirations to the governing body and vote on standards and proposed changes to how the organisation operates. Generally participants cannot be bullied into a decision.

They establish agreed-to standards. Standards give concrete life to a consensus view of what good resource management looks like in a given industry. They are statements of what a particular group of stakeholders was able to agree to at a particular time, though they may not meet everyone's aspirations. Standards provide a framework for training programs on what good management looks like and how to achieve it.

They improve natural resource management. At certified operations certification has moved natural resource management in the right direction, helping resolve land-use conflicts, engage indigenous communities in positive resource management and foster respect and protection of their rights and resources. In some important cases, certification has demonstrated how business, community and nature interests can be reconciled.

They offer grievance procedures. Although anyone can file a grievance, for NGOs in particular the grievance procedures have been a key reason to engage. They provide an avenue of appeal that gives some leverage over companies seeking certification.

They enable companies to communicate their commitments. Before certification it was impossible to tell what any of the incredibly numerous sustainability labels meant, if anything. Now companies can use a single global label to communicate their sustainability commitments and performance to customers, shareholders and suppliers.

They help consumers connect with sustainability. Certification offers consumers a way to make informed choices for more ethical purchases.

OK, so what is the problem?

In the post-Second World War era, producers were heavily and often brutally exploiting the world's natural resources, with serious negative environmental and social consequences. Then along came certification, which provided unquestioned benefits and created a sense that we cannot do without it. In light of how bad things were before, it's understandable that people cling strongly to an innovation that offers such hope.

Yet for over a decade I have watched certification consistently fail to deliver industry-wide transformation, all the while becoming an industry in its own right. It is incontrovertible that the people and environment the certification schemes are supposed to protect, preserve and enhance aren't faring so well. If we are to believe all the excitement and razzle-dazzle about the sustainability that certification schemes purport to deliver, at the very least the world should be on a strong path toward improvement. Sadly, it isn't. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars washing through the certification world, the many company representatives that sit on certification scheme and NGO boards, the money flowing into NGO partnerships and the positive communications and awards showered upon companies for their certification 'sustainability' efforts, the world is still headed in very much the wrong direction.

This strong disconnect demands attention. My own analysis is that certification schemes cannot and never will be able to deal with the growing number and diverse array of hugely difficult and extremely complex issues the world faces. In fact, our over-reliance on certification schemes is a big part of the problem. They allow people to make lots of money while smothering the critical analysis, debate and innovation that can lead to a fundamental transformation in how we interact with each other and the natural world.

So let's look at what's wrong with certification schemes.

A bedrock belief that people can't be trusted. An implicit consensus has emerged among all certification schemes that people can't be trusted. So for any scheme to be effective, it must require that participants tick its boxes and abide by its accreditation systems, its norms on how members interact, its guidance on what can and can't be said about the certification journey and its results. In short, it binds people within a framework of command and control. When certification schemes fail, for example when false claims are revealed, the standard response is to ratchet up the rules, tighten control procedures, because tricky people clearly are enacting clever workarounds. A 'failure/more rules' cycle means that each and every certification scheme has its own raft of controls to keep participants strictly in line. Probably most people don't even know they're buying into this misguided 'please don't think outside our boxes' attitude. Certainly they weren't thinking about its consequences – that this very belief that people can't be trusted kills any hope for the future. Why? Because our future depends on our coming together to engage in some deep thinking and creative soul-searching to find innovative ways to address the wicked problems like deforestation and exploitation that beset us. And after that, to continue working together to overcome those dragons. Meaningless abstractions? I don't think so – without that connection to core values and passion, and to like-minded colleagues, a company's commitment to stay the course will fall away quickly when the change journey gets tough, as inevitably it does. Then it's back to the deadly business as usual.

An end game of membership, not transformation. Certification schemes point to the number of members or participants at a meeting as proof of impact. Does the number of members necessarily equate to success or rigour? The reality is that many companies engage to be part of the 'sustainability pack'. They use certification as a risk management strategy, postponing change by engaging in the endless discussions that precede decisions.

A wrongheaded emphasis on pre-competitive processes. 'Sustainability' has always been conceived of as something that should be done pre-competitively. It is, after all, about everyone and everything winning and the whole world being made better. Logically, then, all the players should get together pre-competitively to work out the best way forward; they should seek processes that lift all boats together. They can't let certification be soiled by the nasty world of competition where bad things happen. But multi-stakeholder, pre-competitive certification processes are the opposite of the cut and thrust, uncomfortable real world that emboldens innovation and risk takers. They disarm the dynamic life force of human ingenuity that, when released, brings change and transformation. Competition is exactly what creates the risk that makes people feel vulnerable – which is when they feel a need to change.

A code of silence. Certification schemes have in-built mechanisms for silence. The norm is to communicate concerns behind closed doors. Going public is anathema because it undermines the scheme. This group-think kills debate and introspection.

A status akin to religion. With certification seen as the 'truth' and in-built mechanisms that silence criticism, certification has become something akin to a religion, where you're either in or out. And as with most religions, in some sectors the religion is fragmented into vehemently opposed 'churches'. In the forestry sector, the FSC and PEFC schemes compete with noteworthy vitriol. Again, the result is a stifling of introspection and innovation.

Standard setting and review processes that contribute to business as usual. In the case of standard setting, the quality of the standard depends on who is at the table during negotiation. When a party disagrees with a proposed change to business as usual, consensus rules the day, and the result is the lowest common denominator of agreement. Alternatively, if a party lobbies hard against a crucial change, the matter gets spun off to working groups, and after the ensuing endless process, typically the decision is business as usual. The process itself is not transparent, as concerns are hidden from public view. And any review of the standards reawakens strongly held positions and ignites endless negotiation and wordsmithing. Despite the impression of progress, are the members really happy?


Excerpted from Beyond Certification by Scott Poynton. Copyright © 2015 Scott Poynton. Excerpted by permission of Do Sustainability.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Abstract and KeywordsAbout the authorAcknowledgementsPreface1: Introduction2: Certification’s record3: Moving beyond certification- V for Values!- T for Transparency!- T for Transformation!- V for Verification!- That’s it VT-TV!4: Between two worlds5: Setting spirits freeNotesReferences

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