Certification – The Big Debate

The certification debate is a hot topic on everyone’s minds at work these days. It is something I’ve always been aware of, but perhaps didn’t have enough information about to formulate an opinion on it, but have been doing some research lately and find that I am still inconclusive in my personal opinion on the matter. One the professional hand, being an employee of a large environmental NGO that supports the certification of plantations and production lines, I am in agreement and understand the purpose of the system. On the other, more personal hand, it is a tough debate to crack and really know if certification works or not.

As far as I see it, here’s the problem – certification schemes are being developed to prove whether certain types of production are sustainable, taking into consideration a large number of criteria such as environmental impact, social impact, legal constraints, human rights, etc etc. Every certification scheme has their own set of criteria, (which I know is a growing problem that the environmental world is sorting through presently – to determine what criteria are absolute must haves before someone can get a “green” label on their product.)

While these certification systems are mapping out their necessary requirements, companies can work hard to fit within these criteria to receive their stamp of approval, “Rainforest Friendly”, or whatever the particular scheme may be. Given that there are so many different options out there, it is difficult to navigate which schemes are more credible than others, but to the consumer they may just see an eco-friendly label of sorts and think the product they are purchasing is, in fact, sustainable.

The debate I keep hearing in the news is the fact that there are certified plantations for commodities such as Palm Oil or Soy that are supposedly still practicing terrible methods of destruction, such as destroying local communities and ensuring their eventual extinction. But how can you prove this is really going on aside from digging deep into the corporations and monitoring their practices, (i.e. to go through the certification audit in the first place?) And once you do even that and find they come up clean, where are these bad practices supposedly happening that media outlets keep finding, but the certifiers seem to miss? I don’t believe it’s a question of corruption.

So the real question arises, is certification credible or is it not worthwhile? In my mind there are a couple of major points for each side.

On the Pro side; if there is no certification there is essentially no monitoring of forest production or sustainability, at least as far as the consumer is concerned. I wouldn’t know the difference between buying packaged products that contain palm oil from one producer that is watching out for the well-being of the local communities that surround the plantation, versus another who is wiping out hundreds of acres of valuable rain forest which houses endangered orangutans if not for certification labels that I can trust which ensure me that they are not overly destructive. Another point is that this production is going on whether certification exists or not. The laws of these poorer, tropical countries is not up to par with the mass destruction that is occurring and is hard-pressed to stop even further destruction of land that used to be valuable forest with high biodiversity. The certification system at least attempts to distinguish between the corporations that are bad and those that are less-bad and gives incentive to the worst offenders to clean up their act.

It is unrealistic in today’s world to say they should just stop production altogether. In fact, I challenge you to take a look at all pre-packaged foods you have at home, even some of your shampoos and conditioners, etc and see how many of them contain Palm Oil. It is so integrated into the modern world that production can’t simply stop, and so it must go on, but sustainably.Now for the Cons of certification. How can you continually monitor the practices of producers to ensure that even after certification they continue to comply with the certification requirements. If there are, in fact, some producers or large companies that have been certified that continue their bad practices, (further destroying forest, endangering habitats, killing the local economy, etc,) it means that the certification has had no impact on their production system and they almost have a “free pass” to continue these practices since they are already deemed to be “Eco-Conscious”.

Then of course certification begs the question if companies, once certified, are being granted some type of “permission” to continue cutting forest, or mass production, since they are doing it “sustainably”, (when really the overall goal of environmental NGOs is to prevent further destruction of land.) And of course, one must ask if the certification labels are actually having an impact on the people who purchase their products. Will someone go for certified or organic products over others, even if it’s likely a little more expensive, because they are more sustainable?

Have you lost interest yet, or are you still with me?

So of course this is all just my own personal opinion and ramblings, and perhaps the great debate over certification really goes much deeper than this, (as I said earlier, I am still just learning about the process.) But I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others who have had a glimpse into this topic. How do you feel about certification? Would you be more willing to buy products that have a stamp of approval that they are sustainable? Or would it not affect your purchases?

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