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Welcome to the new Innovation Forum business brief. This time we look at the beyond-certification debate.
Is sustainability certification worth it?
The battle lines are being drawn in the merits-of-certification debate
Could the days of sustainability certification be numbered? Certification of commodities such as palm oil as a tool against deforestation sounds good in theory. If robust assurance is in place, certification can engender confidence in the supply chain and produce environmental and social improvements. But is certification really effective?
A growing body of opinion and evidence holds that it is not. Certification schemes have proliferated but the world’s sustainability problems are manifestly becoming more pressing. Clearly, sustainability certification by itself is not the solution.
According to detractors, certification has many weaknesses. Standards must usually be agreed across a sector or supply chain and might be set at a lower-than-optimum level to encourage weaker companies, rather than exclude them.
Complication creep
Schemes can be vulnerable to greenwashing. And once criteria are agreed, implementation must happen on an ongoing basis, with a complicated apparatus of monitoring to make sure that it is.
Companies might be spending money and effort on certification to obtain results that could more easily be obtained by other means. A recent study for the Mongabay Tropical Conservation Science journal indicated that certification schemes are less effective in cutting deforestation than company-led moratoriums in which brands simply refuse to purchase from suppliers that fail to protect the forests.
The study looked at the admittedly small sample of two certification schemes – the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy – and two moratoriums – the Soy Moratorium, which is designed to protect the Brazilian Amazon, and the Cattle Agreement, which also operates in Brazil.
The study concludes that certification schemes “are based on consensus and have lower requirements for reducing deforestation”, whereas the moratoriums are more black and white – stop deforestation or lose business.
Beyond certification
Another critic of sustainability certification is Scott Poynton, founder of TFT, which works with companies to reduce deforestation. In his new book published in June, Poynton argues that certification allows companies to, in effect, outsource deforestation concerns to someone else, as long as their raw materials arrive with the right labels.
In addition, certification schemes can be a brake on companies taking a more creative role to reduce environmental damage, Poynton argues.
He advocates instead a “VT TV” system – values, transparency, transformation and verification. He says that companies should set their own objectives based on their values, and should become more active in implementing them (the “transformation” part). Through practical experience – by, for example, working with local communities to prevent deforestation – companies will better understand the problems and will start to find innovative ways to tackle them.
Transparency is of course essential. Companies must be able to demonstrate that they are doing the right things, backed up by appropriate verification. In principle, public sharing of results will push companies to ever-greater efforts.
Scheme champions
Not everyone is happy with Poynton. Certification schemes have become industries in their own rights and have their own vested interests and supporters – not least some prominent NGOs. They argue that certification is a work in progress, with schemes being progressively improved.
In a recent commentary published on Mongabay, Greenpeace’s Grant Rosoman questions the sense in trusting companies to do the right thing. He argues that third-party verification and certification has a key role to play before company claims can be believed.
But the bottom line in sustainability should always be hard facts. Neither certification schemes nor moratoriums were able to stop the rate of deforestation in the Amazon suddenly increasing at the end of 2014, after some years of decline.
A rational approach – taking account of the fact, for example, that the situation for small holder farmers in Indonesia is very different than for large agribusiness in Brazil – would be a better way forward. Whatever works best in different places, to ensure that the goals of less harm are achieved, is ultimately what is required.   
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How business can tackle deforestation
Singapore 28th-29th September 2015
This is the next Innovation Forum meeting for business leaders, leading NGOs, government representatives and academics to further the discussion on how business can tackle deforestation across the supply chain.
Attending will be experts from UnileverWilmar InternationalRobertsbridgeTFTAsia Pulp & Paper, Sime DarbyCargillUBSWWFMusim MasNew Forests AsiaRainforest Alliance and many more.
To attend the forum and take advantage of a special discount book here or contact Charlenne Ordonez.
Upcoming Innovation Forum events

How business should tackle deforestation
28th-29th September 2015, Singapore

Ethical trade and human rights forum
19th-20th October 2015, London
How business can tackle deforestation – London
2nd-3rd November 2015, London
Why current consumer engagement on sustainability fails – and how to fix it
9th-10th November 2015, London
Sustainable seafood – how business can source, manage and improve fish and marine resource sustainability
25th-26th November 2015, London

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