"In 2004, a new FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] accreditation standard was introduced in order to bring FSC’s certification system in accordance with ISO’s international standards for certification. Now after 6 years there is clear evidence that this ISO-fixation is undermining the integrity of the FSC system, by shifting the focus away from improving field performance to evaluating systems. Stakeholders, however are not interested in systems, but verification that good forest management is happening and that claims are really trustworthy."writes Peter Feilberg, CEO of NEPCon in a recent post.
I concur in his critical view on the ISO "quality management systems approach".In theory it sounds good, but the reality is quite different.
Micheal Power has written a book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification which draws largely from financial audits. His conclusions are largely that the audit explosion is driven by vested interest and a failed attempt to minimize risk by focusing systems rather than actual performance. (a review of the book can be found on http://www.developmenteducationreview.com/issue11-review2 )
I have myself criticized the ISO inspired development of organic certification for almost twenty years now. And it is certainly an area I have a lot of insight in. I have helped a handful organic certification bodies to get accreditation and helped another handful to install "quality management systems". I have also worked as an auditor for the same period of time. I summarised some impressions of the accreditation process in a Leader in The Organic Standard November 2009
How valuable is accreditation?
A survey on accreditation, recently conducted by TOS, shows that there is considerable discontent with how accreditation systems are operated. In particular, respondents criticised national accreditation bodies within the EU for their high fees, the poor correlation between fees charged and work done, bad service and the low level of competence. Compulsory accreditation for organic certification bodies is fairly new in the EU system. The EU has maintained a policy of national monopoly in accreditation. The logic behind this policy is that if there was competition between accreditation bodies, a super accreditation system would be needed to monitor them – another body that determines which are reliable. Many question the wisdom of this monopoly. A critical voice in the TOS survey described the EU model as having ‘only God above the accreditors and God doesn’t care a lot about accreditation’.
Controversially, the EU has never been able to explain why a single monopolistic accreditation body is more reliable than competing ones. Admittedly the accreditation bodies have a certain self control, peer-review, in the International Accreditation Forum. But it is hard to understand why the EU policy can accept the relevance of peer-review on the accreditation level and not on the certification level? All the arguments for maintaining an accreditation monopoly can be applied just as well to certification, making accreditation itself redundant. There is one question that was never asked, and which the TOS survey did not answer: ‘is there value in the accreditation?’. Such a question has many facets. One is whether accreditation is of direct value to the development of the organic market. Most likely the answer to this is ‘no’. Consumers have no understanding about these issues, and the fact that the certification body is accredited is of no relevance in the marketplace.
Regarding competition between certification bodies, in situations where accreditation is not compulsory, accreditation might bestow a certain market advantage. This would not be towards consumers, but towards the clients, who might want to know that their certification body is reputable and reliable. IFOAM accreditation has its main function here. If accreditation improves the credibility and reliability of the certification process it might have long-term positive effects. But in reality does it? We do not know. It is obvious that some kind of supervision of certification organisations provides a certain guarantee against direct fraud, but it is an untested assumption that accreditation is the most efficient process. Other untested options include direct control by the authorities and a peer-review system, or even much simpler measures such as increased transparency in the certification process.
One aspect that influences the reliability and usefulness of accreditation are the norms that are the basis for accreditation. The norms currently in use, such as the ISO 65, have been developed with quality management systems as models. However, it is not difficult to find ISO 9001 certified companies that offer very poor services or produce inferior products, and it is not difficult to find ISO 14001 certified companies that are damaging their environment. It is also not at all hard to find ISO 65 accredited certification bodies that are doing a bad job and whose certification decisions are dubious. The TOS survey indicates that part of the problem might be the competence of the accreditation bodies to interpret the norm. But the problem is probably deeper than that. The adoption of the quality system model in organic certification has hardly led to a measurable increase in reliability. At least thereis no research to support the claim – admittedly there is also no research that points to the contrary. While a quality management perspective and procedures certainly can be valuable, there are three disadvantages. First, these systems are resource-intensive, and to design, implement and maintain such a system would take a lot of resources away from other necessary work. Secondly, attempting to correct everything by stressing the system and the procedures disregards the human factor. It expresses a view of humans as automata. But we are not that, and real people simply do not always follow procedure. Sometimes they cheat and other times they have a bad day. Finally, a quality management perspective takes the focus away from what is actually happening and emphasises the written plans and procedures. The accreditation process is mainly designed to identify missing policies or procedures and not to detect faulty certification decisions, or sloppy inspections. The focus on the quality management system needs to be put under scrutiny, and those that promote it should come up with evidence that it delivers what we want at a reasonable cost.
(from The Organic Standard)