There are strict rules in the FSC system governing the relationship between certification bodies and certified businesses. These rules are set in the FSC standard FSC-STD-20-001 V4-0 General Requirements for FSC Accredited Certification Bodies. The standard sets specific requirements as to how certification bodies are to operate and conduct themselves when performing their audits with businesses that wish to be FSC certified.
Independence between FSC and certification bodies
To ensure their complete independence from FSC, all certification bodies must first be accredited with ASI. FSC is the only global forest certification system to have an integrated accreditation programme that systematically checks its certification bodies.
ASI is responsible for checking certification body compliance with our rules and procedures through a combination of field and office audits. The ASI annual assessment plans include a variety of audit approaches to safeguard that certification activities are conducted according to the FSC rules.
To guarantee objectivity and independence, ASI has several control measures in its quality management system, such as the signing of conflict of interest declarations by all personnel and committee members. Additionally, the ASI accreditation committee plays an important role in the accreditation process and ensures quality and consistency of decision making.
FSC itself has also increased its scrutiny on certification bodies and has dedicated staff in the international and national offices dealing with trademark protection.
FSC and ASI are members of the ISEAL Alliance, the international reference for credible sustainability standards. Both are audited at regular intervals against ISEAL requirements.
On certification body performance and suspensions
Certification body performance is highly regulated. FSC Standard FSC-STD-20-001 specifies how certification bodies must be organised to ensure consistency, competence and impartiality. There are further standards that describe how the actual audits are conducted (i.e. describing the process for stakeholder consultation and transparency).
If a certification body is found to have major non-conformities (that is, a deviation in its performance from the required standard) and these have not been addressed within the specified time, the certification body is suspended.
The ASI website includes a public record of all suspensions or terminations of certification bodies. Likewise, suspensions of certificate holders are visible on the FSC certificate holder database, which is publicly accessible through the FSC public certificate search.
Impartiality is one of the most important requirements for the way certification bodies operate. FSC clearly states that a “certification body shall be responsible for ensuring that certification activities are undertaken impartially and shall not allow commercial, financial or other pressures to compromise impartiality”.
Impartial certification decisions require using audit report review. These decisions must be taken by independent persons with appropriate technical backgrounds who were not involved in the direct audit process. This results in a certification decision based on the recommendation of the auditor and a review and post check of the audit process by another technical expert.
Additionally, FSC requires certification bodies to have a committee that safeguards this impartiality and supervises that it conducts itself in accordance to FSC’s ethical standards. One important task of the committee is to identify and prevent any tendencies which would allow commercial or other interests to influence the impartiality of the certification decisions.
On the topic of fees
Similar to any voluntary certification system worldwide, businesses pay for audits based on a specific fee system allocated by the certification bodies. FSC has no say in the fees that certification bodies request from their audited entities. This is also in line with audits for other business functions – such as financial audits or legal audits: businesses are responsible for paying the auditor for their services.
However, the general fee schedule of certification bodies must be publicly available (see FSC-STD-20-001: section 1.10.1). To address issues arising from competition on price between certification bodies, a pilot defining the frame for audit duration for forest management audits will be carried out in 2019 (see news item on “How long should an audit by an FSC-accredited certification body take?”).
Additionally, Motion 61 – passed in the last FSC General Assembly – requires a study to be carried out on possible solutions or mitigations for the business relationships that certification bodies have with their clients.
All FSC forest management audit reports are publicly available for transparency purposes. These reports include the information about the audit duration, which is part of the assessment cost.
On transparency, corruption and certification body/certificate holder conflicts of interest
FSC has zero tolerance towards corruption and requires certification bodies, forest managers and businesses certified to the chain of custody standard to conduct themselves ethically and free of corrupt methods.
It also requires certification bodies to verify whether corruption is in fact being combatted and/or avoided by certificate holders. Certification bodies themselves shall have, maintain and implement a documented anti-corruption policy to comply with the requirement of FSC-STD-20-001 – section 1.5.12.
To investigate and ultimately prevent any allegations of corruption, FSC has a diligent complaints procedure that can be used by any stakeholder to raise concerns about corruption. If a complaint is lodged pointing to allegations of corruption, FSC has mechanisms to investigate these through specific assessments conducted by ASI. FSC also requires an accessible, independent and time-bound complaints procedure from both certification bodies and ASI. ASI offers the possibility to file incidents in an informal or anonymous way. The accreditation body scrutinises these incidents and decides to either follow up directly where evidence is sufficient, or to recognise patterns that allow targeting oversight on high-risk areas and topics respectively. The annual assessment planning survey of ASI serves the same purpose and collects information from a wide range of stakeholders.
As a result of these investigations, if any wrongdoings by certificate holders are confirmed, certification bodies will have to take action, which may result in termination of the certificate. Similarly, certification bodies’ accreditation can be suspended or terminated by ASI if any evidence of corrupt practices by these bodies are confirmed.
Transparency is a very important aspect of the FSC system. To this aim, ASI publishes annual reports of its accreditation activity with certification bodies that are publicly available on its website. Audit reports about each forest management certificate are easily available through the FSC public certificate search.