In practice

Insights from practitioners and members of local certification initiatives

The following brief, practical insights come from a virtual practitioner roundtable on 9 September 2020, plus conversations with experts around the world.

We are currently developing a Working Paper and will add more depth and analysis as we progress through the project. For now, here are some high-level points. Comments and suggestions are welcome at any time – contact Vanessa Hans

Structure

The structure of an initiative varies depending on what is being certified and how. A few ideas:

  • Some initiatives, such as the Banknote Ethics Initiative (BnEI), have a rigid audit process for companies, which have to comply with a strict set of principles and provide evidence. The BnEI therefore works with commercial auditors.
  • Other certification programmes, such as the Ethically Aware Supplier Induction (EASI) programme of The Ethics Institute in South Africa, do not certify the company and its actions but the individuals and their awareness and knowledge of compliance issues. In the case of EASI, this is done in conjunction with a local business school.
  • Some initiatives received initial support in setting up governance structures from donors and international partners.
  • Practitioners agree that involving the business community right from the start helps to shape standards and processes that are relevant and business-friendly. Some are led by associations of business and industry with an existing corporate membership base, while others proactively seek private-sector input through focus groups and surveys.
  • In contexts of widespread mistrust of government, some Collective Action initiatives may need to stress their independence from political actors in order to gain the trust of the private sector. Similarly, the Russian Compliance Alliance provides an anonymous online compliance self-assessment tool for companies that do not wish to provide their identifying details.

Funding and fees

All practitioners agree that sustainability is fundamental for certification initiatives. This requires a realistic and resilient funding model.

  • Most programmes charge fees for membership, training and/or the certification process itself. The fees vary depending on the country, industry and type/level of certification.
  • Many initiatives combine free and fee-paying services, for example, free basic training and information but a fee for the audit and certification process.
  • In-kind contributions from corporate members, such as hosting meetings or helping with communications, can help keep operating costs lows and get more members actively involved.
  • Setting up and implementing a certification programme from scratch can be very expensive, especially if few companies take it up after it’s launched. For new initiatives, practitioners advise waiting until the Collective Action has momentum and added value of certification is clear before investing.
  • Having a diverse range of income sources helps build financial resilience. Examples are membership fees, sponsorship, donors and services such as training.
  • Despite this, practitioners warn that the covid-19 pandemic and economic squeeze is making it more difficult for companies to pay for “non-essential” items such as local certifications or membership of a Collective Action initiative. Some have applied for temporary funding to help them survive this difficult period.

Standards and self-assessment checklists

Timelines and costs for companies

While some certification programmes allow companies or individuals to simply present for certification when they feel ready, most Collective Action initiatives involving certification have a timeline. There is, as ever, huge variety depending on the context and goals:

  • For some, the clock starts ticking when a new member signs up and commits to achieving a certain set of standards. Deadlines range from around 2 to 18 months.
  • As individuals and companies change, certifications need regular checks to stay valid. The usual timeline is 2–3 years, although some initiatives insist that companies undergo checks or refreshers more frequently.
  • Several Collective Action initiatives with a certification component require companies to submit a voluntary yearly action and report on progress against it.