The regular FSC International News & Views newsletter for April includes an interesting and unusual article.  It’s found down at the bottom under the sub-heading Stakeholder News:  ASI suspends SGS Hong Kong.  There is a link to the full article.

ASI (or Accreditation Services International) is the nominally-independent accreditation arm of the FSC organization.  Accreditation provides the rules of conduct and oversight for Certification Bodies – essentially the rules of the road for “certifying the certifiers”.  ASI generally keeps a rather low profile which makes this article all the more interesting.

SGS describes itself as “the world’s leading inspecting, verification, testing, and certification company.  Based in Geneva with affiliates worldwide they are clearly a major player in all things “third-party”, including the business of FSC certification.  Their Hong Kong affiliate – like all things in that part of the world – is enormous.  Its 2819 FSC certificates represent more than 10% of the total count of certificates world-wide.

I use the term “nominally independent” to describe ASI’s relationship to FSC intentionally.  I am betraying my own opinion on this subject.  Both ASI and FSC clearly intend their relationship to be independent, but the fact remains that ASI is entirely dependent upon and entirely accountable only to FSC.  FSC sets the rules by which third-party certifiers can conduct themselves out in the marketplace.  Then ASI enforces those rules – accountable only to FSC.  That’s just not independence.  The article seems to support this.  ASI is identified in the opening sentence but no link is provided and certainly no explanation of how ASI relates to FSC.  The article concludes this way:

This suspension is a clear indication of the high standards FSC expects its accredited certification bodies to meet and the meaningful steps that will be taken when these standards are not upheld.

So who expects high standards?  And who is taking meaningful steps?   These questions are important because this is not the first time that ASI has suspended an accredited FSC Certification Body.  I am personally aware of several other examples of this in the last few years.  It is – to my knowledge – the first example of where FSC has decided to call specific and public attention to it.  I wish I knew why.

It is widely acknowledged, both within FSC and in the broader community, that the FSC certification process has become increasingly and (for some) alarmingly more complicated in recent years.  Without exception, the certification specialists I work with – at SGS and other, similar companies – regard FSC/ASI accreditation to be one of the most challenging and frustrating of all the systems they work with.  This can, of course, be viewed as supporting FSC’s assertion of “high standards”.  It also adds cost and uncertainty into the marketplace.  This creeping cost, complexity, and uncertainty may be the single, biggest danger that FSC faces in the years ahead.