27 January, 2020

The Certification in “Fairtrade Certified”

Eva Wiegand
by Gabriela Warrior Renaud, Fairtrade Canada

The Fairtrade certification system is run by an independent agency called FLOCERT. By checking compliance with Fairtrade Standards, FLOCERT ensures that the relevant social, economic and environmental standards are met for the raw materials and products that carry the FAIRTRADE Mark and that producers receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Fairtrade Premium.

Eva Wiegand is FLOCERT’s Senior Communications and Marketing Officer. The German native has been working from the organisation’s main office in Bonn, Germany for six years. Eva’s current favourite Fairtrade product is dark chocolate.

FC: Could you give us a bit of history of FLOCERT and what your role is within the Fairtrade system?

FLOCERT is the global certification body for the Fairtrade system. We were founded in 2003 because the system saw the necessity for an independent certifier. Before, you had the problem that the same organization who earned from the label was the one giving out certification. It's really an essential part of FLOCERT's role to independently audit all the companies who are participating in Fairtrade and verify that they are in conformity with the Standards as a separate unit to Fairtrade as such. We are the ones basically giving the system its credibility. We are the ones looking in our audits, into what the organizations actually do in their everyday work and  check if they do follow the Fairtrade Standards.

FC: How has the organization grown since 2003?

It's grown quite extensively! We started off in 2003 with three or four people who basically had to set up the whole scheme, to address the question, "How do we certify? What criteria do we use? How do we translate Standards into something that can be checked on site?" All this was built up over time and with the success came more people. Today we have around 150 staff all over the world. We started off in Bonn (Germany) in I think one or two rooms. And now we have in total six offices, one in Bonn which is still the main office, and regional offices in Costa Rica, India, South Africa, US and in the UK. So basically we are located in all the continents where we do our certification work as well.

FC: As a third-party independent certification body, FLOCERT plays a huge role in ensuring that the Fairtrade Standards are being followed throughout the supply chain. Can you describe how the certification and auditing process work?

The organization who wants to get audited or who wants to get certified ideally goes to our website where they can fill in the basic details for us to first check whether they are in scope of certification. The Fairtrade Standards, as you know, have a specific range of products. There are certain products which we cannot certify as FLOCERT because there are no Fairtrade Standards for it. So we first have to make sure that the organization that applies really does fit within the scope.

Once we've established that they are actually certifiable, what happens is that we do an audit for producer organizations, whereas for traders, when they've paid their fees, we give them a so-called Permission to Trade. This is a temporary document, which gives them the approval to trade Fairtrade.

The reason why [the process is different] for producers and for traders is that for traders, most of the criteria are around documents, to ensure Fairtrade is part of them and transaction are traceable. So you need to have done a certain amount of Fairtrade business before you can actually show the documents for that and before FLOCERT can actually verify that this is correct.

Whereas for producers, where the Standards are a lot more about working conditions and about production conditions, there's a lot more to look into, so we do the audit first. We assign an audit date to the new company and the auditor carries out an extensive initial  audit and then comes back to us with the audit report and the non compliances that were found, we call them non-conformities. The producer organization then needs to correct these non compliances and will get their own Permission to Trade respectively their certificate afterwards. The important thing is that once you've been audited and non-conformities were found, you have to correct them before you get certified. Once you're in the system, our auditing doesn't stop. We do have what we call a Certification Cycle, a three year cycle, which means that you will get audits after your initial audits, to check [that you are maintaining] compliance.

Many organizations get an audit every year, especially the ones that are in, for example, regions where we know that there are certain issues that we need to check on regularly. Whereas if you have a product or a setup which doesn't entail big issues, then you might not have an audit every year. But if you have specific products, big setups, a complicated setup or if you have a lot of Premium volume for example, then you are more likely to have an audit every year. The general rule of thumb is that you have two audits within the three-year cycle. Normally these are announced audits, but we also can carry out at any point in time unannounced audits. So it's not that once you've had your initial certificate, you can just lean back and do whatever you like, but you still need to show that you are in compliance, you need to work on it and you need to make sure that you keep compliant to the Fairtrade Standards.

FC: The farmers and workers who are part of the Fairtrade system live in 73 countries around the world. Are FLOCERT auditors familiar with these communities and the cultural context of these organisations?

Yes, they are. We use auditors who ideally, or normally, are based in the region where they audit. Often they will speak local languages, and they will know the local particularities, like the laws and practices there. They also know the background of specific trading situations or of particular issues that might always come up in specific regions, for example. So they know where to look, how to look and how to put things into perspective.

FC: Are these auditors coming with a checklist? What does a producer audit look like?

They do have a long checklist. What we basically did when we set up the certification scheme is that we translated the Fairtrade Standards into checkpoints. To make sure that our auditors, and also the organizations that we audit, have references of what is what. What is “in compliance”? What does it mean? When is it not compliant? We call this list Compliance Criteria, and every auditor takes this list to the organization that they want to check, and then goes point by point to make sure that nothing is overlooked and that all the criteria are covered.

FC: If there happens to be an infraction, or a non-conformity, found during an audit, what happens in that process?

At the end of every audit, the auditor will first of all sit together with the producer organization or with the certifiable organization in what they call the Closing Meeting, where the auditor explains the non-conformities found during this audit. The organization then has to make suggestions of how they want to correct these non-conformities. FLOCERT checks whether this is acceptable and whether this is possible. Once  approved by FLOCERT, the organization will carry out these so-called Corrective Measures and provide FLOCERT evidence that these actions have taken place. And then again, FLOCERT's analysts look into these proofs and check whether they can be seen as fulfilled. Once all non-conformities were corrected, FLOCERT can issue a certificate.

For us, when we find a non-conformity, we always say this is actually a chance for improvement, because you do need to identify a problem in order to be able to see it as such and to solve it. So basically, every non-conformity the auditor finds will lead to improvement on the ground for the farmers and for the workers. It sounds always rather negative to say that you found a non-conformity, but actually, we see it as a way of saying, "This is a way for you to improve and to really bring your organization forward." I think that's the spirit also of Fairtrade as such. It is about the development of the organizations.

We as FLOCERT also get audits because we are also accredited [against the ISO norm for product certification bodies, the ISO 17065]. So we know what it's like to be audited, and then maybe receive a non-conformity But this is not necessarily so dramatic, it takes the realization that you do have a problem before you can start working on it and improve things.

Sometimes we hear feedback from auditors who say, "I went to the initial audit and it was so different back then and now I come back to the organisation after so many years and they tell me that they've done this with the Fairtrade Premium, for example." And that makes it tangible, that is when you can really feel the impact.

FC: With the rise of different certification schemes and labels as well as the growing confusion, especially in North America, around these different labels, what do you see as the future of certification or are there any innovations that you've witnessed?

One of the big innovations that we are about to witness is the [use of technology]. It's a big buzzword obviously, but for example, two years ago we introduced  Fairtrace, which is greatly helping with reporting data. Certified organizations have to report their sales and purchases in it. Then their partners have to verify what their trading partners put in. So it's a second party verification system, which is great because you have validated data already and this connects business partners throughout the supply chain. The data is also audited, so our auditor will have an extract from Fairtrace and check on these transactions. I think that's something that's already really good because it's a reporting software system that helps greatly.

Apart from that, we've also moved to see how we can use technology for improving our assurance services. [We are also able] to really look more into specific problems that specific organizations might have and then focus, for example, a whole audit more on those issues instead of looking at the whole list of criteria. We’re looking into ways to further develop this, so you'll hear from us on that!