Achieving third-party certification can be a costly and time-consuming endeavour for companies. Whether a product or process is certified organic, certified fair trade, or certified sustainable, these seals of approval are meant to signal a certain quality or virtue to the public and to potential customers — at a cost. But what happens when the credibility of the third-party is called into question?
In 2009, Gibson Guitars’ Nashville, Tennessee plant was raided by US Fish and Wildlife Service agents upon suspicions that it was sourcing wood for its products from unsustainable sources, despite certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. The wood in question was slow-growing and under protected Madagascan ebony. Though the results of the investigation were inconclusive and Gibson has never been charged with a crime, the materials are apparently still in USFWS possession. The mere implication that there was wrongdoing is enough to damage the reputation of both the certified and the certifier.
In the case of Gibson, the company is such a titan in the guitar industry, it would seem virtually no controversy could tarnish their brand or their bottom line considerably. However, for the FSC this can raise major questions for those who care about this issue as well as bodies tasked with policing input sourcing. The third-party certifier is called into question to the point that there is actually a fourth-party organization called FSC Watch — essentially a watchdog organization for a watchdog organization.
It begs the question, is it worth it for companies to seek certification at all, or merely meet the minimum legal requirements to operate? If we are to progress beyond the bare minimum approach, watchdog bodies such as the FSC must be vigilant in ensuring their seal of approval holds water — and beat federal agents to the punch when it comes to enforcing standards.