• QA 100
    In a Code of Conduct or coffee standard, what is the difference between certification and verification?
    Having read a number of recent articles on certification schemes I am still not clear about the difference between 'certification', 'verification', 'auditing', 'compliant' etc. Can you provide a brief analysis of these different terms?
    Asked by:
    Producer Association - Zambia

    Certification and verification in the coffee sector are quite close to each other. In general, both aim to provide information on or to confirm a set of standards through a check against established criteria that, usually, promote sustainable production. However, there are substantial differences as well…

    Certification guarantees through a certificate that specific rules and regulations of voluntary standards are met in a certain environment (e.g. individual producer, producer group, cooperative or even region). These producers have to meet certain requirements - social, environmental, ethical - and certification calls for independent third-party confirmation of this status, conducted by an accredited auditor. Mostly, certifications have to be renewed on an annual basis.

    Roasters buying certified coffee benefit from the guarantee provided by the certificate by using the logo and related information on their retail packaging. Certification protects both buyer and supplier, often also resulting in better marketing opportunities since there is a specific demand for certified products. But, certification can be a time-consuming and rather costly process. Hence certified products are often sold as high value and quality products, resulting in price premiums for producers. However, for many if not most consumers the intrinsic quality of a product is of greater importance than the certified compliance with a code of conduct or standard. As a result most certification schemes are limited to niches since only limited numbers of consumers are willing to pay the premium!

    For some examples of certification schemes go to www.fairtrade.net, www.rainforest-alliance.org, www.nationalzoo.si.edu, www.utzcertified.org.

    Verification also ensures that certain agreed criteria and practices are met, but does not use a certificate to market the claim to the final consumer. Instead company standards or internal supply chain standards rely on verification processes that are not as rigid and costly as a certification process that has to be conducted by appointed auditors. Instead, local third-party actors such as NGOs - or even second-party actors - may be asked to verify adherence to specific criteria. In addition, the timing between repeat verifications may be significantly less onerous than an annual re-certification process.

    However, sustainability as such does not need this guarantee of a certification or verification. Often, producers are already improving performance and efficiency significantly through the use of good agricultural practices (GAP) and/or good management practices (GMP). Certainly, this does not imply the need for an audit procedure…

    Nevertheless, consumers generally wish to be able to place a certain trust in claims such as "this is an environmentally friendly" or "socially responsible" product.  And at the same time, an external third-party evaluation that points out the need for improvement, and what can be done to accomplish it, can be very useful for a producer.

    This was one of the motivations for some major stakeholders in the coffee sector to come together to develop what is now known as the Common Code for the Coffee Community or 4C initiative*. 4C offers guidelines for better coffee farming that link up with GAP and GMP, whilst aiming at continuous improvement. Entry level is flexible, using a traffic light system rather than a fixed set of requirements.  In addition, 4C uses a verification system based on internal monitoring mechanisms at the collective level, with random checks at individual producer level only, thus focussing on the process rather than the product. Verification updates or renewals will not be conducted annually but may take place at any time during a period of up to five years. In the main verifications will be carried out by local actors.

    The 4C approach of continuous improvement is meant to ensure that all who can reasonably qualify may do so, and may access the mainstream market as 4C producers. Raising the level (quality, efficiency, sustainability) of mainstream coffee production generally avoids creating yet another niche product with, in the end, a limited market.  Therefore, also the claims 4C makes will not be as specific as those of certification schemes and it will refrain from using an on-pack (retail) logo.

    Especially in the smallholder environment (most mainstream coffee is smallholder produced!) the application of good agricultural and management practices, together with encouragement towards continuous improvement, will result in higher efficiency and profitability. At the same time, being 4C compliant will make it easier to achieve a niche certification standard for those who wish to do so. More important though, being 4C compliant will help to maintain and improve access to a mainstream market that currently represents something like 85 or 90% of world exports.

    4C is not visible in the market as yet because it is still under development, finalizing its operational and institutional set-up. The first 4C compliant coffee is expected to enter the market by the end of 2006. For more information on 4C go to www.sustainable-coffee.net.

    Posted 08 June 2006 

    * Multi-stakeholder involvement as understood by 4C means the three constituent groups of Producer Organizations, Trade & Industry, and Civil Society. 4C Initiative donors are the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development through GTZ - German Technical Cooperation; members of the European Coffee Federation - ECF; and SECO: the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs that also finances the current operations of www.thecoffeeguide.org

    Related chapter(s):
    Related Q & A:
    QA 081, QA 085