Will Control Union shake tourism sustainability certification sector? – Interview with Anne Cobben–Da Costa

Anne Cobben – Da Costa Control Union Certifications

Why a sustainable tourism certification attracted attention of a big auditing player? Can a company with a little experience in tourism be a credible auditing body? These and a few other questions we asked Anne Cobben – Da Costa from Control Union Certifications, the first company to obtain GSTC accreditation.

Anula: For those, who don’t know Control Union Certifications, explain briefly what the company does and where it operates.

Anne Cobben-Da Costa Control Union
Anne Cobben-Da Costa, Account Manager at Control Union Certifications

Anne: Control Union Certifications is a certification body. We offer several certification programs, mainly focused on sustainability. In terms of sectors, our biggest experience is in agriculture and we mainly operate in food, food safety, forestry, textiles and bioenergy. We offer schemes like FSC, Global Gap, Bonsucro, among many others. We also offer tailor-made programs, when we develop certification schemes for big companies and their supply chains for example. For all programs we operate as third-party, providing auditing and due diligence services.

Just to give you an idea of our network, we have offices in approximately 70 countries with more than 3,500 employees worldwide. It’s a Dutch family company, established in 1920 in Rotterdam.

We are quite well represented in Europe but we also have a strong presence in South America, North America and Asia. We’re now slowly expanding in Africa.

Anula: You’ve been offering different certification schemes not much in tourism. Why did you decide to enter this sector and why you chose GSTC certification?

Anne: Yes, our experience in tourism is limited. The reason why we added tourism certification is because we see a great potential in this sector. There are many hotels and tour operators in the world, and interest in sustainability in tourism is growing both among consumers and companies. We’ve seen this happening in agriculture, where in the beginning there was a lot of resistance from both consumers and producers, who were questioning why they need to change their processes and standards and now sustainability is quite a mainstream. We believe the same will happen in tourism. It might take a while, because it’s a service rather than a production process, so it’s more difficult and less tangible but we do think that we can make an impact here and make things move faster.

The other reason why we really liked the GSTC standard, is because we always try to work with accredited programs. It’s a credible way of setting up a certification. You have three players – the standard owner – in this case GSTC, you have the certification body, and then you have the accreditation body. For us it is the most credible way to split between policy making, certification, and accreditation. We work with accredited programs in other industries as well, like FSC and MSC. We believe it’s a good way to enter a market.

The reason why we added tourism certification is because we see a great potential in this sector. The other reason why we really liked the GSTC standard, is because we always try to work with accredited programs. It’s a credible way of setting up a certification.

Anula: Control Union Certifications’ accreditation provoked some discussion within the tourism industry, questioning whether a company without expertise in tourism can be a credible auditing body. How do you respond to such criticism?

Anne: We understand that some parties are skeptical and people, who are working in tourism for a long time might not feel comfortable with new companies entering their playground.

The experience we have in tourism is limited, that is true. However, we have people in the organisation with academic background and working experience in tourism, including myself for example.

Then, in the auditing business, we have some experience with other tourism standards. For example we work with the French star rating system for hotels, and we work with quite a large hotel chain. Also we do food safety and pest management audits in Greece for the hotel sector. There’s also one auditor in our network, who works on a freelance basis for programs like Travelife, Green Key and Blue Flag.

And our strategy is to combine our current knowledge of the tourism industry with the experience we have in sustainability and other areas. Plus, we follow strict international auditing principles in accordance with ISO17065 for which we’ve been accredited by the RvA (Dutch Accreditation Council) and ASI (Accreditation Services International). We believe that this process will allow us to conduct audits for the tourism sector successfully.

Anula: How do you select and train your auditors to ensure the quality?

Anne: First of all, all auditors have to comply with strict qualification requirements. They need to pass 4 days GSTC course and exam, which includes both theory and practice. Then they need to have a completed IRCA Lead Auditor Training Course, an internationally recognised course that proves you have the skills to be the lead auditor. We also train auditors internally on stakeholder consultation. Then they have to execute the audits according to ISO19011. They have to sign a code of conduct, prove sufficient knowledge of English and the local language, and that they understand the cultural context of the country where the audit is conducted. We also have a few additional internal requirements for auditors.

Anula: Most of the environmental criteria are technical and universal for many industries, and therefore easier to check. The tricky parts are the social, economical and cultural criteria, which are less tangible and more difficult to verify. How are you making sure your auditors are competent enough to verify these aspects?

Anne: I agree. Social criteria can be often underestimated by people. If someone is a purely technical auditor and thinks he can do a social audits – he’s totally wrong. You need to sit down with people and talk with them. So also some of our auditors, if they are purely technical – they are simply not a good fit for the GSTC scheme.

So I understand you concern but we also look to make sure they have a set of skills and competences in the environment, social and cultural aspects.

We have quite an experience with social auditing. For 5 years we’ve been working for a big multinational, which has its own code of conduct based on the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. Additionally, we train our auditors on social auditing, and the training is provided by Verité, a labor rights NGO from the US.

There are a lot of other schemes we already work with that are purely social such as SMETA and ETI, and some schemes are adding social aspects like Global Gap and Bonsucro. And some multinationals are hiring us specifically for the social components. So we do not underestimate this.

We work for companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, H&M, with NGOs and banks, and we cannot afford risking the trust these companies have in us, and our image by doing program we’re not ready for. If there were any issues with GSTC scheme, it would affect our global image and we simply can’t afford risking that.

We work for companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, H&M, with NGOs and banks, and we cannot afford risking the trust these companies have in us, and our image by doing program we’re not ready for.

Another point very important to mention is our impartiality. At Control Union, an auditor can conduct an audit at a company in 3 consecutive years maximum, to avoid becoming too close with a client. Plus we conduct shadow audits on our own auditors, and ASI conducts witness audits on us, to ensure there’s integrity and that all our auditors follow the same principles. Finally, an auditor cannot provide consultancy and auditing services to the same client. This approach is in line with the rules set by ISO17065 and we have to abide by them.

Control Union Certifications and GSTC
Control Union and GSTC representatives at GSTC conference in Athens, November 2016

Anula: You received GSTC accreditation in November last year. How is it going so far?

Anne: We got accredited just before Christmas, so not much has happened since then. We’re now setting up GSTC auditor trainings in Bangkok and in The Netherlands. We’re about to train approximately 30 auditors from Europe, Asia and Americas. And then the local offices will start promoting GSTC certification in their local markets.

So far, we have mentioned GSTC on our global website, which already triggered clients to contact us. And then we’re looking at working with some big hotel chains, that we already have in our network.

Anula: Why should businesses choose you over other certification schemes? What benefits do you offer?

Anne: I won’t say they have to choose us. It’s up to the client to decide. We’re promoting ourselves as the first body to achieve GSTC accredited standard, which as GSTC says themselves – provides the highest level in terms of credibility within the GSTC framework.

We have experience in providing services for large multinational businesses, which can be an asset for a hotel chain or a tour operator chain, because they don’t want to deal with individual auditors in each country. They want one contact person globally who arranges everything. We offer individual certification as well as group certification, which gives us an opportunity to play with pricing.

We also offer other programs – we are strong with food safety, pest management, with ISO norms, which could be interesting for hotels. Also some hotels might know us from other industries, which strengthens our overall credibility, which could be another reason to work with us.

Anula: Do you have any specific goal or wish for this year, to say by the end – yes this is what we wanted to achieve with GSTC certification?

Anne: Not exactly. As we are really decentralised, it depends a lot on the local offices and local opportunities. Of course, we really want to start certifying soon. We’re doing quite some investments now but it’s really difficult to set any specific targets, especially that the sector is very new to us. In agriculture sector for example it’s very different because people already know us.

In terms of markets, Asia is definitely an interesting region, and the Mediterranean is another one we are looking at.

Anula: As you said, your name is not well known within the tourism industry. Are you planning to increase your brand awareness?

Anne: We are planning to attend tourism fairs. We already went to a Dutch tourism fair, planning to visit ITB Berlin and we will follow closely all GSTC events.

However, our hope would be to have a partnership with a larger client, that we could use as a showcase for others. It’s showing by doing. We prefer to show what’ve done and avoid empty marketing talk.

Our hope would be to have a partnership with a larger client, that we could use as a showcase for others. It’s showing by doing. We prefer to show what’ve done and avoid empty marketing talk.

At the end, I just want to say that we all work for the same goal, for sustainable tourism. Control Union Certifications’ focus has always been sustainability. We still have to learn a lot about the tourism industry but maybe others might be able to learn from us about auditing and sustainability. We believe it will be very valuable for the whole sector to exchange experiences and to have these conversations, instead of trying to compete. We as Control Union Certifications are open for learning and dialog with other parties.

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