The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the certification and auditing services of Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS). The traditional approach to auditing—on-site visits—has been significantly curtailed, and it is unclear when, and under what conditions, it might resume in full. The purpose of this paper is to study the initial responses to COVID-19 of leading VSS—a group of 21 standards that are members of ISEAL, a global membership organization for VSS. This is a qualitative study, and data are collected from publicly-available sources (i.e., official announcements, policy amendments, derogations) in order to inductively analyze how individual VSS have adjusted their certification services in response to travel bans and lockdowns. The emphasis of the analysis was understanding the role of technologies in the VSS responses to the COVID-19 crisis. The findings demonstrate significant uptake of remote auditing and information and communications technology (ICT), even though that uptake is constrained by limiting conditions and it is not currently expected by VSS to extend beyond the crisis. Lessons learned from the crisis are discussed, and the potential for remote auditing during this period to encourage the adoption of more advanced technologies (such as artificial intelligence and satellite monitoring) in certification services is explored. A set of research questions to guide future work grounded in the analysis is also provided.
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