Technology-enhanced Auditing in Voluntary Sustainability Standards: The Impact of COVID-19
3. Research Approach
3.2. Data Collection Procedure
“We are providing a two-month extension period on surveillance and re-certification audits to AWS until 1 June 2020. We are continuously monitoring and reviewing the situation and will keep you updated with the latest developments”.
4.1. Remote Audits
“The policy sets out various scenarios including surveillance audits (which must be carried out on an annual basis throughout a farm’s certification) as well as re-certification audits and initial audits. In some cases, audits may be carried out remotely, or partly remotely where some, but not all, auditors are able to attend. In other cases a farm’s certification may be extended if it is not possible to carry out a re-certification audit within the required timeframe. Further details on these scenarios, the possible options, and the requirements for these options, can be found in the full policy document.”
“open major CARs [Corrective Actions Requests], supply chain integrity issues (e.g., integrity investigations involving the certificate holder/production sector or trading species), subcontracting / outsourcing of certified activities in response to the coronavirus outbreak, ongoing complaints”
“Objective evidence that can be reviewed remotely includes documentation and some testimonials. For example, interviews of management, staff/workers and stakeholders may be possible and appropriate, depending on access to web-based communications (or similar) and the health of the individuals. General principles for interviewing in the ASI Assurance Manual still apply. Objective evidence that cannot be reviewed remotely is observation evidence. Verification of on-site implementation, process control and risk control where relevant in applicable ASI Standards cannot be audited using remote audit techniques.”
“A method for assessing whether an on-site audit can be replaced with a desk audit, A description of the desk audit methods to be applied in the case of Forest Management and Chain of Custody, A process to implement the reporting and record keeping requirements of this derogation.”
“The auditors (remote or on-site) shall have conducted at least two ASC audits in the standard that they are auditing in the same role (lead or social auditor). These two audits shall have been conducted after auditor’s sign-off by the CAB. Shadow audits for initial approval shall not be considered.”
4.2. Use of Technologies
“▪ Teleconferencing using video and/or audio ▪ Sharing of data ▪ Assessment of documents through remote sharing, teleconferencing or other means ▪ Video and/or audio streaming from remote locations ▪ Records of video and/or audio and/or video stills and/or screenshots.”
“[Question]: Our Internet connection is not very good and/or we do not have access to all the technology needed. What should we do in case we cannot hold the audit remotely due to these technical problem(s)?
[Answer]: Of course, technology and especially a stable internet connection that allows for a transfer of documents and information is key for the remote audit. In the preparation and scoping call with the auditor please raise and discuss all challenges you might face in this regard. Generally, different options to perform the remote audit are possible: The live interaction with the auditor is ideally done via a web-based audio or video tool. In case teleconferencing is not possible due to poor internet connection, a live interaction via telephone is an option or even via an instant e-mail exchange on an agreed date. In any case, the auditor will try to accommodate your preferred option. If the auditor realises that none of the previous options are realistic, we may need to postpone the remote audit, and this decision will then be conveyed to you thereafter.”
“The preferred format of a remote audit is a video call supplemented by the business providing documentary evidence. Any technology that can include at least 3 parties can be used in order to enable remote witnessing of audits – for example, WhatsApp Call, BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom. If this is not possible, the audit can involve a phone call supplemented by the business providing documentary and photo/video evidence” (LEAF Marque Remote Audit Protocol).
4.3. Policies Issued by VSS during the Pandemic
“This Policy is valid from publication date until September 30th 2020 or until further notice whichever comes first…. [The policy] is to provide some flexibility to CABs and ASC Certificate Holders affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We are considering requests for desktop auditing and postponement of audits. All requests must be discussed with your certification bodies and they will contact Bonsucro. For Bonsucro members and potential members due to be audited after June 2020, we expect audits to be carried out as normal, however, we will continuously monitor the situation and act accordingly.”
5. Discussion on Adoption of Technologies for Auditing
5.1. Long-Term Implications for Remote Auditing
“So, does remote auditing sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but let’s clarify what it means here. If remote means “trying to do the same thing from far away” – the truthfulness of the audit will inevitably drop overtime. It simply means that auditors won’t even be able to smell that the paint is fresh. In other words, they would get less ‘hints’ if what they see is real and representative of a well performing company – or just a ‘cover up’, as this is what good auditors do. They would even be further confined in choosing where to look and what to audit. Under this scenario, after COVID-19, the auditing sector would likely move back to “traditional auditing”, no matter what its well-known limitations are. By contrast, if remote means real time direct access to information (the way the term is used in IT and telecommunications), the COVID-19 crisis may create the innovations boost that the rather conservative audit sector has been in need of.”
- Has the experience with remote auditing during the COVID-19 crisis changed VSS’ views on its applicability to their certification processes?
- To what extent do VSS users and other stakeholders prefer on-site auditing to remote auditing (or vice versa)?
- Under what conditions is remote auditing appropriate?
- What is the perceived effectiveness of remote auditing relative to on-site auditing? How and under what circumstances can risks to integrity of remote audits (e.g., risks specified in the ISO 9001’s Auditing Practices Group Guidance on: REMOTE AUDITS) be addressed?
- What are the strengths and limitations of using remote auditing for different types of audits and in different industries? What are the detection rates of non-conformances in remote auditing in comparison to on-site audits?
- To what extent does the use of remote auditing change stakeholder views on credibility of the certification?
- To what extent will the changes made during the pandemic impact stakeholder views of the procedural fairness, consensual orientation, and transparency of the VSS?
- To what extent did the use of remote auditing change stakeholder views of rule enforcement and performance monitoring in VSS?
- To what extent has the COVID-19 crisis caused VSS to re-evaluate their requirements?
5.2. Long-Term Implications for Technology-Enhanced Auditing
“With forest management, the audit is very much focused on management systems and processes.… The actual data collection of outcome and output is very limited, and whatever the forest manager says, as long as it looks reasonable, it’s taken as agreed. You know, you are trying to audit 100,000 hectares in a week. The reality of you seeing anything on site is very, very limited. So you’re very much reliant on the forest manager producing a map, or you produce a map, and the forest manager says, “This is what we’ve harvested. This is what we’ve restocked. Here are some timber figures.” And that’s pretty much trusted—99.9 percent of the time that’s taken as correct.”
- To what extent has the use of remote auditing during the COVID-19 pandemic changed stakeholder perspectives on the possibility of adopting technology-enhanced auditing?
- What has the COVID-19 crisis revealed with respect to potential changes in requirements for auditor competence for remote and technology-enhanced auditing?
- How does technology-enhanced auditing facilitate emergency preparedness?
5.3. Contributions of the Paper
Conflicts of Interest
|VSS||Description (as Provided by ISEAL Website)||Website|
|Aluminium Stewardship Initiative||Standard setting and certification organisation that recognises and fosters the responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminium||https://aluminium-stewardship.org/|
|Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS)||AWS is a global multi-stakeholder initiative whose mission is to lead a global network that promotes responsible use of freshwater that is socially and economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable. AWS achieves this through a global water stewardship system, centred on the International Water Stewardship Standard, that drives, recognises and rewards good water stewardship performance.||https://a4ws.org/|
|Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)||ASC is an independent, international non-profit organisation that manages the world’s leading certification and labelling programme for responsible aquaculture. ASC recognises and rewards responsible aquaculture through the ASC aquaculture certification programme and seafood label; promotes best environmental and social choice when buying seafood; and contributes to transforming seafood markets towards sustainability.||https://www.asc-aqua.org/|
|The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)||BCI exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future. BCI aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. BCI works across the cotton supply chain to promote measurable and continuing improvements.||https://bettercotton.org/|
|Bonsucro||Bonsucro is a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugar cane production. The Bonsucro Standard defines a set of globally applicable principles, criteria and indicators for sugar cane production. It aims to reduce the impact of sugar cane production on the environment in measurable ways and contribute to social and economic benefits for all concerned with the sugar supply chain.||https://www.bonsucro.com/|
|Fair Trade USA||Standards and certification cultivating a more equitable global trade model by certifying and promoting Fair Trade products in the United States.||https://www.fairtradecertified.org/|
|Fair Trade International (FT International)||Fairtrade International is the organisation that coordinates Fairtrade labelling at an international level. Its standards are designed to tackle poverty and empower producers in the world’s poorest countries. FLO also helps producers to gain Fairtrade certification and develop market opportunities. Locally based Liaison Officers provide training, guidance on certification and facilitate relationships with buyers.||https://www.fairtrade.net/|
|Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)||The Forest Stewardship Council International Center is an international not-for-profit organisation established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC is a certification system that provides internationally recognised standard-setting, trademark assurance and accreditation to companies, organisations, and communities interested in responsible forestry.||https://fsc.org/en|
|GEO Foundation||The GEO Foundation is a global non-profit organisation whose main activity areas include advocacy for sustainability in and through golf, guidance and standard setting, capacity building and certification. Working in close collaboration with the industry and wider stakeholders, the GEO Foundation addresses a gap in the market where cross cutting social and environmental issues for golf are addressed in a systematic way.||https://sustainable.golf/|
|Global Coffee Platform (GCP)||The Global Coffee Platform is a membership organisation of coffee farmers, trade and industry and civil society. Members work jointly towards improving economic, social and environmental conditions for all who make a living in the coffee sector. The Global Coffee Platform is founded on a voluntary Code of Conduct comprising basic social, environmental and economic practices in coffee production, processing and trading.||https://www.globalcoffeeplatform.org/accelerate-your-coffee-sustainability|
|GoodWeave||GoodWeave is a non-profit organisation that seeks to end exploitative child labour in the carpet industry and offer educational opportunities to children and support to communities affected by exploitative practices by certifying carpets and rugs free from exploitive production. To earn the GoodWeave label, rug exporters and importers must be licensed under the GoodWeave certification programme.||https://goodweave.org/|
|Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF)||LEAF is a registered charity based in the UK which promotes sustainable food and farming and aims to ‘inspire and enable prosperous farming that enriches the environment and engages local communities’. It designs and operates the LEAF Marque Standard—a global environmental assurance system recognising sustainably farmed products, which focuses on core economic, environmental and social requirements.||https://leafuk.org/|
|Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)||MSC is a certification and eco-labelling program for sustainable seafood from wild fisheries. The council works with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood globally. MSC’s standards cover sustainable fishing and seafood traceability. They ensure that MSC-labelled seafood comes from, and can be traced back to, sustainable fisheries.||https://www.msc.org/home|
|Rainforest Alliance||The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization working to build a future in which nature is protected and biodiversity flourishes, where farmers, workers, and communities prosper, and where sustainable land use and responsible business practices are the norm. We envision a world where people and nature thrive in harmony. In January 2018, the Rainforest Alliance merged with UTZ, a global program and label for sustainable farming. Our head offices are in Amsterdam and New York, with regional offices around the world.||https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/|
|Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC)||The Responsible Jewellery Council is a not-for-profit, standards setting and certification organisation. It has more than 1,000 Member companies that span the jewellery supply chain from mine to retail. RJC Members commit to and are independently audited against the RJC Code of Practices—an international standard on responsible business practices for diamonds, gold and platinum group metals.||https://www.responsiblejewellery.com/|
|Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB)||The mission of RSB is to ensure that the use of biomass and derived bio-products, including biofuels, delivers on their promises of climate change mitigation, economic development and energy security without causing environmental or social damage. The standard developed by the RSB consists of a set of normative documents and guidelines. It covers the entire biofuel value chain from “farm to tank”.||https://rsb.org/|
|Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)||RSPO is a non-profit association that unites stakeholders to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) and help to minimise the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.||https://rspo.org/|
|Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN)||SAN is an international network of NGOs focused on helping companies, producers and donors to move forward with their sustainability agenda in a practical and efficient way. SAN provides innovative, practical and credible agricultural solutions to some of the most pressing environmental and social problems of our time.||https://www.sustainableagriculture.eco/|
|Textile Exchange||Textile Exchange is a global non-profit that works closely with our members to drive industry transformation in preferred fibers, integrity and standards and responsible supply networks. We identify and share best practices regarding farming, materials, processing, traceability and product end-of-life in order to reduce the textile industry’s impact on the world’s water, soil and air, and the human population.||https://textileexchange.org/|
|Union for Ethical BioTrade (UETB)||UEBT is a non-profit association that promotes the sourcing of natural ingredients with respect for people and biodiversity. UEBT advances practices for biodiversity innovation and sourcing that promote sustainable business growth, local development and conservation. UEBT promotes Ethical BioTrade by offering members independent verification, technical support and networking opportunities.||https://www.ethicalbiotrade.org/|
|UTZ||UTZ is a global program and label for sustainable farming. In January 2018, we merged with the Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit organization and certification program, taking the Rainforest Alliance name. Together, we are working to build a future in which nature is protected and biodiversity flourishes, where farmers, workers, and communities prosper, and where sustainable land use and responsible business practices are the norm. We envision a world where people and nature thrive in harmony. Our head offices are in Amsterdam and New York, with regional offices around the world.||https://utz.org/|
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|Area of Interest||Description||Data Collected on|
|Response||What steps were taken by VSS in response to the COVID-19 crisis?||Did VSS suspend audits?|
|Did VSS permit remote auditing?|
|Timeframe for response (e.g., what length are extensions valid for?)|
|Principles of remote auditing||Under what circumstances did the VSS allow remote auditing, if it was permitted at all?||What rules and/or advice did the VSS put forward for remote auditing?|
|What were the differences between initial, surveillance, and recertification audits?|
|Technological guidance||What advice was given about the use of technologies in auditing?||What are the recommended technologies for remote audits?|
|What guidance was provided on the use of technologies?|
|What problems and difficulties were expected?|
|Policies issued and their content||What policies specific to COVID-19 were produced during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?||Was there a new policy introduced?|
|What was the validity of the new policy?|
|What were the differences in the content of the policies between VSS?|
|6.3.2||Only record data with explicit consent of the interviewees. Afterwards the interviewees will verify and sign a checklist provided by the auditor containing at least the medium, date of recording, a short description and duration of storage of all that was recorded as part of the audit|
|6.3.3||Record only the data needed for the audit process.|
|6.3.4||Collect and store all data using up-to-date security practices. These measures include access control to the data collected and encrypted transmission of data, for instance when uploading and/or emailing.|
|6.3.5||Not store data beyond a required timeframe. The CAB shall specify how long each recorded file will be kept on the CAB’s servers.|
|6.3.6||When the CAB and/or implementation of the certificate holder/ applicant are in doubt over these guidelines, the General Data Protection Regulation as released by the EU (May 25, 2018, https://gdpr-info.eu/) shall be referenced.|
|VSS||Example Key Documents|
|Aluminium Stewardship Initiative||Interim Policy regarding Audits, Audit-Related Travel and Coronavirus|
This Policy was adopted by the ASI Board on 6 March 2020 (V1) and updated on 23 March 2020 (V2) and again on 3 April 2020 (V3)
|Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)||ASC POLICY FOR AUDITS DURING THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK VERSION 18 MARCH 2020|
Update 19 March 2020: Change on the Table Annex 1: ASC Country Social Profile
|Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)||FSC derogation (FSC-DER-2020-001) and auditor requirement derogation (FSC-DER-2020-004)|
|Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF)||Interim Policy regarding LEAF Marque Audits, Audit-Related Travel and Coronavirus|
LEAF Marque Remote Audit Protocol
|Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)||Covid-19 pandemic derogation, March 2020|
Guidance for MSC Chain of Custody CABs relating to the COVID-19 Derogation
Guidance for MSC Fisheries CABs relating to the COVID-19 Derogation
|Rainforest Alliance||AUDIT EXCEPTION POLICY FOR COVID-19 MARCH 2020 REVISED 17 AND 30 MARCH 2020|
SUPPLY SHORTAGE POLICY DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC PERIOD Effective April 2020
|Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB)||Reactive Guidance on RSB-PRO-70-001: audit schedule changes due to conditions beyond the control of POs and CBs 26th March 2020, version 2.1|
|On-site Auditing||Assisted Remote Auditing 1||Remote Auditing||Technology-Enhanced Auditing|
|Approach||Auditor determines compliance based on the evidence that is primarily collected on-site||Same as on-site; on-site auditor is assisted by technical experts or others that operate remotely||Technology is used to replicate on-site auditing||Technology is used to assist in auditor’s decision-making|
|Data collection||Data exchanged between clients and auditors on-site (e.g., review of hard copies, review of electronic files/databases, in-person interviews)||Data exchanged between clients and auditors on-site (e.g., review of hard copies, review of electronic files/databases, in-person interviews)||Data exchanged between clients and auditors remotely (e.g., review of scanned documents, review of cloud-based platforms, review of satellite imaging, interviews through videoconferencing)||Data exchange amongst multiple parties exchanged remotely (e.g., review of cloud-based platforms, review of social media platforms, review of data collected by technology in real-time, interview through videoconferencing)|
|Type of technology||Technology is secondary to the audit process (though it may be used to facilitate the process)||ICT used to communicate between on-site and remotely-based auditors||ICT, such as audit/video conferencing, screen sharing is used to replicate on-side audit||Various technologies (e.g., machine learning to identify patterns, make predictions, guide decision-making; sensors collecting real-time information) are used to assist an auditor with an audit|
|Reliance on technology||Low|
Audit can be essentially performed without technology
Remotely based auditors need to be able to connect with on-site auditors
Relies predominantly on ICT; off-line (e.g., desktop review), or real-time (e.g., e-interviews) or a combination of thereof
Audit relies on multiple technologies
|Auditor competence||Auditing competence (as specified in IAF Guidelines)||Auditing competence and ICT competence||Auditing competence and ICT competence||Auditing competence, ICT competence, and competence in Big Data Analytics|
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Castka, P.; Searcy, C.; Fischer, S. Technology-enhanced Auditing in Voluntary Sustainability Standards: The Impact of COVID-19. Sustainability 2020, 12, 4740. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12114740
Castka P, Searcy C, Fischer S. Technology-enhanced Auditing in Voluntary Sustainability Standards: The Impact of COVID-19. Sustainability. 2020; 12(11):4740. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12114740Chicago/Turabian Style
Castka, Pavel, Cory Searcy, and Sönke Fischer. 2020. "Technology-enhanced Auditing in Voluntary Sustainability Standards: The Impact of COVID-19" Sustainability 12, no. 11: 4740. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12114740