Who audits the auditors?

Getting beyond the binders and out into the fields

Yesterday, we published an explainer on the somewhat hard-to-pin-down value of fair trade labels and who’s in charge of defining (and enforcing) “fair.” Most certifiers agree on one thing: the people who decide whether standards are being met should not be the same people who set the standards and promote the certifications. That means third-party auditors. Another thing certifiers seems to agree on? Audits should be stringent and happen annually.

But audits fail. For all kinds of reasons, from micro to macro. Which got us thinking, a label is only as good as the audit that came before it. So, what does a “good” audit look like?

The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) is a third-party certification scheme for large-scale fresh produce operations that has put audits at the forefront of its program. Using EFI’s model, which combines labor standards, food safety and pesticides, extensive leadership training, and worker involvement, Kenton Harmer, EFI director of certification, helped us map out what retailers like Costco and Whole Foods consider to be a gold standard audit.

All quotes in the graphic are from Kenton Harmer, director of certification at Equitable Food Initiative. Photos in graphic by Nicholas Wray, courtesy of Equitable Food Initiative.

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.