Understanding the Process of Private Eco-Audits

Much has been made of the massive rise in private governance initiatives coming from nonprofits, corporations, and multi-stakeholder processes. These initiatives, which set ethical and environmental standards for global production practices, have been seen by some observes as a means to help resolve and fill global governance gaps left unattended by governments. Yet, while these initiatives do appear to establish rules quickly, the audit process can be protracted and complicated.

In a collaborative project, Professor Stefan Renckens and Professor Graeme Auld built a dataset to examine the process of certification for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a leading global seafood labeling program. The MSC sets a standard that fisheries can get audited against by separate, accredited third-party organizations that hire expert teams of assessors to conduct the field and desk audits.

Examining the 312 audits conducted between 1999 and 2015, their new paper in Regulation & Governance seeks to understand the wide variation in time it takes applicant fisheries to conclude their audits. One might think fisheries that need to improve their practices more are the ones that will take longer to go through the process. This does matter, but the paper also shows that more of the variation in audit time is associated with the experience of the audit organization and lead assessor, as well as complaints raised by stakeholders.

Time to certify: Explaining varying efficiency of private regulatory audits


Private regulatory programs, such as certification schemes, seek to control market access by providing greater certainty about products’ credence attributes, including sustainability features of production processes. This article contributes to the literature that assesses the verification processes that determine whether private rules are being followed sufficiently by applicant rule‐targets (usually companies), and the regulatory intermediaries (auditors, assessors) that perform verification functions. By examining variation in the duration of verification processes of applicant rule‐targets, we question the assumption that within the context of a given program’s design the efficiency of the verification process is invariant across time and space. We argue that the verification process can impose hurdles that are independent of rule‐targets’ sustainability and their adherence to a private program’s rules. Our analysis of 312 fisheries seeking Marine Stewardship Council certification shows that variation among intermediaries and objections to their certification decisions explain differences in the time it takes fisheries to receive market access.