Volkswagen’s ‘Independent’ Auditor Shame

Volkswagen’s ‘Independent’ Auditor Shame

In Beyond Certification, I review the pros and cons of certification based on my long experience of the wood and palm oil sectors. The past few weeks have seen new stories emerge elsewhere. In India, the BBC exposed grim treatment of workers in tea plantations certified by the Rainforest Alliance. In our latest Earthworm podcast, we highlighted ‘certified poverty’ in the Ivory Coast cocoa industry. Another story has now burst forth from the car industry with huge ramifications. Volkswagen, which recently surpassed Toyota as the world’s number one car company, has been messing with the software in its cars to beat emissions tests in the US. On first reflection you might ask, “What’s Volkswagen’s deceit got to do with certification? Don’t tell me you’re blaming certification for that too?”

Well, there is a link. It’s a disturbing one too and it speaks to Beyond Certification’s narrative around VT TV - Values Transparency Transformation and Verification.

Ask yourself this, “How many certifications does Volkswagen have? How many systems, procedures and document-mountains must the company use to produce its cars?” I’ve got a picture in my head of a lot of framed certificates hanging on many gilded walls. How many hundreds of millions, billions even, of dollars, euros, francs, pesos, etc. has the company paid auditors to check that all is OK? I bet that the company and all of its facilities run audited, certified Environmental Management Systems. And yet we have this mess.

Spot the link?

Volkswagen’s CEO and senior management were driving to become number one. In their pursuit of that very masculine goal, (sigh…men) they forgot their fundamental human Values. That’s the first trip-up; they started from the wrong place.

The second is the failure of any auditor to spot this. Well…let’s reframe that. An auditor might have, really should have spotted it. Auditors aren’t stupid, but none of those audits changed VW’s behaviour. What were the auditors doing? Were they incompetent and didn’t spot the fiddling? Or, did they spot it but let it go, and if so, for what reason?

We don’t know what happened but this is a monumental certification failure, particularly damaging for the concept of ‘independent’ auditing; the verification system totally failed here. It took a truly independent NGO to reveal the truth.

What might have happened instead? VW’s Board and senior management might have set out a deeply held Values statement that enshrined their desire to be number one but also included commitments to people and the environment, beyond the weak regulations they work around here in Europe and now also in the US. That might still have been packed with deceit but had they then been Transparent, they would have invited participation; they’d have engaged NGOs and others in an open Verification process that should have spotted irregularities at inception. Had VW done so, they would not now be facing this ignominious shame.

VT TV. It isn’t rocket science. It’s a different way.

There is still much of this barrel to scrape but I hope that people really dig deep on this issue of independent auditing. It failed here and audit company CEOs with VW contracts should be hanging their heads in shame too; they’re culpable in this.

It really is simple - if I pay you to check me, you’re not independent. The VW case, the Rainforest Alliance tea case, the certified poverty in the cocoa industry and all the nonsense in other sectors is screaming that we need better, truly independent verification systems to hold companies to moral and practical account. Instead of NGOs having to work in the shadows, invite them in the front door, give them a camera and a note pad and set them free amongst your operations. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot and you and everyone else will be the better for it.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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