The role of auditing at the nexus between global certification standards and local forest practices

Cook, William C.


This article-based thesis examines the role of auditing and auditors in the FSC certification scheme as a form of informational governance in action. The thesis draws on practice theory, critical transparency- and critical auditing studies, and dramaturgy in its theoretical underpinnings. The main body of the thesis is two empirical articles bookended by two literature-based articles. The introduction and conclusion chapters result in six total chapters.

The main body begins with a published article examining the ways in which auditing of the environment is characterised in literature, highlighting the importance of transparency, effectiveness, and objectivity. The article argues that these values actually characterise a spectrum of modes of auditing with “professionalism” on one end and “protest” on the other. It also argues that a more grounded examination of auditing in practice in the context of this spectrum would benefit understanding how audits are performed and why they are performed as they are, resulting in a more critical examination of the values expressed in literature.

The second article examines the content of an FSC lead auditor training course that the candidate attended twice. The focus of the article is on the value of objectivity as imparted to and practiced by the auditors-in-training. This value is at odds, however, with the equally important value of interpretation that is also stressed in the training. As a result, auditors are expected to manage this tension in order to demonstrate mastery of the subject of auditing.

The third article is a dramaturgical analysis of ethnographic observations of a FSC forest management audits in Spain and Africa, wherein auditors demonstrated their mastery not in the classroom, but in the field. The focus of the article is on how auditors, separately and together with auditees, enact their role to perform a good audit in order to make the chaotic reality able to be accounted for (account-able) in order to ensure that the end result is clear in what happened and who is responsible (accountable). This article explicitly situates auditing practices closer to the “professionalism” end of the spectrum described previously, and highlights the consequence of valuing this mode of auditing (ensuring high account-ability) being a risk to the overall goal of FSC certification (ensuring accountability for forest degradation).

The final content chapter examines the tension that occurs when universal normative requirements (such as FSC’s standards and procedures) are enacted in a context, and the alignment that happens in order for the scheme to continue functioning. Furthermore, the article argues that this cycle of friction and alignment is in fact necessary for the continued operation of such schemes. This is done by examining examples of friction and alignment at different spatial and organizational levels in FSC’s scheme.

The concluding chapter of the thesis critiques informational governance as an example of “epochal thinking” and highlights how considering themes of governance by disclosure and the tyranny of transparency ground the discussion in how and why informational governance happens as it does. It goes on to point out that the mode of auditing employed by auditors inherently contains certain values, and those values impact which information is made available to which audience, and that those values are in no way natural or inevitable. They are chosen and perpetuated in practice. Having a mode of auditing with values that do not match the values of the certification scheme may very well lead to perverse outcomes. Finally, it argues for the value of using dramaturgy to examine ethnographic studies of the environment due to its versatility, practice-based nature, and its expressly neutral conception of actors at the outset of the analysis.