The American College Dictionary defines “certified” as “guaranteed or reliably endorsed". In general, there are three levels of assurance that can be provided through certification: first, second and third party.
In first party certification the individual or organization providing the good or service offers the recipient some type of assurance as to claims being made by that product or service. At its simplest, first party certification says, “I am good.” Usually this is in the form of some kind of warranty or guarantee backed by the reputation and financial strength of that individual or organization. Generally the assurance provided by first party certification is fairly simple, e.g. that a product will last for at least a year.
In second party certification an association to which the individual or organization belongs provides the assurance. At its simplest, second party certification states, “we are good.” Common examples of this approach are Doctors and Accountants in the U.S. who are licensed by their member organizations. It is incumbent on these associations to monitor the quality and skills of individual members to ensure the reputation of the organization as a whole.
Third party certification involves the independent evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources. At its simplest, third party certification states, “they are good.” In general, third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve, and is particularly valuable where the claims being provided are fairly complex. A common example of this is the Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) certification system that evaluates electronic devices to insure their safe operation. The UL label has been around for over 100 years and certifies over 70,000 organizations.
Each of these certification approaches is based on the level of connectedness and degree of trust between the seller and the consumer. In general, the more direct the linkage and the higher the trust, the lower the level of certification required. The lower the trust and more indirect the linkage the higher the level of certification required. Today, most environmentally related activities are turning to third party evaluation systems because activities that impact the environment are both global in nature (extremely indirect) and highly controversial (very little trust).