Can we trust the FSC?

It's the logo we all look for when buying furniture and wood products. But the Forest Stewardship Council has come in for some serious criticism. Matilda Lee looks at both sides of the argument

You've almost certainly bought a product made from illegally harvested wood.

How can I say that? Well, globally, illegal logging accounts for between 20 to 40 per cent of wood production, according to WWF. Within the EU, WWF says that between 16 and 19 per cent of all timber imports derive from illegal or suspicious sources - much of it coming from Russia.

While it wouldn't sit well with most of us to unknowingly support the illegal logging trade, because of the fact that most of the time products aren't labelled we wouldn't know one way or the other.

Product certification is a necessary market instrument to help consumers to distinguish between good and bad. A successful certification scheme would reassure consumers and provide an incentive for forest owners and managers to legally and responsibly manage forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council, created in 1993, is meant to do just that. It's described by many as the world's leading forest certification scheme and is based on two components: the sustainable management of forests and certification of the 'chain of custody' which traces timber as it comes out of the forest.

How does it work?

FSC doesn't carry out forest inspections itself, but rather accredits certification bodies (e.g. programmes run by the Soil Association, SGS, Rainforest Alliance and SCS) to work to FSC's set of Principles and Criteria. These principles range from ensuring that forest managers comply with laws, to respect for local use rights and maintaining the 'ecological functions' of a forest.

The FSC has certified 160 million hectares of forest worldwide. Over 40,000 companies are certified to deal in FSC products. Those products, from books, to tissues, to beds, can either come from FSC-only material (FSC 100%), from a variety of sources but with at least 50 per cent FSC-certified content (FSC Mixed Sources) or recycled (FSC 100% Recycled).

The Executive Director of FSC-UK, Charles Thwaites, says that the FSC's aims are to 'persuade people of the advantages of a sustainable product - instead of cheaper one from nefarious sources. All we can do is make the moral argument.'

But the FSC's position as the high priest of this moral argument has in recent years come seriously into question.

When is a forest not a forest?

The World Rainforest Movement reports that by 2008 the FSC had certified 8.6 million hectares of industrial tree plantations 'despite ample evidence regarding the social and environmental unsustainability of large scale monoculture tree plantations'.

While the FAO's State of the World's Forests 2009 report maintains that planted forests will continue to grow as a source of wood supply, plantations, as many point out, are not forests.

Jutta Kill, climate campaigner at the Forests and European Union Resource Network (FERN) says, ‘There is a long continuum between an intact forest and short rotation monoculture tree plantation on the other end. It is preposterous to claim these are the same.

'Plantations are water hungry, we've seen them dry out rivers and water wells, with massive impacts on communities dependent on water. In an intensely managed plantation, there isn't much else growing - there is no such thing as forest biodiversity.'

Plantations reviewed

‘Too many FSC certifications were given out to companies not practising environmentally and social just plantations,' Jutta says. Plantations also fly in the face of one of FSC's principles to maintain forests' ecosystem functions.

In response to these criticisms, the FSC began a Plantations Review in 2002. NGOs such as FERN are demanding that the process result in a clear distinction between forest and plantation operations and an improvement in plantation management.

‘Companies receiving FSC certification are given public funding and marketing advantages. Currently, the FSC allows them to sell themselves as something they are not,' says Jutta.

While the Plantation Review is still on-going, the FSC's Charles Thwaites insists it is not going to fundamentally change FSC policy on plantations.
'We continue to feel that properly managed plantations are essential to stop the destruction of natural forests. A properly managed plantation has to be better than ignoring the FSC or taking from old growth forests.'

Caveat emptor

Certifying large-scale monoculture tree plantations is just one aspect of a certification system that has been increasingly placed in doubt. Elsewhere, NGOs have withdrawn support, notably Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which no longer recommends the FSC label because of concerns regarding the credibility of various FSC certificates.

From the falsification of documents, to illegal third party concessions and environmental damage in forests from Guyana to Nicaragua to Brazil, over the years FSC has been found to have certified the uncertifiable.

Simon Counsell was involved in the establishment of the FSC, but later became critical to the extent that he helped to set up FSC-Watch a website dedicated to monitoring FSC activities. He feels that there are structural flaws within the FSC, namely the contractual relationships between certifiers and the logging companies who receive certificates.

‘In 2002 we had already noticed that in order to get business, certifiers were competing with each other. The most successful are the most generous and lenient, turning a blind eye to breeches in FSC requirements. I've seen cases where logging companies have switched certifiers. This happens everywhere.

‘We believe the right way to do it is when requests get sent in from logging companies to get certified they are sent to FSC. The FSC would then choose, as a tendering process. They've completely ignored that suggestion.'

The FSC is aware of its critics. 'Inevitably [the criticism] hasn't been helpful,' says Thwaites. 'We are trying to convince [FOE] that the certificates mean what they say. We acknowledge there has been a problem. In the intervening 14 months since they publicly disassociated with us we have done a lot to put it right.'

A meeting between the two groups is planned for later this year to discuss, if not resolve, differences.

Slow change or short-changed?

‘We have plenty of those people who shout at us from the sidelines. We can't just say "ok sounds good, let's go and do it". We need to consult. People complain they don't get what they want because it is too much of a compromise,' says Thwaites.

He's referring to the FSC's General Assembly - a three-chamber set up, with voting rights so that no one chamber can be outvoted. Timber consuming companies make up the economic chamber; groups such as WWF make up the environmental chamber; the social chamber represents those who live and work in the forests, such as indigenous groups. This is part, the FSC points out, of a standard-setting process that is transparent, democratic and inclusive.

‘Whilst the General Assembly is the equitable part of decision making structure, it is where decisions are least taken into account,' says Simon Counsell. ‘Lots of General Assembly decisions have been taken but ignored. For example, it was decided that there shouldn't be any FSC certificates issued in countries unless there were standards drawn up by local stakeholders. This was voted on about 7 years ago, but ignored.'

While NGOs and other environmental/social stakeholders are part of the decision-making structure, they can 'run out of time and money to get to the meetings.'

Counsell says the FSC's system is biased in favour of government groups and corporations, which have greater resources of time and money to 'stay with it' during the long process. 'Policy working groups and consultations are really where decisions take place,' he says.


WWF maintains its support for the FSC as the only credible forest certification system, as do Greenpeace, which has documented the certifier's reponse to complaints in a conspicuously named report, 'Holding the line with the FSC', published in October 2008.

Some have suggested that this allegiance is tactical. A source close to the issue gave the Ecologist an unconfirmed account that Greenpeace had admitted its continued support of FSC was politically motivated, with the FSC representing a positive alternative for promotion alongside their more radical campaigns calling for boycotts of illegal timber and products.

Christoph Thies, who coordinates Greenpeace International's forestry policy, denies this:
'This would be highly dangerous for our credibility. I don't think, when it comes to the FSC, we are less radical than otherwise. We are aware of the FSC's shortcomings, but consider it by far the best around. If we come to the conclusion that the FSC is irreversibly set up for failure, we would immediately leave.'

Legal action

Where voluntary programmes such as the FSC have struggled, there is still hope that binding legislation may yet fill the gap.

In May 2008, the US Congress passed an amendment to the Lacey Act, becoming the first country in the world to ban the import of illegally harvested wood and wood products. This puts the burden of proof on importers, who can no longer claim 'innocent owner' defence, meaning they did not know they were importing items containing illegal wood.

Action in the EU, sadly, hasn't been as robust. The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade or FLEGT, plan, adopted in 2003, sets forth voluntary agreements with producer countries to exclude illegal timber imports.

According to WWF though, even if all FLEGT partnerships were implemented, 'more than 90 per cent of the overall imports of illegally logged wood will still enter the EU'.

Julian Newman, campaigns director at the Environmental Investigation Agency, describes FLEGT as 'very weak', since it stops short of an outright ban on illegal timber imports.

A UK private members bill was introduced in the House of Commons in April 2008, prohibiting the import and sale of illegal wood, but this is nowhere near becoming law.

Beyond labelling

But where schemes and lawmakers may seem to flounder, consumer demand is sending out some clear signals.

According to the 'Ethical Consumerism Report 2008', purchases of sustainable timber and paper products rose from 696 million in 2006, to 1,019 million in 2007 - a jump of 46 per cent. James Barker, pointing to the success of the recently launched Trees 4 Trees project says:

'‘People are bothered. More and more people are asking for assurance and manufacturers need to sit up and listen.'

Many activists and environmentalists will point to groups like Freecycle, where one could, with a bit of patience, entirely kit out a flat with recycled furniture. And let's not forget the good old three Rs when it comes to reducing demand for wood and pulp products.

But despite these options, the appetite for legal and sustainably-harvested wood products is still there and people's values are still important. The question is whether labels can live up to our expectations.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor

Other certification schemes

FSC may be one of the most well-known, but it is certainly not the only forestry certification scheme around.

The Soil Association aims to create an organic woodland certification scheme that would exclude chemicals but 'so far we haven't awarded any certification, but have had interest' according to Marie-Christine Flechard, a certification manager. 'There has never been any consumer demand for it' she says.

The European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) is, according to Charles Thwaites, the FSC's chief competitor. Essentially enforcing individual national forest standards and helping to strengthen them, PEFC has certified two and a half times more forest area than the FSC, and has built up a strong business-to-business reputation. Many NGOs (including WWF and Greenpeace) however, found that PEFC cannot guarantee well-managed forests.

The US-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) led by US logging companies and mill owners and deals in mainly timber from US forests. A network of groups including the Rainforest Action Network claims that SFI 'does not protect forests or deliver credible assurances.'

Trees 4 Trees, a non-profit Foundation established by timber product manufacturers, distributes free seedlings of high value species such as teak, mahogany to local famers and villagers in Indonesia. Trees 4 Trees furniture is on sale in independent retailers. The scheme is small-scale and its next step is FSC certification.

Finally, a Fairtrade wood certification system, which could address many NGO concerns, is being discussed, but no launch date has yet been set.

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