Jon Entine investigates two competing forest certification schemes: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council

When the European Union Timber Regulations (EUTR) took effect in March, they brought into sharp relief the differences between the two main forestry certification schemes now vying for public acceptance.

The new regulations are a response to an increasingly intertwined global supply chain. They outlaw trade in pulp, paper and composite products made from illegally logged timber. Although illegal logging is negligible in some regions, such as North America, it’s a scourge in the developing world. Under the new rules, wholesalers are required to document the species of tree and country of origin, and have in place an oversight system.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) quickly endorsed the new EU rules, and its umbrella organisation, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), also committed to develop its chain of custody due diligence tracking system.

Its chief rival, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), also agreed a tracking system but staunchly objected to any certification process in which logging companies or manufacturers had a voice.

The difference in philosophy highlights the sharp divide between the competing forestry standards. Both arose in response to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that called for “sustainable” and “smart growth” development. While both are legally “voluntary”, meaning that they were not created by governments, in reality they have evolved into mandatory seals of approval in global markets. Large retailers, traders or processing companies now require their implementation.

Some voluntary standards are also referenced in government regulations. In fact, the US government is currently in the crosshairs of a contentious exchange between SFI and FSC over the sustainability standards required for military construction.

Converging schemes

The two schemes have different roots but converging philosophies and practices – though that is hard to believe from the high decibel rhetoric when forestry labelling is debated.

The FSC, a favourite of the greens, was formed in the wake of Rio by a coalition of advocacy groups claiming to represent conservationists, including Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, WWF and Greenpeace. FSC dominates the worldwide market, covering 90% of countries, but represents only 25% of certified timber in the huge US market, which mostly uses SFI and its allies. 

FSC supporters see themselves as the “white hats”. With the more recent additions of ForestEthics and the Dogwood Alliance, they’ve become unashamedly campaign focused, anti-corporate, opposed to fossil fuels at all costs and dismissive of the role of biotechnology and pesticide management in sustainable forestry. They portray SFI as Big Timber’s “black hat” – a “greenwashing scam”, according to ForestEthics’ Jim Ace, speaking to the Environmental Paper Network.

They launch attacks when they don’t get their way. “Sometimes companies need a little encouragement,” ForestEthics brags on its website. “When companies refuse to change their harmful practices … [we] get creative with online and offline actions, including protests, websites, email campaigns and advertisements. No corporation can afford to have its brand be synonymous with environmental destruction.”

Cobbled certification?

Because it was cobbled together over years and is dominated by an anti-development bias, FSC’s rules vary across regions. In fact, FSC labels do not disclose under which standards a wood product may have been certified. That means product claims can’t always be verified.

There are other anomalies, especially on set-aside standards. For example, according to FSC rules, supposedly green Sweden has to protect only 5% of its forests while the UK has a 15% requirement; certain areas in the US are required to restrict 12-25% of a given property. In countries without standards, FSC allows “interim” clearcut limits and so-called “green up” requirements for new growth tree height that don’t necessarily reflect standards backed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and other global initiatives.

These anomalies irk some early FSC supporters, such as Simon Counsell, who has set up FSC Watch to monitor its sometimes problematic practices. The group recently attacked the FSC for its policies in Sweden, charging that there is a growing consensus that the “‘Swedish model’ of forestry is failing to protect biodiversity, and old growth forests continue to be clear-cut, including those with FSC certification”.

The FSC is controversial in the developing world. When it was formed, there was widespread concern that developers in cahoots with corrupt governments were destroying pristine forests. Its response was to set up a standard that denied certification to any operations undertaken on land converted after November 1994.

Although the motive for the action was understandable, it’s proven a crude tool in developing countries eager to modernise. FSC’s critics argue that its policies favour the developed world, which long ago started converting its usable timberlands. Many fast developing countries, such as Indonesia, feel constrained by restrictions imposed on them by what they consider anti-development campaigners.

What about the SFI? Launched shortly after FSC with the financial support of the American Forestry & Paper Association, its founding led to charges of cronyism. “These programmes are backed by timber interests and set weak standards for forest management that allow destructive and business-as-usual practices,” claims the Natural Resources Defense Council, an FSC member since 1995.

SFI, which years ago converted into a charitable trust, linked with the PEFC eight years ago, making it the world’s largest forest certification umbrella organisation. While the FSC has 30 different standards around the world – which makes it either more responsive to regional differences or more fractured, depending upon your perspective – SFI has one standard.

Emotive divide

Green groups are adamant that differences between the labelling initiatives are vast and unbridgeable. ForestEthics and the Dogwood Alliance have emerged as pit bulls, bullying groups that do not adopt the FSC label. They’ve launched de-selection campaigns against weak links along the value chain, targeting Kroger’s KFC/Yum Brands and even Louis Vuitton for using SFI-certified packaging. ForestEthics has had some success with this “weak link” strategy, persuading at least 21 prominent brands, including Kimberly Clark, Office Depot and Allstate, to agree to phase out the SFI label. It has also pressured Target into adopting FSC-friendly policies.

How different are the labels? Independent experts see a convergence, as pressures for transparency on both groups have grown. Canada’s EcoLogo and TerraChoice, part of Underwriters Laboratories Global Network, each rate SFI/PEFC and FSC identically. A United Nations joint commission recently concluded: “Over the years, many of the issues that previously divided the systems have become much less distinct. The largest certification systems now generally have the same structural programmatic requirements.”

The two systems go head to head in the US. The FSC has been entrenched because of the support from the US Green Building Council. USGBC adopted FSC standards in the mid-1990s, when they were the only game in town, for its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. It’s remained loyal partly because of fierce lobbying by green activists. Hundreds of cities in the US mandate LEED standards, which means the FSC receives preferential treatment in projects even when the costs are higher and the environmental benefits questionable.

This has created unintended consequences. Because FSC-certified forests account for just one quarter of North America’s certified forests, three quarters of the continent’s wood is not eligible for LEED sourcing credits. That incentivizes green building projects to import wood, resulting in the browning of the supply chain created by shipping timber thousands of extra carbon-emitting miles. Nonetheless, activist greens have dug in their heels, determined to delegitimise competing systems.

The Society of American Foresters has criticised the USGBC for not embracing other standards, stating: “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific, especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices.” The International Association of Machinists has charged that the “ideological driven exclusivity” of the LEEDS/FSC standard has hit the North American timber industry particularly hard, exacerbating rural unemployment.

The US department of defence, an early LEED adopter and huge source of new construction, has been blocked from spending public funds during construction to achieve LEED “gold” or “platinum” certification, questioning whether the added costs are justified. Growing scepticism of LEED has led to the emergence of a competing green building initiative in the US, the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globe, which recognises the SFI. The two labels are now competing to be the preferred federal certification programme.

Differences between the SFI and the FSC are slight and mostly ideological. The FSC is decidedly anti-development and opposed to controversial technologies; the SFI is less confrontational, which could be viewed positively or negatively. Despite attempts by green groups to sabotage the SFI, both certification initiatives are likely to thrive and contribute to sustainable growth in our forests.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

Ecolabels  Environment  Forest Stewardship Council  forestry  Jon Entine  Sustainable Forestry Initiative 

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