Forests cover about 30% of the world. They provide a home to our animal co-habitants, beautiful places to walk, oxygen to breathe, medicine, wood and paper. Some of these things are easy to spot in our day-to-day lives: paper, pencils, furniture, flooring, packaging and more. Others are less obvious, such as rubber bands, diapers, price stickers and skis. Ikea alone represents 1% (13.97 million m3) of the forest products used in the world, which speaks to the volume of home furnishings that use them.
With such a huge demand placed on these eco-systems, it stands to reason that there should be a caretaker—not only to preserve the natural beauty and oxygen they provide, but also to regulate the sourcing of the products we depend on daily.
The largest and most credible group is The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit organization that certifies for both Forest Management (forest landowners) and Chain of Custody (product manufacturers). They operate by a set of 10 principles and aim to “conserve rare and endangered species, promote non-chemical methods of pest management and not use genetically modified trees.” Established in 1994, FSC currently works with 29,000 partner companies and oversees 450 million acres of forest around the world. The organization has issued over 27,000 certificates in over 100 countries to date, increasing the amount of certified forest by 60% since 2009. However, FSC still only accounts for less than 10% of the global working forestland. This is in part due to the massive task that is auditing, certifying and monitoring. The more the awareness and demand for FSC product increases, the more the organization can grow their resources and certifications.
With no advertising budget, FSC relies on consumer demand to encourage companies to source certified materials. This public awareness is the largest contributing factor to increasing the number of responsibly managed forests and by-products. As almost every item we buy has some origin in a forest, there is an enormous amount of power available to us in our everyday purchasing choices. Although FSC has some critics, they maintain a 90% positive media presence. Criticisms vary, among them concerns about compliance, inadequate oversight and corporate partnerships. Making reports public, and suspending certifications when necessary, for example, are some of the ways FSC faces these issues, along with an acknowledgement that the process is constantly evolving and improving every year.
We asked Brad Kahn, the Forest Stewardship Council Communications Director for the U.S., to walk us through the steps to becoming FSC certified.
The Steps to Certification
When a forest producer applies for certification, they kick off a fairly intense process that affects all sectors of their business. It is time consuming, expensive and provides a layer of monitoring over their product that did not exist before. In some cases the producer can pass these costs along and charge a premium, but generally not. The benefit, however, is the ability to sell to an increasing number of companies that have instituted an ‘FSC Preference’ policy, which favors certified suppliers. Building materials are also a huge growth industry, with organizations such as the 2012 Olympics choosing 98% FSC timber to construct the Athletes’ village. This agenda of preference creates a stable source of income in a still relatively niche market, and goes a long way in providing incentive for landowners to seek certification. It seems to be working: between 2012 and 2014, FSC Chain of Custody certificates increased by 2400% in Korea, 1875% in Mexico, 700% in Peru. Forest Management certificates increased by 878% in Mozambique, 393% in Papau New Guinea, 350% in Chile and 317% in Panama. Latvia alone has 3 million hectares of certified forest, accounting for a rather impressive 67% of their total forest area.
Forest Management certification begins with a site visit that can last up to a month, depending on the size and accessibility of the forest. The team often includes a forest ecologist, forester, social scientist, local landowners and any community stakeholders. This private audit is used to point out areas that will need to be addressed before the company can be approved for certification status. The auditors take into account sensitive species (such as spotted owls and protected fish), protection of water, impact on local community, quantity of trees to be taken and use of chemicals (i.e., pesticides). In Chain of Custody certification, auditors look at how many units are coming in and out of the factories to ensure that the end product is indeed using certified materials—and in the stated percentage of such.
After initial certification, there is an annual audit and re-certification required every five years. Almost half-a-billion acres of trees across 100 countries is a vast amount to keep track of, so FSC has installed a number of protocols and regular improvements to make sure their certification maintains credibility. Any stakeholder can lodge a complaint online that will launch an investigation. FSC maintains up to 50 independently accredited auditors such as The Rainforest Alliance, who is responsible for about half the certificates around the world. Reports are public, ensuring another layer of transparency. Despite FSC standards (higher than most local laws) often mandating much less cutting than otherwise legally allowed, compliance is high for Forest Management Certification. Satellite imaging and the inability to uncut a tree means that over-clearing forests is a relatively rare and impossible-to-hide infraction. The most common issue is trademark infringement—misuse of the FSC logo on product by those who want to falsely claim certification (you can check license codes for yourself here: info.fsc.org).
In some cases, global legal systems can cause complicated and unforeseen issues despite good intentions. In 2011, Gibson Guitars imported raw rosewood into the U.S. with the intention of finishing in-house. They came up against the Lacey Act, an American law against illegal forest products. Although rosewood isn’t illegal to import to the U.S., Indian law requires that it be exported as a finished product to protect local production. Gibson settled, and is a good example of how convoluted issues can become when manufacturing product with materials from multiple countries. FSC certification does supply some confidence, but as 90% of working forests are not under their purview, it’s still largely up to manufacturers to ask the right questions.
How the Consumer Can Make a Difference
There are several companies that have taken huge steps to embrace the FSC system. Ikea currently uses 40% FSC certified product and has a goal of 100% by 2020. They’ve helped to increase the amount of certified forests by 30 million hectares since 2002 and train all their buyers on sustainable sourcing. Kimberly-Clark began incorporating FSC products a decade ago. With one in four people using their products every day worldwide, the company’s impact is substantial. International Paper and Domtar are other large-scale companies that have instituted an ‘FSC Preference’ to encourage suppliers to seek certification. Not only does certification help protect and responsibly manage resources, it also shows farmers that forestry is a profitable business with an in-demand product, encouraging tree growth versus clearing for housing or ranch land. This in turn creates more habitat for other plants and animals, as well as cleaner air and water.
Recently, FSC has made gaining certification easier for small-scale companies, creating a group certification program. This enables them to gain certification as a collective, sharing the cost required to meet and maintain standards. Many family and often multi-generational farms with as little as two acres are now able to afford certifying their land. Domtar supported this effort by offering to pay the certification fees for landowners in the Arkansas area, and committed to buying from them to supply their locally based mill. There are now 68 local foresters (and just as many on a waiting list) with a total of 85,000 acres of forestland certified under this particular program. Similar projects are taking place all over the world. Corporate investments like this are the key to increasing the amount of sustainably managed forests, both at home and globally.
As a consumer, you can help increase both awareness and encourage sustainable systems. The economy is based on consumer demand, and FSC is very aware that our buying patterns are the most influential factor in promoting responsible management. Choosing products with the FSC logo sends a message down the supply chain that this is the way we want to treat the sources of our goods. In turn, it will motivate more companies to achieve status. So next time you pick up sunscreen, magazines or rubber soled shoes, ask what kind of forest they came from.