Forest certification schemes are 'undermining sustainability'

The growing number of so-called sustainable forest certification schemes is causing confusion in the marketplace and hampering efforts to improve forest management, according to industry and environmental groups. But while they agree that the credibility of certification is on the line, each is urging very different solutions to the problem.

"Forest certification is at a crossroads," concludes a report published in February by UK-based forest protection group FERN, which compares eight prominent forest certification schemes.1 The certification concept is being challenged by the sheer number of schemes - more than 50 - of variable quality and intention.

These "threaten to undermine the credibility of certification," FERN warns. When consumers see many products carrying certification logos, they assume that forestry issues are being addressed, it says. But problems persist such as the need for reform of forest laws and trade and investment flows, and the need to reduce consumption of forest products. However, NGOs find it harder to raise awareness about them.

FERN says certification schemes also compound problems because in most cases they certify the status quo. Some are even alleged to give certification status to controversial forest areas, for example where old growth is being substituted by plantations and where land ownership is in dispute.

FERN assessed five national schemes, one covering both the USA and Canada and two programmes that endorse national schemes which meet certain criteria - the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Only half of the schemes have been running for more than four years.

The report finds fault with all the schemes and only gives strong backing to one - the FSC. It says that only the FSC complies with international government-endorsed guidelines on forest certification.

FERN points out that defining sustainable forest management is a political as well as scientific process and that the standard has to be established at national or regional level based on adequate consultation of all parties.

Nevertheless, the group criticises the FSC on two major counts: the scheme fails always to comply on the ground with its own policies on consultation with interested parties, and it offers certification to large-scale industrial tree plantations which is said to have undermined some local and national campaigns.

FERN's report follows in the wake of an initiative by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development also addressing the crisis of certification.

According to WBCSD: "One of the largest obstacles to promoting sustainable development in the forestry sector is the burgeoning number of certification standards set up by stakeholders the world over." The WBCSD points as evidence to a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development which reviews the progress of the paper industry towards sustainability over the past decade.2The IIED notes that the industry has made considerable strides on environmental issues such as moving away from elemental chlorine bleaching, reducing raw material use and improving energy efficiency and support for renewables. It also points to the burgeoning uptake of forest certification schemes.

But it concludes that, despite these advances, "paper still has a poor image in developed countries as a product that is used excessively and [that] has undesirable impacts across its life cycle."

The WBCSD believes that this poor image may be due in part to the confusion over certification schemes. The organisation says that in the past year it has tried, but failed, to bring together the chiefs of various schemes to hammer out mutual recognition agreements in a bid to resolve the confusion.

It is therefore proposing a new approach dubbed the "legitimacy threshold model".3 The idea is that an independent rating agency would assess and rank each of the forest certification schemes using stakeholder-approved criteria and methodologies.

The minimum threshold for qualification, it suggests, could be legally sourced wood fibre, while the top threshold would require full compliance with agreed sustainable forest management criteria. Small forest owners and those in developing countries may fall into intermediate bands which require them to meet only some of the criteria. Purchasers could choose which threshold they want to apply for their products based on their values.

The WBCSD suggests that institutions and processes already exist which could implement its proposals. For instance, it suggests a suitable ranking agency could be the Forest Integrity Network of the group Transparency International. The WBCSD is represented on the steering committee of this group.

It also suggests that a suitable stakeholder forum to decide on the methodology could be The Forests Dialogue based at Yale University. Initiated by the WBCSD, the group represents the forestry and paper industries, academia, IIED, World Bank and NGOs including WWF and the Nature Conservancy in Indonesia.

ENDS understands that the WBCSD will try to move the concept forward at the next Forests Dialogue meeting. The WBCSD's James Griffiths told ENDS that an alternative approach is needed.

Members such as Procter & Gamble and Time Warner had indicated that they had been put off adopting responsible procurement policies by the conflicts between certification schemes, Mr Griffiths said. They were loath to put resources into any one scheme if this failed to quell NGO pressure.

The FSC scheme is the only one backed by most environmental NGOs. But Mr Griffiths pointed out that the product volumes certified by the scheme fell far short of the demand for certified products and that other schemes must therefore be recognised.

FSC International accepts that it is producing insufficient certified material. Marketing and communications director Michael Spencer told ENDS that the organisation was aware that it needed to dramatically increase throughput in the coming months.

He revealed that over 80% of the wood from FSC-certified forests is currently failing to make it through the supply chain as FSC-labelled products. This is attributed to a variety of factors and the FSC is urgently consulting stakeholders in order to introduce greater flexibility into its scheme.

Both the FSC and FERN took issue with the WBCSD's proposal for a framework that would allow all certification schemes to apply. Mr Spencer accused it of wanting to "homogenise schemes towards the lowest common denominator."

FERN's Director Saskia Ozinga told ENDS that she thought the shortfall in supply of FSC-certified timber could last for some time as demand from large corporations increases. But rather than opting to support weaker certification schemes, she said, these firms should instead find other ways to support programmes aimed at raising standards of forest management.

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