FSC rethink aims to boost labelled timber volumes

The Forest Stewardship Council plans to re-launch its timber certification scheme in September with a major redesign of its label and standards. The overhaul is aimed at increasing supplies of FSC timber and ensuring that companies deliver on their commitments to reduce timber from "controversial" sources.

The FSC was established in 1993 to promote sustainable forestry through developing a global standard for forest management. The FSC accredits certification bodies which inspect forest operations and assess manufacturers' supply chains to ensure they comply with the standard.

In the UK the FSC is supported by the WWF's Forest and Trade Network (UK-FTN), formerly the 95+ Group of companies, whose members are committed to buying timber from sustainable sources.

The FSC has had considerable success over the past ten years. Some 44 million hectares in more than 60 countries have been certified to its standards, while worldwide turnover of FSC products is estimated at some $5 billion per year.

Nevertheless, it believes a major revision of its policies and standards is necessary to "maintain momentum", and is planning a re-launch at its annual conference in Germany, in September.1Changes are needed to remove supply-chain blockages, created by the FSC chain of custody standards, which result in over 80% of timber grown in FSC-certified forests being ineligible for an FSC label (ENDS Report 349, p 36 ). The scheme's inability to meet demand for certified timber has allowed other schemes - notably timber industry-led rival PEFC - to gain ground (ENDS Report 339, p 31 ).

The main problem is caused by the FSC's policy on percentage-based claims, agreed in 2000, which sets thresholds for FSC content which must be achieved before products can be labelled.

At present, a manufacturer can label all of the items, such as sawn wood, from a specific product line provided at least 70% of the timber used on that product line comes from FSC sources. But if supplies of FSC timber fall below 70%, because of poor seasonal availability for instance, none of the output can receive the label. Supplies of FSC and non-FSC material must also be kept separate, creating logistical problems for manufacturers.

The FSC has also found that one of its "key promises" - that "the product you are buying comes from a responsibly managed forest" - has been "stretched" under its percentage-based claims policy. In particular, the rules for chip and fibre products allow products with as little as 30% FSC material to be labelled (ENDS Report 301, p 29 ).

A new chain of custody standard for companies supplying and manufacturing FSC-certified products has been drawn up for products such as sawn wood, chipboard, pulp, paper and furniture. It specifies requirements for labelling FSC "pure" products, FSC "mixed" products and FSC "recycled" products.

New FSC chain of custody certification applicants will be evaluated against the standard from 1 January 2005. Existing certificate holders will be evaluated against it from 1 January 2006. All certificate holders must comply with the standard by 1 January 2007.

The new standard will introduce a "volume credit" system - likely to be popular with product manufacturers - alongside the existing threshold system for the labelling of FSC product groups. The credit system links the quantity of FSC-labelled products to the quantity of FSC-certified material entering the production process - but does not require physical separation of FSC-certified material from other wood during processing.

SCA Forest Products has tested this new approach at its seven mills in Sweden. Under the threshold system, only 2% of its solid wood production could be sold as FSC, even though it owns 2.5 million hectares of forest, all of which is FSC certified and which supplies most of its raw material. However this rose to 15% during the trial, and is expected to reach 70-75% once the new policies are adopted.

Four new labels will be introduced:

  • Material or products can be labelled as "FSC pure" if 100% of the material used in a product group, such as a line of window frames, is from FSC sources.

  • Where either the threshold or volume credit systems are used, products will be eligible for one of two "FSC mixed" labels. One is for products that contain a mixture of FSC material and material from other sources, while a second is for products containing a mixture of FSC material, material from other sources and recycled material. All material from non-FSC sources must be "controlled" to avoid wood from controversial sources, such as illegally logged timber.

  • To prevent consumers being forced to choose between buying FSC or recycled products, all of the products in a product group may be sold as "FSC recycled" if all of the wood or fibre used is post-consumer material.

    Labels will also be simplified by removing percentages figures and much of the descriptive text which confuses consumers. The standards for different products, such as chipboard, sawn wood and assembled products will be merged.

    There is also increasing concern over wood from illegally logged sources. Last year, WWF was forced to beef up the UK-FTN's rules to prevent members buying timber from illegal sources (ENDS Report 354, p 34 ). The European Commission is also considering tighter controls on imports of illegal timber.

    New guidance will clarify how companies certified under the FSC's chain of custody standards should avoid wood from "controversial" sources such as illegally logged timber. FSC head of accreditation Alistair Monument said "in the majority of cases" certification bodies were ensuring that companies did this, but the FSC has had to strip certification from some companies which failed to do so.