« Back to Home Page

Responsible Forestry: Can Certification Save Our Forests?

Mike Hower
| Tuesday October 1st, 2013 | 1 Comment
Photo Credit: Flickr CIFOR

Photo Credit: Flickr CIFOR

It’s tough not to feel a sense of sorrow when watching recent images of the California Rimfire, which has so far scorched more than 250,000 acres of the heavily-forested Sierra Nevada mountains. There is something about a forest that beckons us — a connection that runs millions of years into our evolutionary past.

In modern times, the demands of “progress” often have reduced our perception of trees to mere commodities. We need lumber, pulp for paper and land for specialized agriculture. If the principles of sustainable forest management are not respected, these requirements can lead to sanctioned deforestation or degradation of forests’ inherent qualities. Unfortunately, many of these activities now take place in some of the poorest regions of the world where few government protections are in place. Where regulations do exist, illegal deforestation runs rampant in the form of unsanctioned logging, cattle ranching and subsistence land-clearing.

Some claim that the best thing for the world’s forests would be for humans to simply leave them alone — no more logging or land clearing of any kind. Realistically, we know that economic demands will never allow that. Further, absent human involvement, natural disasters (fire, storms, pests and diseases) will take their toll sooner or later on untouched forests as a part of nature’s regenerative cycles. So it is safe to say that humans will be utilizing forests’ ecosystem services now and in the future.  Can we find a middle ground to maintain the health of the forests and also use them responsibly for present and future generations?

Paradise lost

The world’s forests are disappearing at the alarming rate – one football field lost every few seconds, according to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), a United Nations initiative that uses market and financial incentives to combat deforestation. Every year, another 13 million hectares disappear (although re-forestation adds another eight back).

The situation’s gravitas goes well beyond sentiment — forests provide ecosystem services valued at $33 trillion, or twice the U.S.’s annual GDP. They facilitate food, water and air production, help to minimize storm damage and produce a wide range of natural medicines. As many of these goods and services are traditionally viewed as public goods, their key contributions often are overlooked in public, corporate and individual decision-making.

Responsible forestry

What if forests could be sustainably managed to be utilized for economic needs without wiping them out?

This question lies at the heart of responsible forestry. Responsible forestry could be anything from tree planting programs, to nurseries that can quickly replant harvested areas to applying different sustainable harvesting methods to specific forest types. To truly be responsible, these operations take into account environmental factors including tree species and age and special environmental needs including leaving some areas uncut. Responsible forestry can also mean locating roads and landings to reduce the disruption to streams and wetlands and maintaining “wildlife” trees and buffers around streams and wetlands to provide habitat and to protect water quality.

To help consumers know which products come from sustainably-managed forests, several certification schemes have emerged, most notably those by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), [ed note: both of which are supported and utilized by International Paper.]

Forest Stewardship Council

FSC claims to “enable businesses and consumers to make informed choices about the forest products they buy, and create positive change by engaging the power of market dynamics.” Some of its members include leading environmental NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace, businesses such as Tetra Pak and Mondi PLC and social organizations like the National Aboriginal Forestry Association of Canada, as well as forest owners and managers, processing companies and campaigners and individuals.

When a company or a consumer chooses a certified forest product, they trust that it comes from a forest that is managed to a high level of environmental and social performance,” said Corey Brinkema, president of the Forest Stewardship Council US. “It is this expectation that shapes FSC’s definition of responsible management, which we believe should require verified performance on the ground that goes well beyond legal requirements.”

According to FSC, this includes preventing deforestation, protecting rare, threatened and endangered species, safeguarding water resources, limiting toxic chemicals and engaging local communities. These and many other factors combine to create a responsibly managed forest.

FSC offers two types of certification for two different purposes: Forest Management (FM) and Chain of Custody (COC). While FM is what most think about (certifying landowners for meeting the requirements of forest management), FSC says COC is the best way to ensure supply chain integrity, due to the fact that a log from one forest may touch many companies on its way to market as a finished product. Some COC companies include International Paper, The Home Depot and Kimberly Clark.

Most FSC-certified products carry one of three FSC “on-product labels,” which helps guarantee for consumers that the product they are choosing is made with wood from a certified sustainably-managed forest:

  • FSC 100% – Products that only contain material from FSC-certified forests.
  • FSC Mixed Sources – Goods made with material from FSC-certified forests as well as recycled material or other sustainable and ethically controlled material sources.
  • FSC Recycled – Products that contain post consumer material but may also be comprised of some pre-consumer material content.

To receive FSC certification, products must meet 10 FSC-set principles and 57 FSC-set criteria. These principles and criteria address legal issues, labor rights, accurate product documentation, indigenous rights, planned forest management, forest management environmental impacts, conservation, chain of custody monitoring and benefits that guarantee economic viability and several environmental and social advantages.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative

SFI strives for “healthy, thriving, well-managed forests for today and future generations.” With more than 240 million acres certified to the SFI management standard, claims to be the largest single standard in the world. [ed. note: FSC emailed us to let us know that their certification record as of October 2013 is 452 million acres]  The organization says it works with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations across North America to promote responsible forest management and fiber procurement.

“SFI is distinctive in that we go beyond our standard to promote responsible forestry in several additional ways,” said Kathy Abusow, SFI’s President and CEO. “Some of these include fiber sourcing requirements that promote responsible forest management from all suppliers and requiring program participants to invest in conservation research to advance forestry practices.”

“We also have a unique network of 35 on-the-ground SFI Implementation Committees that work directly with communities to educate, train and promote sustainable forestry. Additionally, our Forest Partners Program, an innovative initiative helps market leaders work together to promote sustainability across the entire supply chain,” Abusow added.

One of the cornerstones of the SFI Standard is an objective requiring program participants who buy raw material direct from landowners to broaden the practice of sustainable forestry through the use of best management practices to protect water quality. SFI says a Texas Forest Service study found that implementation of best management practices was significantly higher statistically when timber was delivered to an SFI-certified mill compared to a non-SFI-certified mill.  

What is the difference between FSC and SFI?

While both FSC and SFI claim to promote responsible forestry, their methods are quite different. FSC makes a point of never harvesting more than what naturally grows back, as well as protecting biodiversity and endangered species. It also guards old growth forests and shields local streams, although it does have standards for planted forests which are intensively logged. Conversely, SFI allows large clearcuts, some logging close to rivers and streams, the use of pesticides and conversion of old-growth forests into tree plantations. FSC does not stop intensive forestry per se, which is why many organizations utilize stock from both standards. Though the two standards have many differences, they are not mutually exclusive.

The organizations also are different in scope; FSC is global while SFI operates only in North America.

FSC is based on a required and consistently applied third-party audit, but SFI is not [ed note. SFI is actually 3rd party verified. See correction in the comments from SFI.] SFI also is largely focused on the adoption of management systems that may or may not lead to changes in performance, whereas FSC is based upon a system of performance-based measurements. FSC also has a comprehensive set of detailed ecological indicators, whereas SFI ecological indicators are more general and most are optional.

At its core, FSC strives to better manage natural forests in a sustainable way, while SFI seeks to replace lost forests by planting new ones. Many NGOs consider FSC to be the stronger standard, bar none. In a world of depleting forest stocks, any effort toward responsible forestry is a step in the right direction.

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is an Associate Editor at Sustainable Brands and writes about companies and organizations engaged in sustainability strategy, clean technology and social entrepreneurship. As a natural politico, he has a soft spot for anything related to public policy and the intersection of business and government. You also can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower).


▼▼▼      1 Comment     ▼▼▼

Newsletter Signup
  • Kathy Abusow

    The recent major forest fires underscore the importance of proper forest management. Responsibly managed forests help minimize the impacts of wildfires, while unmanaged forests have excessive fuel loads from an abundance of dead and dying trees.

    Forestry experts agree that some of the best tools for increasing responsible forest management are credible forest certification programs including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS). And with 90% of the world’s forests still uncertified, we should all be pulling together to promote responsible forestry through certification. So it’s disappointing to see misinformation continue to be disseminated that draws a false contrast between SFI and FSC.

    Here are the facts:

    · Contrary to what this article reports, SFI certification is based on independent third-party audits (bit.ly/17p9dX0). Program participants are audited against the SFI Standard by independent third-party certification bodies accredited by the American National Standards Institute, the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board and/or the Standards Council of Canada. (By contrast, FSC created their own accreditation body to accredit FSC auditors known as Accreditation Services International.)

    · The SFI Standard includes special requirements to protect old-growth
    forests, and it prohibits conversion (http://bit.ly/1aIK7C9) to non-forest uses except in justified circumstances where it is documented that ecological impacts are not significant.

    · The SFI Standard includes strict requirements related to minimizing chemical
    use (http://bit.ly/1bpminm), including the use of least toxic and narrowest spectrum pesticides and the use of integrated pest management wherever feasible, and using only those chemicals that are approved by federal, state, and local governments.

    · The oft-repeated assertion that FSC prevents clear-cutting (http://bit.ly/17pa4qv) in working forests is inaccurate. FSC has no maximum clear-cut size on over 45% of the land certified to FSC standards. This includes FSC standards in parts of Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Brazil; you can see photos of FSC clear-cuts here. The SFI Standard allows for clearcuts in working forests only where appropriate and when other requirements are met (e.g., protection of wildlife habitat, site productivity, biodiversity, size restrictions, etc.).

    . Anyone interested in learning more can get the facts here (9http://bit.ly/ZqulVX).

    Third-party forest certification is growing rapidly in North America because of a growing consensus that responsible forest management is promoted by using rigorous science-based standards, independently verified – and because a growing number of people understand that the actions we take today will determine whether or not we have healthy, thriving forests tomorrow. All credible forest-certification standards have contributed to the progress we’ve seen in recent years. If we continue to work together and focus on progress, the future for our forests can be bright.