Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Phil Covington headshot

FSC Certification Beats Zero Deforestation, Says Top Paper Company


Natural Forest degradation and destruction is a global problem. According to The World Resources Institute (WRI), 30 percent of global forest cover has been cleared and a further 20 percent degraded. That which remains has been fragmented, leaving only about 15 percent of the world's forests intact. WWF points out that we are losing forests at the rate of 36 football fields per minute.

Consequently, the focus of deforestation zeros-in on where the loss is most rapid: tropical forests, where clear-cutting indiscriminately for agriculture is particularly acute. Agriculture is responsible for around 70 percent of global deforestation involving activities such as palm oil production or cattle pasture. This has prompted the call for zero deforestation in parts of the world where deforestation is most critical, or zero net deforestation (ZND) which WWF explains, "leaves room for change in the configuration of the land-use mosaic, provided the net quantity, quality and carbon density of forests is maintained."

However, ZND might be described as a low bar to attain in terms of sustainable forest management -- and while it's a practical step in areas of rapid deforestation, Dave Bubser, senior manager of Rainforest Alliance U.S., says it's like "placing tourniquets" in parts of the world where clear-cutting is happening on a wide scale. ZND is primarily a quantitative measure, but it's less effective as a qualitative one.

Some actually argue that ZND is potentially harmful to natural forests, but it's certainly not the end game. And while there are calls for companies and even countries to pledge for ZND, such a call is just an entry point for a higher bar to be reached -- that of certification. Paper company Domtar recently issued a paper on the subject to this effect, promoting their commitment to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

Domtar sources its pulp from North America, so the perils of clear-cutting natural rainforest land are not applicable in the company's case. But that's not to say forests in North America are immune to degradation and loss -- which is why FSC certification is seen by Domtar as so important.

Rainforest Alliance's Dave Bubser explains that biodiversity continues to decline in American forests; we continue to lose species, and since landowners are typically comprised of "family forest owners" and not big corporations, extreme "parcelization" of land is happening as forests get passed down and divided among the generations.

This means that many forests can be 50 acres or less in size, and family owners, under financial pressures, are having to evaluate "higher or better use" questions for their land. Such questions arise when forest owners are presented with things such as opportunities for urban development, fossil fuel interests or financial drivers -- which may compel families to sell acreage to pay off inheritance taxes, for example.

Furthermore, as land is passed down through the generations, ownership can often fall to individuals who have little or no connection to the forest anymore. Combine this with climate change impacts leading to the deleterious effects of insects, disease, invasive species and fire, and individual owners start to see compelling reasons to decide that forest management pales in potential income compared with alternative uses.

For these reasons, the quantitative tool of ZND is not really useful for forest management, because it is not sufficiently wide-reaching to address the many qualitative aspects of forest management. FSC, by contrast, gets into provisions to protect water quality, prohibit hazardous chemicals like pesticides, protect rare old-growth forest, and protect the rights of indigenous people and local communities, as well as limiting clear-cutting to protect forest ecology.

Rainforest Alliance's Bubser says "FSC certification is the single best comprehensive solution for forest stewardship" and one that is, "built on the premise that your forest will be managed in an extremely responsible way," ensuring the long-term viability of forest land. He also says that there is a high degree of overlap in terms what owners want for their forests and what FSC certification provides.

But certification is not free -- and, as Bubser says, small forest owners may see the benefits of FSC certification but don't necessarily see the need to spend their income on a third-party certification. So, it becomes a problem in search of a market solution.

Domtar recognizes this. As a corporation that sees a growing demand for selling FSC-certified paper, while sourcing pulp from these numerous small family forest owners, Domtar clearly has a vested interest in the continuity of sustainably-managed pulp suppliers in North America. The company's VP of sustainability and business communications, Paige Goff, explains that the main challenge where Domtar's mills are located is helping family owners answer the question: "What does it mean to them? And why will certification help them make sure they have forest for their children and their children's children?"

It's a two-pronged approach, Goff explains, firstly addressing the human element (explaining how FSC certification allows owners to pass healthy forest ownership through the generations) and secondly, the financial element (how demand for FSC fiber makes forestry a viable business for the long term.) These factors in combination appeal to forest owners to stay in the forestry business. Goff says, "When forests remain forests, then they can be used in paper manufacturing, and doing it in a sustainable way is better than not doing anything at all."

Still, the costs of gaining third-party certification is still prohibitive to some owners. To address this, Domtar has helped around 60 individual forest owners gain FSC certification under a single certification ticket in Ashdown, Arkansas, by paying the fees, handling the paperwork and undergoing the necessary inspections. Furthermore, Domtar promises that even if the Ashdown mill has enough inventory, it will still buy the FSC certified wood from the owners. This kind of leadership consequently forms part of the business model and is not a public relations move, since it protects a sustainable pulp supply going forward.

Domtar first began manufacturing FSC-certified paper in 2002, and certified paper now represents 20 percent of its production under its EarthChoice product line. The company pledged to go to 100 percent FSC product in the future and expects to set a detailed timeline in its next sustainability report. A commitment to FSC and helping suppliers attain certification plays into the company's future business goals, as well as ensuring the health of North American forests.

Image used by permission of Domtar

Phil Covington headshotPhil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

Read more stories by Phil Covington

More stories from Energy & Environment