Last week, six large companies announced they would work together to educate consumers about paper and wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The businesses include International Paper, Kimberly-Clark, HP, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Williams Sonoma. These firms join nonprofit partners WWF, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation in the effort to showcase FSC’s brand and reputation.
Other companies joining this campaign include outdoor gear companies Burton and Patagonia; the furniture maker West Elm; and home furnishings giant Pottery Barn. All of these companies either produce paper products, manufacture goods from timber or, in the case of HP, use paper extensively within their supply chain.
FSC, and its large corporate partners, cite the oft-noted statistics that the world’s forests are host to about 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and provide an economic lifeline for at least 1.6 billion people. The timing is definitely spot on, as this accelerated push to amplify FSC’s messages and its benefits comes at a time when deforestation is often in the headlines. Relentless fires across Indonesia could have caused as many as 100,000 deaths last year, and the ongoing bad news about palm oil offers other industries an opportunity to shine and spotlight their work on managing forests. Yet there are also positive signs, as more companies have partnered with NGOs in order to halt the destruction of what is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks. Initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge show promise to restore more of the world’s forests.
Environmental NGOs have long touted the FSC’s certification systems as they are designed to stop the harvest of rare old-growth forests, slash the use of hazardous chemicals, protect water quality, and engage local communities with a particular focus on protecting the human rights of indigenous peoples.
The problem with this over-produced 'One Simple Action' agenda, however, is that it is heavy on public relations campaigning, blares loudly like an advertisement to purchase from certain brands and, quite frankly, is low on substance.
And therein lies a huge opening for more criticism, as the FSC has garnered its fair share of detractors.
Greenpeace, for example, acknowledged that the FSC has been critical to improving the performance of companies within the paper and timber industries. But the problem, according to a 2013 report, is that FSC-certified operators have been involved with dubious forestry practices and are ensnared in conflict with local communities from Brazil and Indonesia to the Congo Basin. Another company that has been committed to FSC certification, the furniture giant Ikea, was accused by the Guardian of logging old-growth forests in northwestern Russia.
It is true that no certification system is going to be perfect. The palm oil industry is struggling to stop deforestation with its sustainable standards organization, the RSPO. The global beef sector is making moves to mitigate its impact on people and the planet. Ongoing revelations of human rights violations show the garment industry has a long road ahead to score consumer trust, and this sector clearly could benefit a centralized sustainability standards system analogous to FSC.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests FSC has much work to do to ensure that all of its operators and participating brands are truly compliant and committed to stopping deforestation, rather than patting themselves on the back. These leading brands’ commitments do indeed give the organization a shot in the arm. But what FSC and its partners need to do now is leverage the power of these organizations to ensure their systems are truly rigorous if they are going to score the buy-in of the skeptics out in the marketplace.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.