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Nithin Coca headshot

The Cross-Sector Movement to Scale Sustainable Forestry in the U.S.

As companies raise the bar on their sustainable forestry commitments, one big challenge remains: There aren’t enough certified sustainable forests in certain markets to meet the demands of every company. This unique partnership offers a solution.
By Nithin Coca
Certified Sustainable Forests

As consumers and the general public grow more concerned about deforestation and its links to climate change and natural resource depletion, pressure is growing on large brands to show they are a part of the solution. 

“It’s important to realize the wide range of benefits forests provide in addition to the products we all use every day,” said Chris McLaren, chief marketing officer at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent not-for-profit organization that promotes the responsible management of the world's forests. “Forests clean the air we breathe and the water we drink [and] provide habitat for 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity. 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

Brands have a unique role to play: As major buyers of paper pulp, cardboard and other fiber-based packaging materials, they can drive system-wide change. Moreover, as concerns about single-use plastic and its low recyclability grow, paper and plant-based packaging could be a sustainable alternative. 

So it’s no surprise that companies are making increasingly ambitious pledges to procure more recycled and certified sustainable materials. In this space, Procter and Gamble, or P&G, is aiming to lead. P&G is sourcing 100 percent of its wood pulp from certified sources today, with a goal of 75 percent from FSC-certified sources by 2022 and an ambition to reach 100 percent FSC by 2030. P&G is not alone, with other brands including HP, L’Oreal and Nestle making similar commitments and thus making an increase in available FSC-certified working forests crucial. But, of course, commitments require action in order to be met.

One big challenge for sourcing sustainable forest fibers

One major challenge is that there aren’t enough FSC-certified forests in certain markets to meet the demands of every company, in every industry, in a responsible way.

“While the market for all manner of FSC-certified products is currently rising rapidly worldwide, there are places where certified forests’ harvested products lack the right kinds of buyers, while in many other instances, demand far outstrips supply,” McLaren said.

Supply gaps and inability to source sustainably are some reasons why Global Canopy, a nonprofit tracking zero-deforestation commitments, found that most companies were not on pace to meet their goals as of last year. 

Entities like FSC were formed to help brands and consumers make better supply chain choices. When it comes to certification, FSC has become well-known for many reasons. Its standards are strong and include 70 principles and criteria ranging from ecosystem conservation, to labor, human and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. It’s also a global organization, meaning it can provide certified materials to brands that operate in numerous markets.

Still, that doesn’t mean brands can be passive and merely rely on FSC. Ensuring a sustainable supply of materials means being proactive. Only by working with suppliers, certification bodies, conservation groups and communities will companies create the environment necessary to reach their goals, both now and in the future.

“Forests don’t grow overnight, so the decisions we make today will impact the future of forests,”
said Lois Forde-Kohler, family care sustainability director at P&G. “That’s why a sustainable, responsible forestry practice is essential to ensuring that you have wood fiber in the future.”

Working with growers to expand certified sustainable forests 

Creating more incentives for growers to become FSC certified — and giving them the tools and capital to do so — will bring more certified fiber to market while ensuring more forest acreage is managed responsibly. 

One model is the partnership between P&G and the Four States Timberland Owners Association, an FSC certification group operating in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. P&G plays a unique role within this partnership, as it supports the expansion of FSC certification both to increase FSC supply for its products and to help reward Four States landowners for their responsible forest management practices — a win-win-win for the company, landowners and the environment. 

“Part of what we’ve done there is to help share with landowners that people really appreciate the value of certification,” Forde-Kohler told us. “We have organized tours to introduce landowners to the FSC certification standard, what’s required and how one can participate.”

The effect has been positive: By showing the clear case for sustainable practices and the long-term value they bring, growers are more willing to undergo the certification process. “There is definitely an increase in the number of certified acres from when we engaged,” Forde-Kohler said.

Partnerships are especially important, as most U.S. timber comes from smallholder woodlands that can face financial and logistical challenges in getting certified on their own. FSC sees potential in this model to enhance the viability of sustainable forestry across the US.

“We will need to develop more partnerships like this, and at greater scale, if we are to fulfill our mission and ensure all working U.S. forests are well-managed for the long-term future,” McLaren told us.

Now, the question is how to scale this model so there is enough FSC-certified material for all brands to meet their sustainability goals, while also protecting and restoring forests in critical regions across the U.S., Canada, Indonesia, Europe and elsewhere. To do its part, P&G has set an ambition to reach 100 percent FSC-certified fiber use by 2030.

“It is challenging — one of the key pieces in that work is ensuring that our suppliers understand our goals, why it's important to us, and why or how it's driving our procurement decisions,” Forde-Kohler explained. “It’s all about persistence.”

As forests face increasing pressure from human development and climate change, ensuring that toilet paper, packaging, and other wood fiber-based products aren’t sourced from virgin forests will be key in ensuring the future of a healthy planet. As P&G’s experience shows, active brand engagement, partnerships, and innovation will be key in meeting sustainable sourcing challenges head on.

This article series is sponsored by Procter & Gamble and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: Matthew Smith/Unsplash

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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