Angeli Mehta reports on pressures to reform the forests certification scheme amid declining take-up and concerns about credibility in countries like Russia
What difference do certifications make in the forest sector? The short answer is that it’s hard to tell. And that should be cause for concern.
Several schemes exist, but the most rigorous of these is considered to be that run by the Forest Stewardship Council, formed in 1993 after the previous year’s Rio Earth Summit.
Simon Counsell, until recently executive director at the Rainforest Foundation UK, was involved at the FSC’s inception and has been a close observer ever since. He suggests there were several problems apparent from the outset.
It proved impossible to get a market premium for FSC products
“The whole idea was to provide a market advantage for community-based forestry that genuinely is operating sustainably, and give them an advantage over big industrial companies,” he said. But “you need to pay to do the types of sensitive forestry that need to be done – and it proved impossible to get a market premium for FSC products.”
Companies harvesting or using forest products in their supply chain can apply to be independently certified by the FSC, a stamp of approval that should give consumers the confidence that the products they’re buying come from sustainably managed forests and have been tracked through a properly documented supply chain. The FSC says its processes impact more than 32,000 companies and almost 200 million hectares of forest globally.
The FSC itself doesn’t carry out audits; that is done by certification assessment bodies, of which there are more than 80. Companies pay them to conduct an audit, and these certifiers compete with each other for the business of the companies that want to be certified.
“What this results in is a race to the bottom in terms of the rigour of the audits they carry out: the more lenient and lax they are of non-compliance or the failures of clients, the more likely they are to get ongoing business,” asserts Counsell.
He doesn’t think the FSC plays a strong enough role in regulating the auditors. “Several years ago we proposed inverting the whole process, so all audit requests go through the FSC.” Certification bodies would be invited to tender, with the most rigorous chosen. Counsell says the FSC’s reply was that it was “too difficult and too complicated”.
Such are Counsell’s concerns that he set up the website FSC-Watch.
We have a control system that works ... But I do agree we need to maintain a rigorous watch over these things
Walter Smith, a former auditor with the Rainforest Alliance, says that while he doesn’t think there is “overt bias” in certification bodies evaluating companies against FSC standards, “the economic pressure to get and keep clients is a factor that can lead to bias.” And he discovered in his career that large companies can take legal action against certifying bodies if they threaten to suspend them.
In an interview with Ethical Corporation, FSC director general Kim Carstensen defended the auditing process. “We have a control system that works – since 2018 we have suspended over 3,600 certificates” and six companies are currently disassociated. Most of them, he asserts, want to get their certified status back.
“But I do agree we need to maintain a rigorous watch over these things”, he said, adding that credibility is a “live issue”.
Later this year, the FSC will unveil to members the findings of an independent study on the risks and threats to the credibility of the auditing process. Carstensen says it will consider ideas for reform, such as limiting the length of time a company can use the same auditing body; sending different auditors on each visit; and even including foreign nationals on auditing teams as they are less likely to be intimidated by the threat of legal action over their findings.
One big problem is that while the FSC was originally intended to operate in the tropics today 88% of the forest it certifies lies in the northern hemisphere.
Jos Barlow is a professor of conservation science at Lancaster University who researches how fires and selective logging influence forest recovery in Brazil. He suggests that the “FSC is stuck between a rock and hard place. If it’s too stringent no one will do it.”
You need a national crackdown on illegal logging that would increase prices for timber, which would make certification worthwhile
The situation is particularly challenging in the Amazon, he says, where there’s “so much illegal logging and so little incentive”.
“What you need is national crackdown on illegal logging that would increase prices for timber, which would make certification worthwhile.” In turn, he adds, communities would have to be empowered to manage the profits from their logging operations.
Carstensen does want the FSC to become more relevant in tropical forests – for example, building on the success of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Here, nine communities – given forestry concessions by the government and supported by the Rainforest Alliance to gain FSC certification for timber extraction – can pride themselves on a near zero-deforestation rate and very few fires over the past 16 years.
That’s in stark contrast to national parks that are supposedly completely protected. Moreover, the concessions have generated income and jobs. The FSC has proposed to neighbouring governments that they spread that experience to other parts of the remaining forest in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama.
The crucial ingredients for success are government support and collaboration with communities and environmental NGOs. “What we see,’ adds Carstensen, “is that if forest land is used in a beneficial way it’s much more likely the area will be better protected. If the area doesn’t provide value, it’s likely someone will take it.”
IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, has been a big force behind helping companies and concessions to achieve FSC certification in tropical countries. But it has decided to pull back from that work.
The business case for smallholders was already weak, but the FSC’s rules to protect intact forest landscapes seem to have made it worse
One reason is the failure of certification to bring smallholder farmers on board in tropical countries, says programme manager Nienka Sleurik.
“The business case [for smallholders] was already horribly weak, but the FSC’s rules to protect intact forest landscapes (IFLs) seem to have made it worse”.
The FSC defines IFLs as “the last remaining large unfragmented forest areas, undisturbed by roads or other industrial infrastructure, in which there has been no industrial harvesting in the past 30-50 years.”
While this policy is necessary to protect northern forests, it is problematic in tropical countries, where much of the deforestation is due to competing pressure to convert land for agriculture, and smallholders need to be part of the solution to protecting forests.
Indeed a recent analysis of approved concessionary logging areas in the Congo revealed greater loss of IFL in certified than in non-certified concessions.
IDH is now taking a more holistic, landscape approach. (See Fighting fire with incomes as focus shifts to helping small farmers grow sustainable palm) It’s also decided to engage more directly with producer countries, as just 29% of tropical timber coming into Europe is responsibly sourced.
It set up the European Sustainable Tropical Timber Coalition to increase the volume of sustainably managed tropical forests and to address the declining market for sustainable timber, which accounts for less than 50% of EU-sourced tropical timber.
Where FSC works reasonably well is in countries where forestry is already highly regulated, for example the UK
That body calculates that if the entire EU sourced only certified sustainable tropical timber, 16m hectares of forest could be positively impacted, and that “based on the assumption that certification will prevent premature re-entry logging, the EU trade in certified tropical timber has the potential to mitigate 55 to 88 million metric tonnes of CO2 a year”.
Are forests, regardless of their location, better for having certification? “There’s some evidence that social conditions are somewhat better; but the economic side is very ambiguous and the environment ambiguous at best,” suggests Counsell. “Where FSC works reasonably well is in countries where forestry is already highly regulated, for example the UK.”
A recent Swedish study suggested that neither certification by FSC nor its rival PEFC reduced forest degradation.
Last year, scientists in Germany published an assessment of forests in Russia, comparing a primary reference forest with one site managed with FSC certification and one managed without certification. They found equally high mounts of harvested timber – some 97% was extracted – together with large-scale clear-cutting that produced “significant structural and ecological changes in the forest ecosystem”.
The FSC does allow clear-cutting of up to 90% in northern forests dominated by coniferous trees, because it says this is similar to how nature manages them as they are frequently destroyed by forest fires or severe storms. (See Move to set science-based targets for timber sector as threat to northern forests grows)
Pierre Ibisch, professor of nature conservation at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, who oversaw the Russian study, says: "The FSC-certified areas have spread rapidly in Russia. The reason is that the companies want to gain access to the European market. Consumers in Europe buy the wood with the FSC label and believe they are doing something good for the Russian forests. Unfortunately, we cannot confirm this with our case study. I think it is irresponsible that the destruction of Russia's last great primeval forests is progressing under the guise of sustainability." Carstensen thinks climate change is exacerbating the impact of clear-cutting, and says Ibisch’s findings are causing it to look again at the FSC Russia standard.
FSC will need to address climate change more directly, connecting forest stewardship to climate action
The FSC, he adds, is working on establishing moratoriums on extraction within IFLs. Last autumn, FSC-certified companies worked with the local government and NGOs to agree protection for 300,000 hectares of the Arkhangelsk region of Russia’s northern taiga, home to more than 60 species of rare plants and animals.
David Chaffin, who leads the forest and fibre programme at Kimberly-Clark, has worked previously with FSC US and The Nature Conservancy. He argues that the FSC has the most rigorous criteria for protecting at-risk species.
He says he’s seen “first-hand the environmental and social benefits that FSC can help deliver in the forest, and in indigenous communities that call many of those forests home.”
However, he said the certification standard faces two challenges in the next decade: “FSC – and any natural resource based-certification for that matter – will need to address climate change more directly, connecting forest stewardship to climate action. Additionally, as a market-based platform, consumer demand for FSC-certified products must increase, to help return the FSC-certified forest land base to a growth trajectory.”
The global area of certified forest declined for the first time in 2018, according to the Timber Trade Federation.
Carstensen acknowledges the lack of growth in forest certifications, but adds that the chain of custody certifications grew 10% last year to reach over 41,000.
On climate change, he is palpably irked by what he sees as a polarisation of debate: “You either protect [forest] 100% or it doesn’t exist as forest any more.”
Forests are our best defence against climate change – but the best producer of other goods
The FSC’s vision, he says, is that “as much as possible gets protected, and the rest is responsibly managed and used for logging or non-timber forest products, [like] nuts berries, mushrooms.”
He argues that degraded land could be used for timber plantations. “We need to protect forest, but we [also] need to replace plastics and concrete with renewable materials. Forests are our best defence against climate change, but the best producer of other goods.”
Resolving that dichotomy may well be key to the future of forests – and certification schemes.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of our in-depth Deforestation briefing. See also: