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The Forest Stewardship Council

Simon Counsell, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK and contributor to FSC-Watch, examines what FSC certification really means.

When I helped set up the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the early 1990s, the aim was to try and establish an ‘eco-labelling’ scheme that would allow consumers to distinguish wood and paper products derived from sustainable and ethically acceptable sources, from those where forests were being destroyed. The indications were that very few products would qualify for a label in the short to medium term, because truly sustainable management of forests for wood was very much the exception rather than the rule.

Now, 25 years later, there are tens of thousands of products carrying the FSC’s ‘Seal of Approval’. The ‘tree-tick’ logo has become one of the most ubiquitous of the eco-labels and can be seen everywhere from packets of toilet paper to magazines and IKEA furniture. Does this mean that there has been a miraculous improvement in how timber companies, and paper and furniture manufacturers, source their raw material? Are there really now hundreds of millions of acres of forests and woodlands worldwide under careful, sustainable, management?

Sadly, no. There is little hard evidence that forestry practices worldwide have significantly improved over the last two decades. The surprisingly few truly independent studies have shown that FSC-certified companies have marginally better standards for things such as working conditions for employees. Some FSC-certified companies in places such as Canada and Scandinavia (from where the UK obtains the vast majority of its imported wood) have made slight changes to their conservation practices. But the basic nature of the companies’ practices has remained the same.

Almost on a monthly basis for the last two decades, there have been exposés and scandals about FSC-certified wood being shown to come from illegal sources, or areas where forests are being destroyed or other severe environmental damage is occurring, or where companies are acting in blatant disregard for international agreements on, for example, the rights of indigenous peoples. A major documentary investigation for the German-French TV channel ARTE in 2018 revealed abuses of the FSC system from Brazil to Russia and the Congo to Cambodia.

What has gone wrong with the FSC?

A key problem has been the way the FSC is organised and does its business. The FSC itself does not carry out eco-audits of forestry operations or timber companies. Instead, this is done by any of the dozens of private certification companies ‘accredited’ by the FSC, who are contracted and paid for directly by the companies seeking certification for their products. The certification companies are competing for business. The lucrative contracts for certification assessments are more likely to go to the assessors known to be lenient or lax, rather than those who are likely to find fault and reject a certification request. In a sense, the certifiers are thus engaged in a ‘race to the bottom’ of certification standards.

The FSC and a linked organisation are supposed to oversee the certification companies and ensure they are following the rules, and genuinely assess the loggers for compliance with the FSC’s mostly sensible ‘checklists’ of sustainability. But they have consistently failed to do so and, in fact, the FSC is almost powerless to really control the certification companies, which carry on with impunity in issuing certificates to non-compliant timber companies. Some of the largest certification companies have repeatedly fallen foul of the FSC’s requirements – issuing sustainability certificates to companies involved in wrecking critical wildlife habitats, or engaged in illegal logging, for example – yet remain within the FSC system.


Image: what does the FSC logo green tick mean

The small print on the FSC's product labels

Meanwhile, the ‘small print’ on FSC’s product labels – of which there are several different kinds – needs ever-closer inspection. Many product lines carrying the ‘FSC Mix’ logo may contain absolutely no wood or paper that comes from a certified forest. The ‘FSC Controlled Wood’ label means that the source of the product material has not actually been physically inspected or assessed, just that a desk exercise has been carried out to assess the risk that the material might have come from an egregiously bad source, such as an illegal logging operation or from indigenous lands.


What should the ethical consumer do?

What this all means is that it is now impossible to be sure that a product carrying an FSC logo really does come from a forest source that is ‘environmentally acceptable, socially beneficial and economically sustainable’. This does not make the ethical purchase choice of wood and paper products any easier. However, as a general rule, a sensible approach is to: 

  • Choose re-used or recycled materials preferentially
  • Choose those known to come from local (that is, UK) sources, or from nearby in Europe, where forestry practices tend to be well regulated by governments
  • Choose ‘FSC 100%’ labelled products if neither of the first options are available.

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