Can we trust the Forest Stewardship Council?
Simon Counsell, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation, asks the question.
When I helped set up the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the early 1990s, the aim was to try to 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.
Yet a mere (in forestry terms) 21 years after the FSC came into being, there are now tens of thousands of products carrying the FSC’s ‘Seal of Approval’. The ‘tree-tick’ logo can be seen everywhere from packets of toilet paper to 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?
Forestry practices not improving
Sadly, no. There is little hard evidence that forestry practices worldwide have significantly improved over the last two decades. Some marginal changes have been made by some FSC-certified companies in places such as Canada and Scandinavia (from where the UK obtains the vast majority of its imported wood).
For example, instead of completely clearing thousands of acres of forest, loggers might now clear-fell in smaller patches, perhaps leaving a few isolated trees standing. Damage to streams and rivers might have been cut, pollution and damage from heavy machinery reduced. But the basic nature of the companies’ practices has remained the same.
There are, at best, large question marks over whether such forestry operations are sustainable even in terms of being able to produce a continuing supply of wood, let alone whether they will be of any value as wildlife habitat, or useful for recreation and a source of important resources for local people.
So why is the FSC’s seal of approval now so prevalent?
When interviewed by Ethical Consumer magazine about this in 2008, I described how the companies involved in carrying out the assessments of logging companies for the FSC were engaged in a “race to the bottom” of certification standards.
The 30 or so companies charged with carrying out the on-the-ground assessment of compliance with FSC’s standards, compete with each other for business. They are paid directly by the logging companies, with fees running to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The certifiers know that they are likely to gain more business in the future if they are lenient with their clients, turn a blind eye to problems, postpone any sanctions for many years, and issue an FSC certificate rather than deny one.
The FSC and a linked organisation are supposed to oversee the certification companies and ensure they are following the rules, and genuinely assessing 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.
Always read the small print
Meanwhile, the ‘small print’ on FSC’s product labels – of which there are three different kinds – needs ever-closer inspection. Product lines carrying the ‘FSC Mix’ logo may contain only 70 per cent of certified material, and any individual product may contain no certified material at all. The ‘FSC Recycled’ logo means that the product contains only recycled material, although up to 15% of it could be ‘pre-consumer’ waste, which some campaigners say should not really qualify as ‘recycled’ at all.
What this all means is that consumers are probably often being misled into thinking that the FSC logo guarantees that products are from an ‘environmentally acceptable, socially beneficial and economically sustainable’ source. For toilet paper specifically, products labelled ‘100% post-consumer waste’ would seem preferable to perhaps those labelled ‘FSC Recycled’. Buying products labelled ‘FSC 100% or ‘FSC Mix’ might be contributing unnecessarily to the destruction of the world’s forests.