Ensuring sustainability is too broad a task for forest certification alone
April 12, 2018

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the most credible forest certification scheme that exists. Its deliberative process, by which social, environmental and economic actors define what sustainability means in a specific geographic context, has forever changed the concept of sustainable forest management.

It is therefore sad to note that the FSC has been unable to root out certain problems, notably the lack of quality of its certificates. This again became strikingly clear when the UK Competent Authority fined a British timber operator for breaching EU regulations prohibiting the import and sale of illegally harvested timber. The company was relying on its FSC Chain of Custody.

Such problems are not new. Ten years ago a number of NGO and private sector members of the FSC published a paper, Regaining Credibility and Rebuilding Support – changes the FSC needs to make to ensure it regains and maintain its credibility, presenting clear recommendations. The main concern raised was the variable, and too often inadequate, quality of certificates issued by certification bodies in FSC’s name. Most signatories to that statement, including Fern, have since left the FSC. Now Greenpeace, another signatory, has stated that it won’t be renewing its membership.

In its March statement, Greenpeace International urged companies to focus on re-using and recycling wood and paper products. Greenpeace still sees the FSC as the most credible scheme; however, if a company really needs virgin wood or fibre, Greenpeace advises that, besides FSC certification, additional due diligence is often required to ensure imports meet companies’ ‘no deforestation’ requirements.  This is especially true when sourcing from high-risk regions where democracy and civil society are weak and corruption is high.

Forest certification, although an important tool, is clearly insufficient on its own to prove legality, sustainability, or No Deforestation/No Peatland & No Exploitation (NDPE) commitments – the new mantras for companies sourcing forest-risk commodities such as palm oil and soy. Unfortunately, there is no ‘quick fix’ to fulfil these commitments. Processes that lay the groundwork for real governance improvements are needed for companies to achieve their commitments on no deforestation and NDPE. Fern believes a new instrument, addressing due diligence of forest-risk commodity imports may be needed as part of a broader Action Plan on Deforestation.

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Update: Fern has been asked by FSC to publish the following response. Although we stand by everything that was written in the original article, we have agreed to publish their answer so as to encourage debate.

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Recent UK EUTR case is not related to FSC quality

In an article in Fern's ForestWatch Newsletter of 12 April 2018 about FSC, an EUTR non-compliance case of an FSC-certified company in the UK was presented as proof of “lack of quality” of FSC certificates. I want to put the record straight here: The company was fined for not applying due diligence. It assumed that the FSC-claim was sufficient to assume EUTR-specific legality.

The EU Timber Regulation does not exempt certified imports from the obligation to apply due diligence. Therefore the company was in breach of the EUTR because it did not apply due diligence. This had nothing to do with the quality of the FSC certification scheme. The verdict of the UK authorities did not indicate that the imported timber was illegal.

Furthermore, the author refers to a ten-year old critique on some aspects of the FSC verification scheme. That is an old paper indeed, and much has changed in the meantime, including in the three main concerns in that paper: the functioning of the certification bodies, the complaints procedures, and the reliability of the controlled wood standard. We have considerably improved in all three areas, meaning that this critique is no longer valid.

FSC regrets that Greenpeace International has left our membership, as you can read in our official response: https://ic.fsc.org/en/news-updates/id/2072. It is important to note that several national Greenpeace organizations have chosen to remain with FSC.

FSC disagrees with the author that its scheme is insufficient to prove legality or sustainability. But we do agree that forest certification alone cannot end all threats to forests. Other interventions need to happen in parallel, including ensuring that conversion for agriculture is halted, that nature protection is increased, and that governments everywhere enforce forest laws effectively.

John Hontelez, Chief Advocacy Officer FSC j.hontelez@fsc.org