The World Needs Sustainable Forestry: Efforts to Greenwash Harmful Logging Need to be Stopped

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the world’s leading independent certifier of sustainably managed forests, is facing increasingly vitriolic attacks from various industry trade groups and players in Canada, who argue that the FSC’s policies — specifically their move toward requiring protection of threatened intact forest landscapes — will cause them to lose access to significant wood volumes they need to maintain their current operations. Meanwhile, to keep up volumes of “sustainably harvested” wood products, the largest Canadian operators have begun promoting the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) — a logging industry created certification scheme that lacks transparent and independently verified audits and markets harmful logging practices as “sustainable.” It’s an example of expert greenwashing and its existence goes a long way toward justifying the urgent need for FSC’s continued leadership in ensuring that consumers have access to sustainably produced products. As explained in detail below, efforts to place FSC and SFI on equal footing are little more than attempts by industry to fool customers into buying wood products that have little guarantee of coming from sustainable sources and are placing our global forests at risk of destruction.

The well-known logos of the two competing sustainable forest certification systems.

But why are attacks on the FSC system in Canada are a real threat to both FSC and the world’s forests? Canadian logging companies have FSC certificates covering more than 50 million hectares (more than 120 million acres), the largest area of FSC certified forests in the world. Though this number is large — and represents more than 30% of the world’s FSC certified forests — it is slowly shrinking as Canadian logging companies let FSC certificates expire and move toward less rigorous, industry-backed certification standards.[1] Meanwhile, continued global growth in demand for wood products is putting increased pressure on the need for careful, sustainable management that protects the long-term health of the world’s forests (and by extension, the products we use from them).

In its first, decade, FSC managed to certify 25 million hectares (or nearly 62 million acres) of forests globally — a number that has now been eclipsed by the nearly 190 million hectares (or nearly three times the size of Texas) that FSC has certified in 81 countries today. Its brand is well-known and major companies have demonstrated strong preferences for products blessed with the mark of FSC certification. Not surprisingly, FSC’s rigorous auditing and monitoring, requirements for conservation, and recognition of indigenous rights and interests has also led to its continued and long-time endorsement by many of the world’s leading environmental organizations. FSC’s strong growth since its founding in 1993 provides some reassurance that this imperative is possible, but developments in Canada set a dangerous precedent that threatens to undermine this progress.

Map showing the areas for potential harvest covered by FSC certificates in Canada. Map courtesy of FSC Canada.

A comparison of several key FSC and SFI requirements and the logging practices each system condones illustrates the threat facing our forests if consumers are led to believe that the two certification systems are equal. Here are four reasons for consumers to avoid SFI certified products.[2]

· Misleading Labels. The one thing that conscientious consumers are sure to notice is a product’s “ecolabeling.” These labels — think Energy Star; Certified Organic; Non-GMO Project — make us feel like we have some control over what we’re buying and how it was made or its impact on the environment. For SFI-labeled products though, there is almost no guarantee that what the label implies about its production is actually true. SFI’s own materials make this clear when they disclose that the “SFI certified sourcing label does not make claims about certified forest content.” Worse — or perhaps just as bad — SFI’s chain of custody labels overstate the “guaranteed” amount of sustainable content in products bearing the label, which are allowed to contain non-certified by-products or rely on third party certification systems that do not even meet SFI’s own criteria for sustainability.

· Logging Practices. When we think about sustainable logging, we like to think that we’re not talking about clearcutting. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case and SFI certified forests are prime examples. Though certain types of clearcutting — known as “even-aged management” in logging parlance — are often allowed under sustainable forestry regimes, not all clearcutting is created equal. SFI is known for certifying as “sustainable” massive clearcuts where the number of trees removed exceeds the growth rate of the forest they are taken from. In other instances, clearcuts have been done on steep mountainsides prone to erosion that produces high levels of river-clogging sediment run-off. In stark contrast to FSC, SFI also has no requirement for the protection of old growth forests — areas that are under threat around the world, despite their critical ecosystem functions and overall importance to a forest’s long term health.

· Encouraging a Race to the Bottom. SFI’s certification scheme has several huge red flags. For wood from forests in North America, for example, SFI only requires that wood not come from “illegal sources,” a requirement that basically allows sourcing from any forest, anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Compare that to FSC, which requires not only wood from legal sources, but also harvesting practices that have not disrupted indigenous communities, has not destroyed high value forests, or converted forests to a new use (i.e., deforestation). Similarly, SFI requires that its certified producers only comply with the minimum thresholds set by state, federal, or provincial law — thresholds that require only status quo logging practices that are well-known for failing to protect the environment, preserve endangered species, and keep our waterways clean.

· Failure to Address Climate Change. In today’s world, forests are one of our best hopes for mitigating the worst impacts of global climate change. When delegates from around the world gathered in Paris in December 2015, this point was driven home, and countries around the world agreed that efforts must be made to maximize the role played by forests as carbon sinks and the threats the world’s forests are facing due to deforestation and forest degradation. Unsurprisingly, SFI pays lip service to the issue of climate change, but continues to fail to incorporate any new standards or requirements that would help SFI certified forests play a positive role in mitigating the problem.

A clearcut in Washington State performed on forest lands certified by SFI. Photo Courtesy of Washington Forest Law Center

The problems with SFI go far beyond what can be encapsulated in a single post. Its audits lack the rigor of the FSC system, its funding structure is almost completely reliant on the industry it certifies, and its standards are filled with loopholes that undermine their effectiveness at every corner. Meanwhile, the world continues to face significant deforestation and forest degradation, logging operations are pushing farther and farther into the last remaining intact territories of indigenous peoples, iconic species great and small are threatened with extinction, and the world’s largest carbon sinks could be devastated. To face these challenges the world needs robust, scientifically defensible, collaborative, and responsive sustainable forestry regimes. One key tool to achieve this is a high-quality, independent, certification scheme. FSC, despite its imperfections, is the best we have. SFI, meanwhile, is pulling the wool over all of our eyes. As consumers of forest products, we all have a responsibility to understand where our products come from and how they are produced. NRDC continues to endorse the FSC certification as the sole global certification system capable of moving us toward a more sustainable forestry future. Choosing FSC certified products helps send a strong signal back to Canadian logging companies that they can’t choose to operate in unsustainable ways and expect the world not to notice.

[1] In December 2015, FSC Canada had certified 54.4 million hectares of forest; in April 2016, that number had fallen to 52.4 million hectares of forest.

[2] Unless a link to an additional source is present, these bullets are based on analysis conducted by Stand (formerly Forest Ethics). Stand is well-known SFI “watchdog,” and has compiled numerous reports based on close analysis of SFI requirements, principles, and practices. Their most recent analyses can be found here and here.

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