Setting the record straight about forest certification

There has been a recent flurry of media coverage about the ongoing debate over forest certification. At the debate's core is a central falsehood propagated by status quo industry: All forest certification standards are equal. In fact, key differences lead to very different levels of support from progressive businesses and civil society.

Look at Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative standards related to clearcuts, rare old growth, conversion of natural forests to plantations, protection of water quality, indigenous peoples’ rights and many other key factors. You will see a pattern: FSC is much more rigorous and requires compliance that is verified in the forest. SFI asks for plans and promises, but requires little more than compliance with state or federal laws.

Here’s one example of a difference: Atrazine is a toxic pesticide banned in many countries and legal in the United States. It is a known endocrine disruptor and likely carcinogen, and it is prohibited – without exception – under FSC standards. Yet under SFI standards atrazine is allowed, even when sprayed from helicopters near residential areas. Of course, when you apply a toxic chemical from a helicopter, it is difficult to control. And sometimes, atrazine lands in water bodies and on nearby homes with children, as has been documented in multiple media accounts.

It may be legal to spread toxic atrazine from a helicopter over homes, but that does not make it green. FSC bans atrazine. SFI allows it. It’s a real difference, and just one of many.

Which brings us to another falsehood introduced in the ongoing debate – that FSC alone has standards that vary. In reality, FSC is guided by the same set of principles and criteria across the globe. Of course, a tropical forest in Brazil should be managed differently from a boreal forest in Canada or a temperate forest in Michigan, so FSC accounts for these real differences. SFI has one standard that varies based on national, state and provincial laws. Both systems have variation. FSC takes into account ecological and social reality in the forest. SFI takes into account political reality as it affects forestry practices. The question to consider is whether politics or ecology should guide responsible forest management.

Right now the politics around forest management are heated and much is at stake. This summer, members of the U.S. Green Building Council will vote on the LEED standard, the world’s most important green building rating system. Like FSC, USGBC is an open membership organization representing diverse interests. And the membership has shown time after time that it recognizes FSC as the only credible forest certification system.

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Photo collage by GreenBiz Group