Setting the record straight about forest certification

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.

Photo collage by GreenBiz Group

When it comes from an FSC-certified forest, wood is one of the most environmentally friendly building materials. And demand for FSC products from LEED has driven massive growth in our system, with more than 120 million acres certified in the United States and Canada during the last decade. This has yielded enormous conservation benefits for forests and people who rely on them — one of the tangible benefits of LEED. Right now, more than 1 billion square feet of real estate is in the LEED project pipeline.

It is this future growth in LEED that the status quo wing of the forest products industry is concerned about. And it is why some vested interests are waging all out war against LEED. Recent opinion pieces by industry PR professionals are just one of many tactics in this ongoing effort.

In an attempt to get business-as-usual forestry recognized as “green,” industry lobbyists are working in capitals across the U.S. to ban LEED because of its commitment to FSC. Of course, all local wood is also eligible for credit within LEED, but facts do not sway these industry campaigners. With misstatements and falsehoods, they are working to roll back progress, confuse the marketplace and, ironically, promote new government regulation to stifle voluntary market-based certification systems.

Fortunately, people around North America are waking up to the truth: We do not need to compromise on responsible forest management, good jobs and a healthy environment. We can have it all.

The proof is in the growth of the FSC system. Today, more than 425 million acres of forest are certified to FSC standards around the world. In the U.S. and Canada, nearly 175 million acres of forest are certified to FSC standards, with growth driven in large part by corporate leadership.

The conflict over forest certification is regrettable, but the FSC will defend the rigor and credibility of our system. We may be outspent, but we have confidence in the legitimacy of our open, diverse membership. Organizations and individuals committed to responsible forest management can become members of FSC and vote in our democratic system. The same cannot be said about SFI, which is neither open to members nor diverse in its perspectives.

This last difference may be the most significant. Standards can change, so what matters is who gets a voice and how decisions are made. FSC is committed to democracy and encourages the convening of diverse interests. In the end, this may be the most important reason that more than 25,000 companies around the world are invested in the rigor and results of the FSC system.