Sustainable Forestry

The Big Picture

Thanks in part to stepped-up pressure from environmentalists, coupled with increased awareness of the devastation of the world's timberlands, corporate buyers are beginning to scrutinize their wood and paper suppliers as never before. In a small but growing number of cases, companies are specifying goods from manufacturers that can certify they source raw materials in a way that is kinder and gentler to forest ecosystems and the people who live there.


Deforestation is accelerating around the globe, and many of the world's remaining forests are declining in health and quality. The destroyed and weakened forests lose their ability to provide their wealth of services, from species habitats to soil conservation to flood control. As a result of cutting and burning, the world's forests now lose more carbon to the atmosphere than they absorb, fueling climate change. And when forests disappear, communities suffer economically. The top 150 non-wood forest products traded internationally are worth more than $11 billion a year and employ millions of people, says Worldwatch Institute.

Key Players

  • Forestry, pulp, and paper companies, acknowledging pressure from activists and regulators, are seeking to establish easily attainable standards for products that can be certified as sustainably grown or harvested.
  • Large consumers and retailers of wood and paper products, being highly visible targets, are most likely to be subject of protests -- and, partly as a result, to respond by adopting sweeping policies changing the way they source wood and paper products.
  • Activists, viewing diminishing forests with alarm, see "saving the forests" as a highly popular cause easily grasped by consumers, media, kids, and others, making it a compelling campaign theme. Even better: Many of the biggest villains are household names.


Getting Down to Business

A growing number of companies are implementing sustainable-forestry procurement policies. They vary widely, ranging from adopting relatively rigid standards to creating looser, more incremental approaches. For example:

  • Gap Inc. has promoted sustainable forest management practices throughout the timber industry by leveraging their buying power. In 1997, Gap instituted a wood use policy that supports the certification scheme of the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent nonprofit organization that developed a framework for sustainable forest management. Almost all of the wood in Gap's headquarters buildings in San Bruno and San Francisco was harvested from FSC-certified forests. Gap's influence on driving demand for certified wood led to a Bay Area distributor and a large hardwood plywood manufacturer getting chain of custody certified by FSC. Like most buyers, Gap has found certified wood more expensive than conventional wood. So the company has worked with designers, suppliers, and contractors to redesign fixtures in order to reduce installation and maintenance costs, thereby offsetting the wood's higher cost.
  • McDonald's approach is to encourage, but not necessarily require, suppliers to integrate sustainable-forestry criteria into their sourcing. To judge how well they're doing, McDonald's created a "forestry scorecard" that grades each supplier's efforts. The scorecard rates paper and packaging suppliers on each of ten key criteria, says Robert Langert, director of community affairs, adding: "We're going to ask suppliers to report back every year as to what they're learning and how they're applying what they've learned. And we're asking for a preference for sustainable forestry given that other criteria are at parity."
  • Kinko's, the 900-store provider of document production and business services -- which buys more than 100 million pounds of paper a year -- has received letters from all of its paper suppliers "ensuring that they're not using pulp from old-growth forests," says environmental manager Larry Rogero. "We're making sure that they're not receiving any logs from loggers that have not been SFI-certified or -trained. Some are taking it a step further, saying they won't take any chips for pulping that don't come from SFI-certified loggers." To help make buying decisions, Kinko's plans to audit mills and develop an "environmental quotient value" for suppliers.


The Upside

Buying sustainable products won't save money -- while a growing number of products are cost-competitive, most require paying a small (or not-so-small) premium. But with activist pressures increasing and supplies still unstable, early adapters may be better positioned to lock in supplies when demand increases. Using sustainably harvested paper or wood may soon be a badge of honor worn by forward-thinking companies -- much like "printed on recycled paper" was in the early 1990s.

Reality Check

This is not a clear-cut topic to understand, and the landscape is confusing, with competing certification programs. Among them:

  • Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the largest forestry-certification program in North America. SFI, begun in 1994, calls for forestry and wood-products companies to adopt environmentally responsible methods through a system of principles, guidelines, and performance measures aimed at achieving "a much broader practice of sustainable forestry." Program participants seeking to publicly disclose SFI certification must release a summary certification report. In addition, the SFI program publishes an annual aggregate report on all of its members. The SFI standard and certification process is governed by the independent Sustainable Forestry Board, two-thirds of which comprises non-industry interests.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, international body formed in 1993 by a coalition of stakeholders. FSC accredits forestry certification programs in individual countries; currently, there are six such programs in four countries, including two in the United States: the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program and Scientific Certification Systems, a for-profit company. Certified products can carry FSC's checkmark-and-tree logo indicating the wood used to make the product comes from a forest deemed well-managed according to FSC's environmental, social, and economic standards.


Action Plan

Company strategies typically evolve from a three-step effort:

  • Learn as much as possible about the issue of sustainable forestry.
  • Engage suppliers about their procurement practices and request some kind of accountability.
  • Develop procurement policies based on that information to encourage or require suppliers to eliminate wood from undesirable sources, increase wood from desirable sources, or both.

Don't overlook other tree-saving strategies that can reduce your company's consumption of wood and wood-based products:

  • Use recycled paper. This reduces or eliminates the need to obtain pulp from tree-based sources.
  • Use "tree-free" products. There is a growing list of paper, packaging, and construction products that substitute any of a wide variety of materials for wood fibers.
  • Design to reduce. Wood use can be cut significantly through the careful design and engineering of buildings, packaging, and products.
  • Consider salvaged wood. As prime timber becomes both scarce and expensive, a great deal of reclaimed lumber is entering the market, culled from decommissioned military bases, building renovations, and other sources.
  • Repair and reuse pallets. Nearly a fifth of U.S. lumber is used for shipping pallets, most of which are quickly discarded. Many companies have developed systems to repair and reuse pallets. Even better is to eliminate wood pallets altogether by substituting those made from recycled plastic (which are extremely durable) or corrugated cardboard (which can be recycled).



  • American Forest & Paper Association (1111 19th St. NW, Ste. 800, Washington, DC 20036; 202-463-2700; 202-463-2785 (fax); [email protected]) operates the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, to which all association members must adhere.
  • Metafore (721 N.W. Ninth Avenue, Suite 300, Portland, OR 97206; 503-224-2205; 503-224-2216 (fax) [email protected]) is a nonprofit organization that collaborates with business and society to create innovative market-based approaches that support thriving forests and communities. Certification Resource Center ( maintained by Metafore provides current information on suppliers of certified wood.
  • "Matching Business Values with Forest Certification Systems," a PDF-format tool published by Metafore, is designed to help business buyers purchase wood and paper in a responsible manner.
  • Forest Stewardship Council U.S. (P.O. Box 10, Waterbury, VT 05676; 802-244-6257; 802-244-6258 (fax); [email protected]) is the U.S. branch of an international group that accredits certifiers against national and regional forest management standards. It publishes lists of certified companies and forests, provides technical assistance, and monitors the use of its logo. Its international headquarters is in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • Forestworld, a Web-based resource, offers resources and databases, including a "Sustainable Forests Marketplace," containing information on companies selling wood products.
  • ReThink Paper (870 Market St., Ste. 1011, San Francisco, CA 94102; 415-398-2433; 415-398-2635 (fax); ) promotes the use of alternative, "tree-free" papers. It offers a web-based directory of nonwood-paper manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors.
  • SmartWood (61 Millet St., Richmond, VT 05477; 802-434-5491; 802-434-3116 (fax); [email protected]) is accredited by FSC to certify "responsible" forest managers. There is also a SmartWood Rediscovered Program, which certifies salvaged or recycled wood from buildings being demolished or laid waste.


Bottom Line

Interest in sustainable forestry will rise as more attention is paid to diminishing forests and consumption of wood and paper in the developing world. Companies that are significant consumers of wood and paper -- or whose sector is targeted by activists -- may benefit from taking the time to wade through the thicket of issues to identify sources of products that can be certified as being sustainable grown or harvested.