The value of forest management certification has been the subject of recent press stories. When considering this topic, it is very important to take a step back and consider the larger picture.
Deforestation and forest degradation are longstanding problems around the globe, driven by a multitude of factors such as competing land use pressures (especially agricultural), excessive harvesting, and illegal logging. The impetus behind the formation of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the early 1990s was expressly to find a way to incentivize responsible forest management that would support the sustainable growth of healthy, multi-aged stands of mixed species of wood supporting a wide range of biodiversity. The World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs brought together a diverse, multi-stakeholder body, including academics, forestry professionals, civil society, and other experts to launch the FSC, the world’s most innovative, visionary effort to date to protect forests, countless species of flora and fauna, and the rights and livelihoods of millions of people.
The fact is that the FSC program and its multistakeholder process ushered in a whole new era of focus on the fate of the world’s forests. Companies that previously had been operating with little or no external scrutiny were now inspired to open their books and their operations to review by third-party certification bodies, each one of whom in turn had undergone rigorous accreditation by an international accreditation body. This opening has had profound benefits – exposing forest companies to environmental and social principles not previously integrated into their operations, the demands of greater transparency, and a credible path for improvement and recognition.
Over the decades that followed, demand for responsibly managed wood has grown, leading to the emergence of competing certification programs. These developments, in turn, have led more and more companies to become acquainted with both the demands and benefits of third-party scrutiny. As one of the pioneers of third-party certification of responsible forestry, we have witnessed first-hand the remarkable improvement in the management of forest holdings around the world and have heard many testimonials to this effect.
Does this mean that there aren’t mistakes, or that there aren’t ways to cheat the system? Of course not. Among the thousands of companies that have undergone certification, there have certainly been some fraudulent actors, as well as some problems that were overlooked or misunderstood. But this represents only a tiny fraction of the big picture. Moreover, and very importantly, certification schemes like FSC and PEFC have built in redundant procedures and mechanisms for rooting out and addressing such problems. Public stakeholder review is built into the process, and issues raised are investigated by certification bodies. Evidence pointing to violations of the program requirements can (and do) lead to suspensions or terminations of certifications. Appeals processes are also in place whereby both companies and stakeholders can make their case to the scheme owner.
All of this adds up to what? Not a perfect system, but the most demanding voluntarily system of checks and balances ever engaged with by an industry sector.
Some critics claim that companies are seeking certification simply for greenwashing purposes. However, that is the rare exception, not the rule. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certification is time intensive, resource intensive, and demanding. Companies with problems to hide generally don’t sign up for repeated outside scrutiny against a set of stringent social and environmental requirements. What’s more: no amount of money can buy a certification. Certifiers are held to strict conflict-of-interest rules by the international accreditation body, and compensation is not contingent upon whether certification is granted or denied.
To the contrary, ask this: What would happen if we returned to the dark ages of scrutiny about what’s going on in the world’s forests? What about those companies who refuse to open their forests to independent analysis under a set of internationally agreed-upon social and environmental standards? Where is the recourse for parties and the environmental injured when there is no system of assessment?
SCS strongly supports third-party certification as an important part of a global solution for ending deforestation. At the same time, we wholeheartedly support the work of journalists and stakeholders who shine the light on matters that deserve attention, including the production of evidence that can inform the certification process and make the whole effort more effective.