A Look At Forestry Certification: Education 101 And Industry Insight

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

By Taylor Dorsey, Wood Sourcing Specialist with Ahlstrom

Forest products have become an increasingly important part of the global economy.  In the past couple of decades, forest certification has increased in popularity. Forest certification is a voluntary process in which the forest management practices and fiber tracking methods of an organization, or individual, are evaluated and certified according to a set of environmental, social and economic standards.

Forest certification began in the early 1990s, when a number of environmental organizations and companies began to recognize the need for improved forest management practices. The concept was to create a system in which companies and individuals could demonstrate their commitment to responsible forest management. The goal was to create a system that would provide a standard of environmental, social and economic best practices and would be recognized and accepted globally.

Three Key Players

Today, there are three primary forestry certification schemes in place, those being the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®), the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®). Each scheme has its own set of standards designed to ensure forests are managed in a way that is respectful of the environment, socially beneficial and economically viable.

FSC (https://us.fsc.org/en-usis the most widely known certification system and was founded in 1993. FSC’s standards are based off of ten principles and recognized internationally. Their mission is to, “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial, and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests.” FSC’s vision is to, “meet current needs for forest products without compromising the health of the world’s forests for future generations.”

PEFC (https://www.pefc.org/) is also internationally recognized and was founded in 1999. PEFC refers to itself as an umbrella organization that, “provides independent assessment, endorsement and recognition of national forest certification systems.” They feel forest certification needs to be addressed locally, but care for the health of all forests across the globe. Their mission and vision is to protect forests through the promotion of sustainable forest management via certification. PEFC believes all can benefit from the many products that forest provide now, while ensuring these forests will be around for generations to come.

SFI® (https://forests.org/) is North American based scheme that was founded in 1995. SFI’s mission is to, “advance sustainability through forest-focused collaboration.” Their vision is, “a world that values and benefits from sustainably managed forests.” SFI has been endorsed by PEFC since 2005.

Types Of Forestry Certification

For companies and individuals looking to demonstrate their commitment to responsible forest management, forest certification is an important step. Certification provides assurance that forests are being managed in a way that is not only respectful of the environment, but also socially beneficial and economically feasible.

When referring to forest “certification”, it should be noted that there are two aspects to consider: Forest Management (FM) certification and Chain of Custody (CoC) certification. FM certification is evaluation of the management of a specific piece of forestland against a standard. Typically, FM standards are the sustainability piece that have a focus on best management practices (BMPs). CoC certification is the evaluation of tracking of wood fiber from the forest of origin to the finished product. CoC is the next step, following FM certification, that shows the linkage of steps in a supply chain for a forest product and how a certification claim is passed along. CoC certification demonstrates that each step of a supply chain is closely monitored via independent auditing to ensure that unsustainable sources are excluded.

Markets Drive Demand For Certification

In addition to providing assurance to stakeholders, certification can also provide economic benefits to companies and individuals. Certification can help increase market access and create a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Some folks within the forestry sector wonder if there really is a need or demand for certification and certified products. Do consumers even know how to identify if a product is certified? Does anyone care if there is any certification logo on a product? While you could just try answering these questions on your own by walking into a store that sells wood-based products and asking passers-by, there are lots of variables they play into determining the demand for certification/ certified products.

In a recent survey, more than three-quarters of participants agreed they want to purchase from environmentally friendly companies (https://pditechnologies.com/resources/report/business-sustainability-index/). This supports the sentiment that consumers want to “feel good” about the products they’re purchasing – they want to know that they’re making an effort to not worsen the environment and its health. The biggest issue found, however, was that consumers struggled to identify what products were “sustainable.” 

From an industry and producer perspective, many companies are setting targets and commitments to improve their operations both environmentally and sustainably. They’re facing a demand to prove their commitments to sustainability and sell certifiable products. Customers of these companies either want to be able to have a claim passed along to them, so they can turn and sell a product as certified, or customers may want to make the claim that they source from certified companies. Forestry certifications are a large part in supporting these commitments and targets. The marketplace demands that product at least have the potential to be sold as certified. All in all – it has become an industry standard or expected minimum practice.

“Consumers and brand owners are demanding more transparency in the products they are purchasing and asking questions about sustainable sourcing,” said Addie Teeters, Head of Marketing Communications & Public Affairs for Ahlstrom. “Forestry certification is a necessary step for us to verify our sustainability practices to our customers, and contribute to a truly sustainable end-use package to the supply chain.”

Struggles Faced

It is said that no good deed goes unpunished. Forestry certification is no exception. What is the good deed? Doing the right thing – practicing sustainable forest management, adhering to BMPs, tending to the land so that future generations are able to enjoy it as we do today. However, there is a fair bit of heartburn surrounding forestry certification. Does the cost justify the means? Do people actually care or even know anything of it? Is it necessary or can we get by without it and thrive as an industry?

It is up to each entity or individual to answer the first question and deem if a more direct role in forestry certification (for example, becoming a certificate holder) would be beneficial to their business. Can we get by without it? I recently read an article describing how certification has over-shadowed basic education of the forest industry, and how industry companies should direct their efforts into promoting education versus promoting certification. Why would we not do both? Why should education only fall on large companies such a sawmills or pulp and paper organizations? It shouldn’t. This piece of the puzzle requires complete collaboration. It is all of our responsibility to promote and educate those who do not know or understand.

Is certification necessary? Short answer: yes. It is necessary for companies who want to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and provide proof that their products were legally and responsibly sourced. I also believe it is necessary for logging entities too. While I do whole-heartedly believe that the Lake States region has some of the best logging practices in the world, even the best of the best need checks and balances. Forestry certification keeps everyone honest in their work. Forestry certification has gone from being more of a ‘bonus factor’ to a business and industry standard. An expectation, if you will. Without it, a company’s markets become more limited. If the customer wants certified product or product that could be sold as certified and you cannot provide it, they’ll find someone who will.

Another issue within forestry certification is some schemes are starting to broaden the horizon of what their standards cover and the requirements/ expectations are. It’s gone from a simple intent of ensuring sustainable forest management, to increasingly complex standards. FSC is an example of this, as their standards have been morphing from a sustainable forest management focus to an “ethical” forest products focus. Standards go through revisions periodically, and part of the revision process is a public commenting period. It is during this period that we all have an opportunity to have our voices heard. Giving our feedback and questioning some of the revisions is part of how we can keep the focus of these standards as they were intended to be. 

Overall, forestry certification is an important tool for ensuring that forests are managed in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable manner. It is a way for companies and individuals to demonstrate their commitment to responsible forest management and to gain access to markets and economic benefits. While there are benefits to forestry certification, it certainly has its challenges. Working together as an industry as a whole – from landowner to consumer – is going to be the most effective way to make sure:

  • people are being properly educated on sustainable forest management and its multitude of benefits, what certification is and why it is important.
  • certification systems stay focused on what the intent of these standards were meant to be: to make sure sound, sustainable forest management practices are being utilized to ensure healthy, thriving forests for generations to come.
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