No. 10. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Part 2
By Patrick Miller | Ultimas Noticias No. 10 March 2009

Green Solution or a Green Problem?   Part 2: Possible Solutions to the Problems with FSC

As we saw in part I the FSC has come in for severe criticism on several grounds (1). That forests should be preserved and sustained is unquestionable.  The issue is how is that to be done?  In theory there seem to be broadly three courses of action.  First, do nothing specific about FSC and hope for the best. Secondly, try to force reform of  FSC to make it more effective.  Third, create a new forestry certification body.

Doing nothing specific about FSC for the moment is perhaps not as senseless as it sounds.  There is greater and greater awareness of global warming and environmental issues throughout the world and it will surely become less and less acceptable for people, particularly in developed nations to be profligate with timber or to use non-recycled paper. The hope would be that public opinion and pressure from concerned groups of people would make abuses of the FSC logo more and more unacceptable and gradually force reform of FSC from within.  This awakening might be helped along by government actions such as a hefty increase in VAT on non-recycled paper or specifically on mahogany.  However, as environmental scientists are stridently warning, time is short and more vigorous action may be required.

The second possibility is a more specific and immediate attempt, such as major NGOs withdrawing support, to reform of FSC to make it more effective. FSC has the advantage that it is already established worldwide with clear and satisfactory principles, which, if properly applied, would be of enormous benefit. FSC has indeed made some bad decisions including the issuing of clearly non-compliant certificates and the establishing of a ‘mixed sources' logo.  This means that a product with an FSC label saying it comes from mixed sources might contain as little as 10% FSC sourced material. Another problem is that the company doing the certifying of a particular forest is currently allowed to contract directly with the company managing the forest.   This has led to a lowering of certification standards. 

According to Simon Counsell who helped found FSC, effective reform of that body is very difficult (5).   Necessary changes to the decision-making structures need a broad consensus, which is unlikely to happen. Strong vested interests against reform from logging interests within FSC would need to be overcome.

However the picture is not all gloom.  FSC can point to at least some successes.  One example is the Floresteca plantation in Western Brazil (6).  This is a flourishing teak forest planted on 20,000 hectares of degraded cattle ranching land.   In addition 15,000 hectares of natural rainforest have been protected.  This has given employment, education and a sense of community to 1,200 people.  FSC has also on occasion removed or suspended licences to certify where there have been abuses. (7) It has considerably helped to raise public awareness of the necessity of sustaining the world's forests. At the very least FSC certification may reduce the carbon loss from felling trees even if it does not eliminate it.  Also, however poor the certification, some retrospective evaluation of what has been happening to a particular plantation is usually possible.    FSC is currently undertaking a substantial review of its principles and criteria (7) and this may lead to some improvement.


FSC wood furniture

FSC certified garden furniture.  Photo by Patrick Miller.


Finally what about setting up a totally new organisation which would be more effective and have a less unwieldy management structure? That is exactly what large logging interests are doing (7).  These include The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes, The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, The Canadian Standards Association and The Pan-European Forest Council.  None of these have been approved by any environmental NGOs and all have lower standards than those set by FSC.  All of them allow forestry organisations to certify themselves without independent supervision.  As Jared Diamond asserts (7), that the loggers feel the need to do this is confirmation of FSC's effectiveness. Any completely new certification system with acceptable standards would require an immense international effort to set it up, and, on the current evidence, it would be unlikely to gain the acceptance of logging interests. 

Glen Barry of Ecological Internet (2) feels that it is vital for our survival that the felling of old growth forests should be totally prohibited. As FSC does not enforce this he feels that all support for FSC should be withdrawn.   However, although prohibition of felling old growth forests is a very reasonable aim, the extent to which this is absolutely necessary may be debatable.  At present at least 60% of FSC certified wood comes from old growth forests.  This is surely unacceptable, but if it were reduced to say 10% we might feel the FSC was doing quite well.


Necessary or not, total prohibition of old growth felling is very difficult. The signs, particularly in the Amazon region, are not encouraging.  Poor people, if not shown and encouraged to do otherwise, will still slash and burn and logging companies will use the forests for their own short-term gain in whatever way they can.   In the absence of FSC would third-world governments or indeed anyone, have either the will or the resources to exercise the necessary effective control?  Not without help.  However, some help may be at hand.  Following the Kyoto agreement there has, for several years, been discussion of a mechanism entitled Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).  This would involve compensation from rich nations to developing ones to keep their forests standing. Unfortunately there are serious difficulties.  First, a lack of political will, as shown by the fact that at the annual UN climate change talks in Poznan, Poland, at the end of 2008 there was no progress on REDD beyond good intentions (3).  Second, there is a huge lack of clarity on what exactly the payments would cover.  Total deforestation would be covered, but there is some doubt about degradation, i.e. the partial cutting down of a forest with perhaps some change of land use (4).  This is a serious shortcoming in REDD, and a very difficult issue to resolve.



Rainforest. Photo by Emily Fitchett.

 Certainly progress towards viable REDD agreements seems highly desirable and should be vigorously pursued.  However, given the immense pressures on the forests, this, in my view, cannot be the whole solution.  When considering climate change measures, social need must not be ignored.   Inga alley cropping addresses both, and seems to be highly effective. There are other sustainable ways to use the forests too.  Another important reason for preserving them is to safeguard the way of life of indigenous peoples if they so wish it. No one, not even Glen Barry (personal communication) objects to small scale selling of timber by local people.  That helps the poor and still allows the forest to regenerate. It is the large-scale logging and slash and burn farming, particularly with poor or non-existent regeneration measures that does the most damage. 

Perhaps therefore the growing criticism of FSC and the withdrawal of support by important environmental bodies is no bad thing.   It could prove to be the stimulus necessary to provoke reform.  Personally, I feel this is by far the best course of action.  Abuses of the FSC system should be vigorously pointed out wherever and whenever they occur, and, in the end, reform is likely to follow.



2. 26th September 2008. 

3. Carbon positive newsletter December 2008

4. Sasaki, N. and Putz, F.  Do definitions of forest and forest degradation matter in the REDD agreement.   Working paper 2008.   Contact

5 Ethical Consumer Magazine vol 110, Jan/Feb 2008, 30-31.

6.  New Consumer magazine vol 21 Nov/Dec 2005, 26-28.