No.7 Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Part 1
By Patrick Miller | Newsletter No. 7 November 2008

A Green Solution or a Green Problem?   Part 1:   The Problems with FSC

FSC began in 1990 with a meeting of timber users, traders, environmentalists and human rights people who believed there was a need for a system of well-managed forests, which could responsibly produce timber products (1).  In 1993 a formal founding assembly was held in Toronto, Canada with participants from 26 countries.  A board of directors and an executive director were appointed and, the following year, principles and criteria were established for accrediting forests.   By 1998 10 million hectares had been certified to FSC standards and this grew to more than 100 million hectares in 79 countries by April 2008.

There are 10 principles and 56 criteria involved in the certification process.

In brief the 10 principles as designated on the FSC website are:

1            Compliance with laws and international treaties
2            Demonstrated, uncontested, clearly defined long-term tenure and land use rights
3            Respect of indigenous peoples' rights
4            Maintenance or enhancement of the long-term social and economic well being of forest workers and local communities
5            Equitable use and sharing of benefits from the forest
6            Reduction of environmental impact of logging activities and   maintenance of the ecological functions and integrity of the forest
7            An appropriate and continuously updated management plan
8            Appropriate monitoring and assessment activities
9            Maintenance of high conservation value forests defined as environmental or social values considered to be of outstanding significance or critical importance
10         Plantations must contribute to reduce the pressures on and promote the restoration and conservation of natural forest.

Anybody  interested can become a member of FSC and, at present, besides individual members, there is a diverse group of representatives from environmental and social groups, the timber trade, the forestry profession, indigenous people's organisations, responsible corporations, community forestry groups  and product certification organisations from around the World.  All may vote in the general assembly, the highest decision making body, but this is made up of environmental, social and economic membership chambers, in order to maintain the balance of voting power between different interests.

The aspirations and intentions of FSC are clear and highly laudable.  Yet there is growing dissatisfaction and disaffection.   So much so that there is now a website, FSC watch (2), run by people who believe that there has been a constant and serious erosion of FSC's credibility, and who are dedicated to increasing the integrity of the FSC's forest certification scheme.  Some of these are FSC members. The website details several instances where certified FSC forests are either not being managed to FSC standards or are replacing natural old growth forests with monocultures. One example is the continued FSC certification of wood from forests in Ireland managed by the Irish State Forestry company Coillte. . This company has covered large areas of Ireland with a pesticide laden monoculture of Sitka spruce.  They were found to have dumped 10 tonnes of the deadly pesticide Lindane in the forests and to have misused European funding.   Another concerns the Brazilian Company Veracel responsible for one hundred thousand hectares of FSC certified Eucalyptus. A Brazilian court has decided that the plantation was illegal, the Eucalyptus must be torn down and a fine of $12 million dollars be paid.  The FSC watch site gives many more examples.


Tall tree

Tall tree in Scotland. The author is at the base of the tree to give o sense of scale. Even in rainforests such tall trees of a hundred feet and more have grown for a hundred years and more. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2008.

Some evidence suggests that as much as 60% of FSC certifications concern old growth forests (3),  and these constitute a particular problem.   It is difficult to see how such forests could be managed sustainably without considerably stretching the definition of the word sustainable.  Recent research indicates that even when there is replanting of such forests (often with monocultures) there is still a considerable problem, whether or not the replacement trees are monocultures. The reduction in the size of the massive canopy provided by the destroyed old growth trees may directly affect climate change(4).   This is because the release of a chemical called terpene from the tree canopies leads to cloud formation. 

Rainforest waterfall

Rainforest waterfall. Forests and water are closely linked. Photo by Antony Melville 2007.

Furthermore up to 46% of the carbon in a forest is stored in the soil and there is therefore carbon release when this is disturbed.   Contrary to previous beliefs, recent studies have shown that old growth forests are not just carbon neutral but continuously absorb large quantities of CO2 (5).


Alleged violations of FSC principles include excessive use of herbicides, unsustainable clear cutting, failure to replant native species and fraudulent labelling of products. So serious has the situation become that Friends of the Earth ‘can no longer recommend the FSC standard.' (6)  On the other hand, Greenpeace, WWF and the Rainforest Action Network are at present all maintaining their membership and support for FSC, and some effort is being made to improve the FSC.   FSC can point to a number of reforms, such as prohibition of harmful pesticides except in very restricted circumstances and a clear policy against the use of GM trees.  Greenpeace have recently reaffirmed their support (7), asserting that ‘compared to other certification systems FSC is leading the way in terms of standards and credibility.' Greenpeace describe an ongoing process of reform which they assert has already gone some way to tackling the difficult issues and which is continuing.

Rainforest pool

Rainforest pool. Forests ensure water supplies. Photo by FUPNAPIB  2006.

From the consumer's point of view it would seem that the FSC certification mark on a piece of timber means only that the wood in question may have come from a sustainably managed forest.  It unfortunately does not guarantee this.  Clearly there are serious problems.  What do you think should be done?

Is it possible to devise a better certification system?

Should old growth forests ever be certified?

To what extent should the timber industry have any say?

If FSC were to be disbanded what if anything could replace it?


Your views (to would be extremely welcome and could be incorporated into part II which will be a discussion of possible solutions.

Swansea pines

Old pines, Swansea park, Wales. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2008.




(4) 7th November 2008 

(5) 12th September 2008