Can Consumers Know What They are Getting with FSC? The Problem of Audits.

Travis Snapp received a call from one of his overseas clients that he says typifies some of the problems with the Forest Stewardship Council’s auditing process in developing countries. His client told him the auditors “show up to do these audits for FSC certification and they have no idea what to do.”

In an environment where the political and legal structure are uncertain, FSC and other certification systems offer the opportunity to be sure that forests, regardless of the local laws, are harvested in a consistent and responsible way. That, however, is only true if the auditing process is done in a consist and responsible way. As Snapp argues, that isn’t the case.

Snapp, whose company Benchmark International, consults with foresters across the globe, expresses frustration that FSC pressures purchasers, supplies and politicians to follow the standard, but they aren’t as attentive to the actual implementation of those standards on the ground. He says the experience with the FSC auditors who didn’t know what to do is not a one-off experience. He says “it is not typical, but not infrequent.”

He places the blame for these errors at the feet of FSC. The problem, he argues, is “the way they have written and implemented their standard.” One particular issue is that ultimately FSC isn’t accountable for errors. He cites the example of Asia Plywood. When it was discovered that some of the wood coming from an FSC-certified supplier was illegally harvested, FSC washed their hands, leaving Asia Plywood to take the heat and financial cost. When an environmental group found the errors, Snapp noted “FSC doesn’t take the black eye, nor did the auditor — Asia Plywood and its customers did.”

As a result, there is growing nervousness that FSC won’t stand behind its label. What good is the label if, after passing an audit, that label can be revoked at any time without support from FSC? Snapp says there has to be a mechanism so FSC and its certifiers can be held accountable for what they certify.

Of course, this is not just a business issue — it is an environmental issue. The goal of certification systems is to ensure good forestry where it might not otherwise occur. If audits are done poorly, they don’t achieve the basic goal of maintaining good standards. If FSC is serious about using the value of the FSC label and what it stands for to encourage foresters to meet those standards, it needs to ensure the label means something for the auditors on the ground as well.


The Forestry Tradeoffs of The Lacey Act and Forest Certification

I spoke today to the Western Wood Preservers Institute conference about the tradeoffs of environmental choices. Perhaps my favorite example is the “green” condominium in Seattle which highlights the fact that it saved 1,609 trees “By using steel and concrete construction.” Of course, the net environmental impact is almost certainly negative by using a non-renewable, energy-intensive resource instead of renewable wood.

Another speaker at the conference offered a good example of the tradeoffs involved in forestry policy. Earlier this year we published an interview with the CEO of Gibson Guitar Henry Juszkiewicz about their challenges with the Lacey Act.. With their ebony wood confiscated, Gibson looked for ways to replace that wood. The speaker, representing a company that provides heat-treated wood, noted that Gibson came to them for wood that could replace the ebony they previously used.

So, the question is, does it use fewer resources to ship ebony from India or to use heat-treated wood to make guitars? I can’t say I have the answer, but it is clear that a tradeoff exists. The goal of the Lacey Act is to prevent illegal harvesting of ebony and other precious wood species. In the Gibson Guitar case, however, they were cited not for illegal harvesting, but questions related to the processing of the wood in India.

As a result, Gibson replaced the India ebony with heat-treated wood that has the potential of being more energy intensive.

Frankly, the difference between the two woods may be quite small, but these are the questions that are rarely considered when enforcing environmental regulations. Just as the condominium in Seattle ignored the tradeoffs of using more concrete and steel, arbitrary enforcement of the Lacey Act (or certification schemes for that matter) could lead to greater environmental impact. When considering the Lacey Act or certification standards, such tradeoffs cannot be ignored if we truly care about the environment.

Are “Green” Building Standards Like LEED Based on Forest Science?

Four years ago, the green building coordinator for the Washington State Department of Ecology wrote a piece in support of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a standard for constructing “green” buildings. The coordinator argued that LEED was a superior system precisely because it rewarded builders for using FSC-certified wood. She claimed that FSC-certified forests “do not contribute to the destruction of old-growth forests.”

There is, however, one problem: no builder would use old-growth lumber to build. It is simply too expensive. I asked the building coordinator to give me a single example of a building made with old-growth wood. She declined. Politics, not science or reality, guided her support for FSC wood.

Unfortunately, LEED continues to offer credit only for FSC-certified wood, a standard called “FSC or better,” despite the existence of other excellent alternatives. Like the green building coordinator at Ecology, the reason has more to do with politics than science. The basic problem is there is no single FSC standard in the U.S. and what passes in one region may not pass in another. The standards are often different in neighboring states even when forest types are identical.

The Society of American Foresters, the premier scientific group addressing forestry science, is frustrated with LEED’s political approach.

“‘FSC or better’ is neither logical nor scientific,” said Michael Goergen Jr., executive vice president and CEO of the Society of American Foresters, “especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices.”

We’ve written extensively about the failure of LEED to live up to environmental promises. Despite claiming that LEED buildings save energy and pay for themselves, real-world experience shows the buildings not only cost more to build, they often use more energy than their non-green counterparts in Washington state, New Mexico and elsewhere.

By focusing only on FSC-certified wood, rather than sustainable forestry practices in general, LEED only adds to the mistakes it makes from substituting politics for sound science.

Creating as Much Responsible Forestry as We Can: An interview with SFI’s President & CEO Kathy Abusow

At an SFI conference which included native groups from the United States and Canada last year, one member representing the Yakama Nation tribe explained why they chose to certify their forests using the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI). With a tone of pride at retelling the story, SFI’s President Kathy Abusow said the forester explained the decision: “We could understand the standard and we could apply it. It was based on training and had sound science.”

It was a comment offered early in the conversation I had with Abusow recently, and it is emblematic of SFI’s approach to sustainable forestry.

If the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stresses the forest protections provided by its standard, SFI® stresses the ability to consistently and scientifically apply its forestry standards. It is a natural approach for SFI, a standard that operates only in Canada and the United States, where there is a strong underlying legal system that allows SFI to focus on “additional performance measures,” providing assurance to timber purchasers that the wood has been harvested to high standards.

Abusow is familiar with both systems and understands the challenges faced in creating a sound, science-based system of forest certification. Before joining SFI as its President, she served on the FSC Canada Great Lakes standards development committee. With that experience in hand, she puts an emphasis on making the standard practical so it spreads. “We believe in added value, not added burden,” she explained in an interview with Forest Certification Watch recently. We want to create as much responsible forestry as we can.”

The key, however, is to ensure the program is credible, and to do that Abusow stresses the need for science, transparency and independence.

Ironically, much of the critique of SFI from supporters of FSC regards the issue of independence. When SFI began, it was associated with the American Forest & Paper Association. Opponents argued that the forestry industry couldn’t effectively police itself. Today, however, it is completely independent and Abusow has clearly been asked about this issue many times.

“It was spun out a decade ago,” she reiterates. ”SFI is now a separate 501(c)3 charitable organization and includes three chambers of the board to emphasize environmental, economic and social issues.” She also notes that while FSC specifically excludes governments from their organization, SFI specifically includes them. “We can’t exclude government,” she explained, arguing that government was part of the landscape and needed to be at the table when decisions are being made.

SFI has also worked to create a diverse board, which ensures that no single interest can dominate. Abusow points to the presence of deans of forestry schools, labor representatives, environmental advocates and others who all have a say in the final rules.

An additional area of contrast stressed by Abusow is the separation between the body that sets the standards and the body that applies the standards. “The golden rule is that you have standard development which is independent of a certification audit,” she notes. This prevents the standards from being adjusted to suit particular organizations.

Many people are familiar with the practice of some government agencies or other groups that write grant or RFP rules to suit a favored group. The same is true, argues Abusow, of forest certification standards. By separating the creation of the standards from the auditing of those standards, i.e. focusing on goals not the potential clients, SFI works to avoid that type of gaming the system. Certifiers apply standards equally to all organizations looking to receive the SFI seal of approval. “We are avoiding a scenario where the board decides who should be certified,” says Abusow. We need to “keep focused on the science and not let politics enter into our decisions.”

And while FSC supporters complain about SFI’s process, Abusow says the FSC system risks having politics influence the rules. “Accreditation Services International certifies accreditation bodies and they report to FSC’s board and are an arm of FSC” so they have their hand in both decisions. “You see some curious things.”

SFI is also very proud of the transparency of their process for setting the rules. When the draft standards are revised every five years, they solicit input from the public and other stakeholder groups. “Every comment that comes to us is put on our website,” she notes. “We review every single comment and post a response to every single comment. Then there is peer review of our responses.” That process may be cumbersome, but the bottom line, as Abusow explains, is “we don’t make changes willy nilly.”

SFI does have some international footprint beyond North America. Although 98 percent of SFI certified timber is from North American forests, SFI-certified wood is sold to overseas customers. Both the UK and Japanese governments are amongst many who offer SFI equal recognition with other certification standards.

Later this month, SFI will be launching a new effort to highlight the value of certification and good forestry beyond the narrow confines of individual timber harvests. Using the slogan “The future is decided now,” Abusow explains that well-managed, working forests are about more than just what happens on the site of a harvest. “We want to get people thinking about the unintended consequences of corporate procurement policies or government policies that feels comfortable but creates unintended consequences.” A strong believer in the environmental value of timber as a construction material, Abusow says the organization has been highlighting the dangers of creating restrictions around well-managed wood products that end up being too constricting, doing more harm than good to forests and the environment.

It is a theme I heard frequently while working at Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources. Strict limits in Washington meant more harvesting in Russia, where even FSC-certified harvests meet a much lower environmental standard than uncertified harvests in the United States.

Finding that right balance can be a challenge, and Abusow says she welcomes the competition from other certification systems. SFI’s own brochure includes a comment from the National Association of State Foresters, saying “No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best’, and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility.”

SFI’s new theme and the work they’ve done to create a program that is independent, transparent and science-based is all part of Abusow’s goal to “create as much responsible forestry as we can.” And despite the competition from other certification standards, she is confident SFI is on the right path to do just that.

Uncertified Conversion: Unintended Consequences of Forest Certification

Nonindustrial private forest landowners provide about half of the nation’s wood and steward nearly 360 million acres of forestland. These lands also provide numerous ecosystem services such as water purification, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration.

Forest certification, generally considered a voluntary act to recognize good forest stewardship, may hamper the ability of some of these small private forest owners to manage their land. Timber products flow through a chain of custody from forest owner to processor and through production to create the final product. Certification requirements along that supply chain can restrict market access for non-certified forest owners. Home Depot, for example, sells certified timber products, hence buys from certified processors who must buy from certified forests owners. The cost of certification, however, may outweigh the benefits.

Forest certification can be a costly endeavor for small forest owners. Certification entails the costs of the certification process (auditor visits, travel, report writing, and monitoring) and on the ground expenditures of additional forest planning, infrastructure, and possible reduced harvest.

To date, there are few reported price premiums on certified forest products. As a result, most certification costs are borne by the producer.

Evidence reported by Reed Watson of PERC suggests that increased certification requirements or mandates “will produce the unintended consequence of hastening forest conversion (Forest Landowner March/April 2012).” The small forest land owner that faces restricted timber markets due to certification requirements may find forest conversion more beneficial than certification.

This blog is cross-posted from