The Conflict Between Certification and Forestry Science

As the environmental ethic becomes more trendy, we see a growing trend in “greenwashing,” the effort by some to exaggerate the environmental benefits of various activities for personal gain or profit. Environmental activists are quick to point out greenwashing when it is practiced by corporations. They tend to go silent, however, when the greenwashers are fellow activists or government agencies.

The recent USA Today series titled “Green Inc.” highlights the extent to which corporations, environmental activists and government agencies work together to promote programs that look good but bring questionable benefit for the environment.

One example stands out – the partnership between the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The head of FSC was effusive in his praise of the USGBC’s green building standards, saying they have been “one of the most significant drivers of forest conservation in history.” That’s right, in history.

One reason FSC is so vocal in its support is that USGBC has excluded other forest certification groups from their system. As a result, the USGBC’s standard, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has very little impact on real-world forest management.  Here’s why.

First, FSC has certified fewer acres of forest than other groups and many of these acres are overseas, not in North America. As a result, if builders want to receive points for FSC-certified wood, they may have to ship wood from long distances. Any environmental benefit could be lost in the energy used for shipping.

Second, FSC’s standards are often influenced more by politics rather than by science. One good example is the very different requirements in each region of the United States and around the world to receive FSC certification. A harvest that would not meet the standards in my home state of Washington could be acceptable to FSC in Idaho, for example. The difference can be even more dramatic between harvests in the United States and harvests in other countries.

This is one reason the Society of American Foresters has criticized the U.S. Green Building Council for excluding other standards. The CEO of the Society wrote that requiring “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific.”

Finally, there are numerous misconceptions about FSC timber that are often encouraged by advocates. In Washington state, for example, the state Department of Ecology argued for using FSC timber in construction because it would prevent harvest of old-growth forests. The problem, however, is that no rational builder would ever use extremely high-value old growth timber for home construction. Old growth timber is rare, making it an expensive commodity. Most timber used in construction is only 40 to 60 years old, far from the 200 years or more of age that typifies old growth.

Despite these weaknesses, the USGBC continues to favor FSC-certified wood. FSC is willing to lavish praise on USGBC’s system to secure a monopoly in a particular market niche. Protecting the brand has become more important than providing environmental benefit.

This is consistent with FSC’s approach elsewhere. For example, while other certification systems allow forests to receive and advertise multiple certifications, FSC does not. In one case FSC actually attacked a certified-supplier, telling the company it could not list other certifications since they are “FSC’s competitor.”

As a result, FSC and USGBC act more like the stereotype of corporations, protecting their market share even at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating because FSC is built upon a very sound principle: people are willing to pay more for timber harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. FSC should be praised as a pioneer in promoting this important concept.

FSC should not, however, sacrifice the core principle of promoting sustainable forestry in favor of its market position. Competition among certification systems, like competition among companies, keeps each system honest, offering consumers a choice. Welcoming such competition is of course difficult, but if the ultimate goal is helping the environment, innovation in forest sustainability should be welcomed from any corner.

The U.S. Green Building Council should recognize the benefits of certification competition and give builders who care about sustainable forestry a choice. The environment would be better off.

Seattle’s Dolphin Safe, Certified Forests

With any luck, Seattle’s urban forests will soon be certified dolphin safe. That may seem strange, but it would be just about as meaningful as the city recently receiving a forest certification it promises it will never use.

With predictable fanfare, the City of Seattle has announced its urban forests have received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), stating that  the “Seattle park system meets the gold standard in environmentally friendly forestry.” City Hall’s senior forester Mark Mead noted “The FSC certification helps ensure we are doing the right things to assure a healthy and sustainable forest for Seattle.”

Advocates of the certification say the city can now sell any timber from the urban forests to consumers who want to know the timber came from a sustainably managed forest. FSC and other certification systems are typically associated with working forests where timber is being harvested and sold.

The City of Seattle, however, promises it won’t actually use the certification. “We want to be crystal clear that we don’t have a mandate to sell any timber,” says Mead. In fact, the City is so strident about this position, it promises to never to sell trees, even if they have fallen down. “The certification would allow us to sell it as FSC-certified timber, if we wanted to. But there’s infinitely more value in leaving a tree that falls,” said Michael Yadrick, an ecologist with Seattle Parks.

The certification report, which the City of Seattle paid $2,000 to complete, has little to say about forest management. The top concern of FSC assessors was the fact that “off-leash dogs are causing erosion” and other impacts. This isn’t a forestry issue, but an urban parks management issue.

Ironically, the FSC assessment does make one recommendation that contradicts Seattle Parks’ harvest policy. FSC auditors recommended that Seattle Parks “develop a local procurement policy for building and maintenance materials.” As FSC is telling Seattle to use local timber for building, Seattle is telling FSC they will do everything they can to make sure those local materials don’t come from its own lands.

This is not to say that Seattle Parks should be harvesting, but it highlights how useless it is to use the public’s money and paid staff time to receive certification for timber production the city promises will never occur.

So, why do it? The City of Seattle is quick to admit it is about image. Like so much of our environmental policy, the goal is to cultivate a green image for the city and its politicians, even if the effect of the policy on the environment is zero.

Seattle Parks may argue FSC certification ensures they are managing forests sustainably for the future, even if they don’t produce timber. This, however, is contradicted by the audit report. FSC auditors made no recommendations regarding forest management. The closest they came is when the audit notes Seattle Parks “should give consideration” to creating a range of tree ages in urban forests.

Receiving FSC certification – a certification that added no new knowledge and won’t be used and actually contradicts Seattle Park’s forest policy – is about as useful as receiving a dolphin safe certification. Although, we imagine they will also be concerned about “fecal contamination” from off-leash dogs.

SFI Conference: Bioenergy and Forest Certification

The second morning of the SFI conference began with a discussion about “Advancing Sustainability in the Bioenergy Sector.” The question addressed by the panelists is how to meet growing demand for biomass feedstock, like wood pellets, while ensuring good forestry.

Both panelists highlighted the growing international demand for biomass feedstock and the challenge of meeting trade regulations and standards in Europe. Certification can be a part of meeting those regulations, demonstrating that wood used for renewable energy comes from a sustainably managed forest.

Panelists for the discussion were:

  • Dr. Charles Tattersall Smith, an SFI board member and former Dean of the school of Forestry at the University of Toronto.
  • Elizabeth Woodworth, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Enviva LP, a bioenergy company.

Dr. Smith

Discussing biomass in the context of reducing overall carbon emissions, Dr. Smith noted that the potential for using biomass is quite large. This is a global issue because there is significant trade in wood pellets for biomass around the world. This trade creates a challenge for suppliers who may face trade barriers in the EU and elsewhere, where they may require sources of biomass that are certified sustainable.

Smith highlighted a survey of those in the biomass sector asking about various efforts to ensure biomass is acquired responsibly. The results showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents said voluntary, certification systems were “essential to ensure sustainability.” Certification serves not only to ensure sustainability but also to help navigate a very complex system of regulations and markets. The results, Dr. Smith argued, demonstrate that certification systems can contribute to harmonization of these various demands and standards.

Elizabeth Woodworth

Enviva is a biomass energy company that produces wood pellets for distribution to Europe and elsewhere. In 2011, they became the world’s largest producer of solid biomass resources. Demand for biomass is driven by a range of regulations, including a mandate that Europe source 20 percent of its energy from renewables, like biomass. Biomass is a key part of this because it is relatively inexpensive to switch from coal to biomass, rather than deal with the infrastructure and other costs of transmission associated with intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar. As a result, demand for wood pellets is expected to increase fivefold in the next 10 years.

While Europe sees biomass from the United Sates as a good source of renewable energy, it is difficult to document sustainability without a certification.

The challenge in the United States is that regulations are uneven and inconsistent. States have different definitions of what counts as “renewable,” making the market more difficult to navigate.

She argued that SFI can help provide documentation for sustainable practices that meet the concerns about sustainable sources of bioenergy.

SFI Conference: Water Resources and Wildlife

Here’s a review of the session on forest management, water and wildlife, featuring Lynn Broaddus of the Johnson Foundation’s environmental programs and Christopher Smith of Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Lynn Broaddus

Focusing on the value of water for a variety of uses, Broaddus highlighted the need to bring a range of groups together when planning for water uses. Their effort brought together environmental NGOs, industry organizations, family farmers and others to ultimately produce a report called “Charting New Waters.”

She highlighted two principles that particularly applied to water and forestry.

Account for the full cost of water. Broaddus noted that the maze of federal subsides, costs for dams and other costs that were paid long ago have made it difficult to manage water and properly use it. Subsidies make it difficult to bring new conservation technologies to market because the subsidized price of water is so low. It also prevents water from being used in the most effective ways.

Create methods for freshwater ecosystem markets. Arguing that “the most important forest output may be water,” Broaddus argued that the value of clean water, mitigating flows and other costs and benefits from water management should be calculated. One negative impact she noted was from chemicals used to fight fires on the quality of water. She noted that Denver pays foresters to follow certain practices because it is cheaper than filtering the water. She also highlighted the work of The Freshwater Trust in Oregon.

The notion of valuing “ecosystem services” has been around for a while and hasn’t made much progress because there are a number of challenges. For example, one way to prevent the impact of firefighting chemicals reaching forest streams is to improve the health of forests by thinning and harvesting. Would advocates of valuing ecosystem services support this approach or would they say this would do more damage? It is virtually impossible to say and the answer often has less to do with economics than personal values. Ultimately the approach can hide the same value-laden arguments in economics talk. This is not to say it isn’t a useful discussion or worthy of consideration, but it hasn’t provided many clear answers.

The discussion of valuing water properly, however, is a critical area that needs to further be addressed and the Charting New Waters report sounds like an interesting addition to that discussion.

Christopher Smith

Smith highlighted the value of wetlands in the Western Boreal region of Canada. To emphasize that value, he noted that 50 percent of the land in Western Canada is wetland of a variety of types, from bogs to marshes. He noted that the” implications of resource development” in these areas is “relatively unknown.” Roads, however, are of particular concern for a variety of reasons.

Using a grant from SFI, Ducks Unlimited is now working with Weyerhaeuser, Louisiana Pacific and others on the “SFI Road Best management Practices Project.” The project is designed to identify areas of high, medium and low risk of impact on wetlands and test those classifications and see how they can be applied. They are now testing the results on quality of water and other issues and hope to have results next year.

The thing that stands out to me about this presentation (which was fairly technical) is the value that certification systems can provide in sharing best practices and new science. As new information is developed, certification systems can help spread the word about these approaches, giving certified foresters and incentive to use new science. The role of certification systems as a conduit for new science is under appreciated.

At the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Conference

I am attending the Sustainable Forestry Initiative conference in Milwaukee and will be blogging highlights today and tomorrow. Up first is a section titled “Wet and Wild – Responsible Forest Management Supports Water Resources and Wild.” Sessions of interest tomorrow will examine the future of the forest biomass energy sector and the value of forest certification systems for the future — a subject that will be of great interest to our readers.

To read more about the theme of the SFI conference, “the Future is Decided Now,” and the SFI program, you can visit their web page at

Forest Cover Declines Worldwide, but Increases in Asia and Northern Hemisphere

Data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have been compiled to show the state of the world’s forests and the results paint an interesting picture. While the overall area of forestland declined by just over 1 percent during the last decade (a slower rate than the previous decade), the pattern of forestland decline is instructive.

In most regions of the world, forestland expanded or declined very slightly. As the chart demonstrates, the two areas where forestland declined are Africa and South America.

Interestingly, the wealthiest parts of the world have also witnessed the largest increases in forest cover. The poorest parts of the world are seeing the greatest declines. This contradicts the image some have of industrial forestry destroying forests, leading to deforestation.

One of the causes of deforestation in Africa is subsistence, cutting down trees to cook food, heat homes and other poverty-related activities. In South America, deforestation to clear space for farming continues to be a significant factor.

To address deforestation, we need to understand its causes. These data provide some guidance on the real threats to forest ecosystems.

How Timber Suppliers Keep Forest Certifiers Honest

In the absence of strong legal systems and enforcement in some parts of the world, how can consumers know the certified timber they are receiving is legitimate? A commentary from the managing director of a timber company supplies one answer.

Michael Hermens of APP Timber, a company specializing in Asian timber, wrote about an experience he had recently with PEFC and FSC. Hermens noticed an advertisement by a Malaysian company using incorrect logos for the two certification systems. Wanting to protect the value of his own certified product and of the certification systems, he contacted each of them. Finding the incorrect logos, Hermens writes he:

…sent a copy to both PEFC and the Rainforest Alliance (whom is our FSC auditor). The reason I do this is to alert both organisations on companies claiming to be certified but often are not. This happens a lot in China where the illegal use of trademarks seems to be common practice. It is important that companies like us who play by the rules and pay large sums to maintain our certification are protected from those “cheaters”.

Having spent money and time to become certified, his company has an incentive to protect the value of those certification systems.

What comes next is more interesting. PEFC quickly responded that the Malaysian company was, in fact, certified but was using the wrong logo and had been contacted.

The response from FSC, however, flummoxed Hermens. Instead of standing up for the validity of their logo, FSC aimed its fire at PEFC, telling Hermens that companies are “not allowed to place FSC logo in the same position with PEFC logo. PEFC is FSC’s competitor in forest certification.” Hermens feels FSC should not see PEFC as a competitor. I disagree.

Competition among the systems can be quite healthy. Certification systems that compete are encouraged to improve the value of their products, the high standards of their auditing and the value of their brand. The story Hermens tells is a case in point. If timber suppliers begin to feel that FSC’s logo can be easily forged and FSC’s auditors won’t take action to protect it, suppliers will question the value of the system. Why follow rigorous rules when others can simply cheat without consequence?

FSC’s perception that PEFC is a competitor will actually work to improve the value of the brand. It prevents FSC from ignoring threats to its brand and credibility. It forces them to be responsive to their clients, understanding that timber suppliers could go elsewhere. As we’ve written before, the creation of SVLK in Indonesia is a positive step in this process of increasing competitive pressures toward high business and environmental standards.

Hermens frustration is understandable in one sense. He would like to receive multiple certifications to cover his bases. If FSC prevents that, he is put in a difficult position.

Overall, however, competition among the systems is a good thing. In this case it allowed him to pressure the systems to protect their brand, and I am willing to bet that FSC is more likely to be responsive in the future.

Competition Among Certification Standards Helps Consumers and the Environment

With the recent certification of four of Asia Pulp & Paper’s mills by Indonesia’s SVLK certification system, there is increasing attention on that system and the role it will play in ensuring Indonesian forestry meets environmental standards.The system was created in 2009 in part to satisfy laws against illegal timber harvesting in the EU and United States.

We will examine the system and its implementation at a later date, but for now, two things stand out about these new certifications under SVLK.

First, the system demonstrates the incentives of large forestry companies to engage in responsible forestry. One role certification systems play is to reduce the amount of illegal logging in countries where laws and enforcement can be uneven. By requiring clear chain of custody evidence, buyers can have some assurance they are purchasing legally harvested wood.

Forestry companies, however, also want to reduce illegal logging. Illegal logs tend to increase supply and are sold at lower prices, undercutting the market share of producers that act legally. Where laws and enforcement are lax, certification systems can fill the vacuum. This was one of the original justifications for creating certification systems — provide incentives to be good stewards where local laws and politics don’t.

Used in this way, certification systems are not only good for the environment, they are good for the bottom line.

Many on the left see the fight as being between timber producers and the environment. Done correctly, however, certification systems harmonize the incentives of forestry companies with efforts to stop illegal harvesting.

Second, the creation of SVLK demonstrates the benefit of having multiple certification systems. Some supporters of FSC have tried to make that system the sole arbiter of good forestry. This effort even led to a claim of anti-competitive practices by FSC a few years back. This isn’t surprising. Just as a company would seek to obtain monopoly power, so too do advocates of their favored certification system.

Competition among systems, however, keeps everyone honest and pushes them to improve their brand by increasing the benefits of being certified under that system, scientifically and economically. If competing certification systems want to increase their market share, they will need to focus on serving potential participants rather than simply using lobbying and politics to force participation.

Ultimately the goal of forest certification is to encourage responsible forestry and provide consumers an opportunity to put their wealth where their values are. Increasing the number of certification systems can serve those purposes by harnessing the incentives of forestry companies to oppose competitors that operate illegally.  Ultimately, the environment and consumers benefit when competition forces competing certification systems to continually improve.

What Federal Fire Policy Can Learn From Forest Certification

One of our consistent themes is that forest certification systems cannot ignore the economic well-being of foresters and communities if they are to successfully promote sustainable forestry. The same forces are at work in the United States with regard to forest fire policy.

A recent forum in the New York Times offered a range of opinions about how to address the increase in intense forest fire in federal forests. Much of the discussion was about the cost of those fires and how to find funding to prevent and fight massive wildland fire. A couple important issues must be noted.

First, humans are part of the landscape. There is a desire by some to return the forest to a “natural” pattern of fire, one that played a role in these ecosystems for thousands of years. This is not a thoughtful approach. Humans are, and will continue to be, a part of the landscape.

Development near forests means we have to protect those communities and that we have whittled down some of the available habitat for wildlife. The latter means we have a smaller margin of error when preserving the range of habitat types across an ecosystem. I worked on a forest fire in the North Cascades where a spotted owl nest was destroyed by a lightning-caused fire. Should we have let it burn, killing a threatened species, simply because the fire started naturally?

Prior to civilization, forest ecosystems could handle habitat destruction in a way they can’t now. Glibly calling fire “natural” and pretending humans can be removed from equation isn’t an approach that makes any sense for humans or wildlife.

Second, there is a reason the debate over forest fire centers around federal lands: funding. Forests that generate revenue, like private or state trust lands, have the funding available to do the thinning and other treatments that are necessary. Thinning can do some of the work that fire used to do by removing small trees and allowing larger trees to grow and become healthy and fire-resistant. Now that we (properly) fight fires, some other activity must play that role. The federal government, however, doesn’t have the money to undertake those activities.

There is a great deal of discussion of the funding issues in the New York Times forum. One of the authors has suggestions for how to budget. Another writes “Money matters, but…” The basic issue, however, is that without revenue generation on federal lands, there will never be the funding available to prevent forest ecosystems from becoming unnaturally fire-prone — overstocked with many small trees all competing for water, light and nutrients.

Rather than allow some responsible forestry, some advocates want us to “rethink development patterns” and use social “planning” that would allow massive fires to burn while limiting the risk to communities. This does not, however, address the impact of those fires on forest ecosystems. Over a century, perhaps, allowing massive fires to burn could return the forest to a more natural state, but the cost in the interim would be massive. This is obvious that fire is being used as a political tool to promote a particular view of social planning.

In the end, there are two ways to return federal forests to a more healthy, natural state. We can let them burn, hoping the cost to communities and ecosystems will be worth it decades from now. The alternative is to create a sustainable funding source for forest restoration by generating revenue from those forests with some harvesting. It is the approach that works on private and state trust lands across the country.

It is certainly true that federal forests are often more remote and are a more difficult place to fight fires. Hamstringing ourselves by limiting the available funding becomes all the more foolish in that circumstance.

There is a notion that separating forestry from issues of “money” will be good for forests. Where we see such an approach attempted, however, it often fails because it ignores the reality that humans have an impact on forests. Certification systems were created to recognize that reality, offering a financial benefit for sound forest management. Federal forest fire policy could learn something from that approach. If we don’t provide a financial benefit to those who manage forests responsibly by reducing the risk of fire, we will continue to lament enormous fires and the inability to find funding to fight and prevent them.

How Can Certification Move Beyond a Niche Market – Guilt or Business?

A recent study from the London School of Economics and Political Science on “The Roles and Limits of Certification” says a great deal about the challenges faced by certification systems if they want to expand. The report notes that certification systems already have a share of the market, and the authors note “By the end of 2011, 7 percent of wild landings of fish for human consumption, 9 percent of the world’s productive forests, and 17 percent
of coffee produced globally were certified.” Moving beyond that, however, is the challenge.

Rather than achieving certification to improve profitability or market share, the study says the main reason certification programs have expanded is that early adopters have signed on despite the lack of business benefit. “Certification systems have expanded most rapidly when market-leading firms choose them as a means to incorporate improved practices into a supply chain,” write the authors, saying “certification systems set a ‘gold standard’ with incentives for those who take steps in that direction.” So, a few firms use certification to establish their position at the top of a particular market.

Certification, however, doesn’t lead to market success — it follows it. Well-established companies are willing to expend resources on certification because they believe in the cause. One of the authors, Dr. Kira Matus, told one news outlet that “One of the interesting things we found is that businesses who decide to certify their products for the most part don’t do it because they expect to secure a price premium in the market, but rather because they see certification as good overall business practice. Our findings indicate that certification is not necessarily about tapping consumers willing to pay a bit more and it may not actually result in a direct increase in profits in the short term.” The phrase “good overall business practice” can be read to indicate that participation in certification systems has more to do with the personal feelings of company managers than good business.

How successful can a certification system be when it relies primarily on warm feelings and guilt to the detriment of sound business practices? Not very. This is undoubtedly one reason forest certification systems have not spread beyond their current level.

Those advocating the expansion of forest certification have focused on two approaches.

First are those looking to impose certification using political means by regulating buying practices and other such rules. This recalls the saying “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion, still.” Companies required to meet regulations and bend to political pressure will work to find ways around the rules, undermining the effectiveness of those rules. This was one of the main findings of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, who argued institutions that impose rules are less effective at promoting responsible resource use than voluntary systems.

The alternative is to harmonize good business with the goals of the certification system. This allows the system to reach those who may not be true believers for the cause. It is the only system that can effectively reach one group the study says hasn’t been impacted by certification systems thus far — “certification has not demonstrated consistent capacity to affect the ‘bottom of the market’.” An economic incentive can bring these businesses on board. By way of contrast, those organizations are the most likely to find ways to game — regulatory attempts to impose rules on them.

As long as certification systems rely on pressure and guilt rather than sound economic benefit, it is unlikely they will effectively expand their reach, and the environmental and social benefits they hope to provide.