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.

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.

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.

What Are You Buying When You Purchase FSC-certified Wood?

Writing on the Woodworking Network site, the owner of Re-View, a manufacturer of custom wood window replicas for historic landmarks across the country, expresses concern about whether FSC-certified wood lives up to its environmental promises.

The author, Brooks Gentleman, expresses concern that although FSC adds additional costs, it does not provide assurance that FSC-labeled wood actually generates the environmental benefits being promised. He writes:

The FSC certification process also burdens the system with unnecessary costs. Not only does the FSC certify forest managers and owners, but they have a chain of custody (COC) certification for manufacturers and subcontractors who utilize certified wood. This means that small furniture manufacturers, casework companies, and millwork shops need to go through the cost and bureaucracy associated with securing and maintaining a certification. Since there is little to no policing of the certified parties to confirm they are practicing the proper utilization of certified woods, the certification amounts to little more than a right to use the FSC logo in marketing materials.

These are themes we have examined in the past. When people receive certified wood, what do they really receive? What are they paying for? These questions will linger and if certification systems, like FSC, want to expand their reach, they will have to address them effectively.

You can read the entire piece on FSC and green construction here.

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.

 

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.