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.