Behind the Label

How Well Is the Forest Stewardship Council Protecting Trees?

Outside San Francisco’s high-tech Sony Metreon complex, environmental activists are rallied around a 200-year-old redwood stump they’ve rolled onto the sidewalk. Inside, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is having its annual fundraising dinner.

But the activists aren’t guests. They are protesting the NRDC for backing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), whose standards for certifying sustainably harvested wood products somehow allowed this rare old-growth redwood to be logged.

The FSC was founded in 1993 by a coalition of timber, forestry, environmental and indigenous people’s groups from 25 countries. The FSC’s 10 guiding principles include protection of biodiversity and respect for worker’s and indigenous people’s rights. The organization accredits and oversees independent certifiers who monitor logging companies" fulfillment of its standards. Poor scores in any of the FSC’s 10 principle areas should deny a company certification, although each certifier has interpretive leeway.

Worldwide, the FSC has certified more than 60 million acres. While many see the council’s rapid growth as a positive sign for the forests and the green marketplace, some feel that too many compromises have been made in the rush to get certified wood on the shelves.

Compromises were certainly made in the case of this former redwood, according to forest activist Mary Pjerrou. The stump, over five feet wide, hails from FSC-certified land owned by the Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC). MRC’s certification permits clear-cutting for another 50 years, indefinite use of toxic herbicides, and logging of rare old-growth, according to Pjerrou. The activist is outraged that the FSC’s certification system has rewarded some of the very practices it was set up to discourage.

Pjerrou was president of the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance, a coalition of 11 local watershed groups, during a successful lawsuit against MRC. "The court told MRC they must make public their long term logging plans," says Pjerrou. "The FSC then stepped in and certified the company in a secret, paid-for review process. This gave MRC time—and a public relations cover—to get this logging program in place without public review."

Walter Smith, Western regional manager for the certifying company SmartWood, says, however, that it’s important to work with companies like MRC that show a desire to improve their forestry practices and "plant good seeds" by showing them wiser ways of managing the land.

Throughout MRC’s holdings, previous landowners had cut down all the native conifers, leaving an overabundance of nonnative tan oaks, according to Smith, an advisor on MRC’s certification. Smith claims it’s difficult to address such a forest imbalance without some clear-cutting and herbicide use. Since its certification in 2000, MRC has reduced its use of herbicides by 37 percent, switched to a less toxic chemical and is also experimenting with natural substances like eucalyptus oil, according to Smith.

"You can’t expect every company to be immediately 100 percent perfect on a very demanding set of criteria," says Bill Wilkinson, a senior FSC forester. Still, critics claim consumers don’t really know what they’re getting, as FSC standards have allowed some companies to market their products as eco-friendly while still engaging in some very ecologically damaging practices. FSC certifications have been protested in Gabon, Malaysia, Indonesia and other nations for denying indigenous people’s rights, logging virgin forests and other offenses.

"It’s not clear what the FSC is certifying—practices or promises," says Mitch Lansky, a writer and forestry analyst involved with the Low-Impact Forestry Project in Maine. Lansky believes "green label" standards should be in practice before certification is granted.

The Low-Impact Forestry Project, a co-op of 20 some landowners statewide, bowed out of its FSC application after the council approved 500,000 acres owned by timber giant J.D. Irving in Maine’s Allagash District. Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), an FSC certifier, gave the company FSC’s green star of approval even though its own findings describe many past and present problems, including overcutting of spruce and fir, planting exotic species, aggressive herbicide spraying and paying subpar wages.

NRDC Senior Scientist Sami Yassa says, however, that FSC offers "the toughest standards for commercial forestry in the world, and the only credible standards in the marketplace." The only alternative right now, FSC supporters point out, is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a "green" label set up by the American Forest and Paper Association, whose members own tens of millions of forested acres. Not surprisingly, the industry-backed label is much more permissive than the FSC on most counts, including clear-cutting, monoculture planting and using herbicides. Advocates also point out that for every questionable FSC certification, there are many more examples of the program’s positive influence on forests.

San Rafael, California-based Eco-Timber sells FSC-approved wood, reclaimed wood from old buildings and wood alternatives like bamboo flooring. "We won’t buy wood from an FSC source if we feel it’s questionable. But there are a lot of incredible working forests because of the FSC," says CEO Cael Kendall. "In a capitalistic society, you have to give landowners economic incentives [like the FSC] to preserve the forests, otherwise they are going to be destroyed or turned into golf courses."

While timber companies don’t usually get a higher price for FSC-approved wood, sustainable harvesting is more profitable in the long run, says Kendall. For example, FSC-certified timber company Collins Pine recently harvested its two billionth board foot from its Almanor Forest, while the volume of standing timber has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1940s.

Both supply and demand for FSC-certified wood are high; the challenge is distribution, as there aren’t enough companies committed to stocking it, according to Kendall. The largest buyer of certified wood in the U.S. is Home Depot, one of several large retailers pledging to give preference to FSC-certified products. Home Depot purchased more than $100 million worth of FSC-certified wood products in 2001.

Even so, sales and marketing have been spotty. While stores in the Northwest have special displays for FSC products, Southwestern retailers stock no certified wood, according to Lansky. In other cases, FSC-approved wood is mixed with commercially harvested wood, confusing customers.

Despite the organization’s kinks and flaws, even some of FSC’s fiercest critics acknowledge its needed role in the movement to help forests regain their balance. As the American Lands Alliance puts it, "While not perfect, FSC is the only certification system that employs environmentally, socially and economically rigorous standards, that is genuinely independent of the wood products industry and deserving of consumer preference."