FSC Certified - Can We Trust the Label ?



The recent documentary Seaspiracy sent shockwaves not only across the conservation world, but to anyone who has a Netflix account. The film exposed the industries and governments who pillage our oceans. The documentary had a huge impact, making people think twice about putting fish on their plates.


Perhaps one of the most controversial findings of the film was an interview with Mark Palmer, the associate US director of the International Marine Mammal Project who are responsible for the Dolphin Safe tuna label. Palmer quite plainly admitted that the label, as well as the Marine Stewardship Council equivalent, could not actually guarantee that their products were indeed free from dolphin harm.


This revelation bought in to question the very idea of certifying something sustainable. If dolphin free tuna could not be trusted and actually those providing the labels could be bribed and linked to being funded by the fishing industry itself, then can we trust any of the sustainable labels out there?


Can we trust that our fair-trade bananas we gleefully buy in the supermarket are actually fair-trade? Can we trust that the cosmetics we buy are actually palm oil free? What do these labels actually mean and what do they really do?


There is one label that I have seen spreading in popularity over the recent years that I wanted to put these kinds of questions too. That label is FSC certified. You would have seen it on the back of your receipts, on the front of your notepads or on the wood you buy for your new shelves.


FSC stands for the Forest Stewardship Council. If a product, like a new garden bench, is labelled as “FSC Certified” it means that the wood used in the product met the sustainability requirements of the FSC. The FSC is a non-profit organisation that sets certain high standards to make sure that forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible and socially beneficial manner.


So, much like the MSC dolphin free tuna label, the FSC certified label is meant to provide us with the certainty that the products we are buying, whether it is a pack of paper or a piece of ply wood, is “sustainable”. The FSC certification is considered the “gold standard” designation for wood harvested from forests that are responsibly managed, socially beneficial, environmentally conscious and economically viable.


The FSC began in 1993 after the participants in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit had failed to reach agreement on government intervention to control tropical deforestation. Environmental organisations and industries banded together to establish this voluntary system for improving logging practices and certifying sustainable timber.


FSC to the rescue, people could now buy their paper and timber products guilt free, knowing that what they were buying came with no collateral damage. Unfortunately, just like dolphin free tuna labels, FSC started to become scrutinised. Can we trust the labels on our wood products?


There is no straight answer here but let’s explore the ins and outs of the problem. For starters, and perhaps quite a damming point, Friends of the Earth UK, a founding member of FSC decided to withdraw its support for the system in 2008. In a statement released they said that they are “deeply concerned by the number of FSC certifications that are now sparking controversy and threatening the credibility of the scheme. We cannot support a scheme that fails to guarantee high environmental and social standards. As a result we can no longer recommend the FSC standard”.


It is pretty difficult to argue when one of the founding organisations to a scheme pulls out due to lack of clarity. Reading further, the major problems highlighted for the certification are three-fold. FSC still certifies timbre from primary and ancient forests such as the Amazon and Borneo, that should really be left intact. They also oppose the fact that FSC certify plantations such as teak and palm oil, which arguably are being created after destroying primary forest. Finally, they say that some FSC-accredited certification bodies are issuing certificates to non-complaint forest operations for profit.


So where did it all go wrong for FSC? Firstly, the FSC was created to stop harmful tropical deforestation, despite the fact almost 85% of the 492 million acres of forest it has certified are in North America and Europe. This isn’t a coincidence, getting certified can be expensive for logging companies. Because of this, companies in developing countries cannot afford to become certified as they don’t have the money to improve labour and logging practices or set aside areas for conservation.


One country with a large number of FSC certificates is Russia, and as you could probably guess, there is some controversy to be had. In a 2014 report, Greenpeace slammed FSC for certifying companies that were “wood-mining” forests, an incredibly unsustainable way of harvesting what can be a sustainable product if used properly.


Perhaps even more shocking, in 2015, the US flooring company Lumber Liquidators pleaded guilty to smuggling illegal timber from the last habitat of the Siberian tiger in the Russian Far East. Its main supplier was a Chinese company named Xingjia, which was FSC certified. According to an investigator in the case, another Chinese company marketing to the US offered to put an FSC label on illegal wood flooring in exchange for a 10% mark-up.


Corruption in the logging industry is rife, seemingly FSC struggles to know if their logging companies are above this corruption or not. In Peru, investigators determined in 2016 that more than 90% of the timber on two recent shipments bound from the Amazon to the US was of illegal origin, despite the company being FSC certified.


When you look more closely at the certifying process, you can see how these cracks can appear. FSC uses external certifying agencies to approve companies in different countries. These agencies often display a lack of expertise on visits and as Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, says in reference to the certifying agencies “along with the systematic downplaying of problems that are identified and inadequate attention to fraud and misreporting of information”. This leniency may result from the fact that the agencies are being paid directly by the companies they are supposed to audit.


It is clear that the certification system has many cracks in it and that there are many opportunities for miss-management along the way. Another criticism of the FSC is its labelling system that can lead some consumers to a false sense of security. Some products are labelled “FSC 100%” but a lot of the products you see are labelled “FSC Mix”. This “FSC Mix” label means that 70% of the wood for that product is from FSC certified forests, but the other 30% has no guarantee. So, despite the consumer seeing that label and thinking they are “doing the right thing” you actually have no idea about the legitimacy of that product.


FSC comes with its issues, but is the label all for nothing or is it just a few bad eggs in an otherwise positive scheme? Mongabay looked at 40 studies on the effectiveness of the FSC certification and found that in general, they mostly had a positive impact. For example, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve was a huge success. Here, nine communities who were given forestry concessions by the government and support by the rainforest alliance to gain FSC certification for timber extraction can pride themselves on a near zero-deforestation rate and very few fires over the 16 years they have been certified.


There are many success stories with FSC certified forests. However, very few studies could point to whether certification actually caused these positive outcomes. Instead, the positive changes seen in certified forests could be due to pre-existing conditions or because responsible forest managers may be more likely to try and get FSC certification in the first place. This begs the question, are they actually changing the ‘bad forestry’ or are they just highlighting the good? Perhaps its ok to simply reward the good, but is that really going to stop deforestation?


The idea of FSC was to create a market premium for those companies who were certified with being sustainable. However, the industry is so huge, with so many components that it is impossible to stop the “race to the bottom”. Companies would do as little as possible in order to pass the often “look away” audits, as large corporations would simply bypass the FSC certification and call themselves sustainable without any grounds to call themselves so.


It is often difficult to criticise these kinds of systems, which at the end of the day are only trying to do good. Perhaps the fact that it is hard to tell if the FSC has a positive impact or not is enough to say that it isn’t fulfilling its role. On the other hand, they are improving many aspects for a large number of logging companies, perhaps mainly the smaller ones.


Just like the dolphin free tuna, FSC certifications cannot guarantee us that what we are buying is in fact sustainable. But the products that do have these labels on are often more sustainable than those that don’t. It begs the question of what consumers perceive sustainable as being and what levels we are willing to accept.


I personally think that the outcome of these investigations is that we should always research what we are buying and not take for granted what we are told. We should be buying things that are labelled as “eco” or “sustainable”, but we should ask ourselves if there are even better options out there, or in fact if we need those products in the first place.


Dolphin friendly tuna and FSC certified wood are excellent ideas, however they try to deal with huge problems that a label simply can’t solve. The issues behind both the problem of over-fishing and deforestation cannot fully be stopped by the consumer. Our governments must step up and put in laws and sanctions that force industries to change, without systematic change, a label gives us little hope.

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