FSC is a voluntary forestry certification program that gives consumers the peace of mind that wood or wood-based products they purchase comes from a forest that has been sustainably managed. The program lays down a series of guides for logging companies to follow. In return for following the FSC guidelines, the logging companies can certify their timber with the FSC stamp and in theory, place a premium on the price of their timber. FSC do not inspect the logging companies themselves to make sure they are adhering to their guidelines – this is done by independent third-party auditors.
Central to FSC’s standards is keeping a full chain of custody. This means that an individual consumer in the UK can see the forest where the timber originated from, and who owned it over the course of its journey between origin and end destination.
FSC was formed in 1993 by a coalition of NGO’s, companies and activists to protect forests. At the time, there was not the same pressure on governments to introduce environmental protection legislation and consequently action was slow which is why FSC was created.
The definition of sustainability is tough. Although it revolves around meeting our current needs without negatively affecting conditions for future generations, its hard to pinpoint exactly what sustainability is. Increasingly it has become a cover all term for anything deemed slightly environmentally friendly.
In logging terms, sustainability is balancing the demand for timber with the amount of timber that the forest can lose without negatively impacting it. In theory this balance should be achievable. Forests can regenerate to an extent, but the balancing act between regeneration and deforestation is very fine. The suspicion is that often, even sustainably managed forests are being deforested. A good example to support this is a case study into Kalimantan, a forested area in the Indonesian part of Borneo. Independent activists found that although FSC certified areas had lower deforestation rates than non-certified areas, the certified areas had more ‘holes’ in the forest canopy. These holes are created by individual trees being logged and upset the ecosystem beneath them because there are no layers filtering the sunlight.
There is not much meta-data that conclusively proves FSC guarantees sustainability. However, there are smaller studies which show that FSC has a positive environmental impact on forestry management. These include:
One of the big faults with FSC is that the auditing system is flawed. Because the auditing bodies are competing entities, there is competition between them to get the business from the logging companies. This has led to auditing firms, especially in less economically developed countries where corruption and bribery is rife, driving down the quality of inspections to win business from the logging companies.
An independent group called Earthsight carried out a major investigation into illegal logging in Ukraine. They found timber was being, at best, unethically logged in Ukraine under the FSC stamp. This timber was then sold into Ikea’s supply chain. Earthsight found evidence of major malpractice and corruption on the part of state-owned Ukrainian logging companies. A common problem was sanitary cleaning. Sanitary cleaning refers to diseased trees being cut down. However, logging companies were found to be indiscriminately logging and labelling the trees as ‘diseased’. Despite this evidence, successive audits of these companies failed to detect any of these problems.
Another fault of FSC is that it is very costly to get and remain certified. This partially explains why FSC is relatively restricted to northern forests in Europe and America. Smaller logging companies in areas where tropical hardwood is found, such as the Congo Basin cannot afford to have their timber FSC certified so cannot compete with larger, often foreign-owned logging concerns.
The acid test for FSC is which NGO’s support it. Over the last decade, increasing numbers of NGO’s have ended their association with FSC including Greenpeace. FSC still has the backing of the WWF. However, given the WWF were one of the major founding members back in 1993, walking away would be monumental.
We recommend using or specifying FSC because there are not many other viable options. We have not mentioned other forest protection schemes like PEFC in this article, but their rules and results are even weaker than FSC’s. For a more details comparison between FSC and similar schemes please read our blog here.
In theory FSC’s rules should result in sustainable forestry and in certain cases it does, see the examples above in this article. However, we feel these small wins are largely outweighed by the inherent flaws in the FSC system.
Another issue to bear in mind is the carbon impact of transporting the timber. From a sustainability standpoint, using a European hardwood, such as Oak, is much more beneficial than using a Tropical hardwood grown in the Congo basin, such as Iroko, because the timber only has the travel 1000 miles versus 7000 miles.