EUTR (European Union Timber Regulations) is compulsory. It makes dealing with illegally harvested timber illegal. Therefore, any person or organisation in EU member states that are involved in the timber/timber related products supply chain must adhere to this. If found dealing with illegally harvested timber, you are penalised.
For any readers based in the UK, it would be safe to wonder what will happen post-Brexit. The situation is still not clear but there will likely be existing UK regulations that will result in the UK timber trade being held to the same standards as the EU. Therefore, for the purposes of this blog please assume that EUTR also refers to the UK equivalent.
The rules on what comprises ‘illegally harvested’ is not in the EUTR regulations – it is the laws from the country of Origin. This means that there are small discrepancies in the standard of harvesting which would still be perfectly EUTR legal.
Unlike EUTR FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is not set of regulations – it is an independent not-for-profit organisation. Established in 1993, it’s purpose is to promote forestry management strategies that are environmentally and socially responsible. Therefore, an FSC logo on timber means that the timber meets FSC requirements. FSC is a voluntary process so to become certified, an organisation would need to be audited by an FSC accredited certification body. Traditionally, FSC is known as the ‘Gold Standard’ for responsible forestry management.
Of the three systems I am reviewing, PEFC (Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification) is very similar to FSC in that is a non-governmental organisation and certification is voluntary rather than regulatory. Founded later than FSC in 1999, it is generally known to be the second largest certification program in the world (after FSC). However, unlike FSC, at forestry management level PEFC is an umbrella organisation that endorses national forest certification systems, such as PEFC endorsing China’s National Forest Certification System (CFCC). At Chain of Custody (Organisational Auditing) level it is the same.
FSC and PEFC both work outside of state regulations which means they do not have the political authority to penalise anyone for failing to comply to their regulations. EUTR does.
If fully enforced, EUTR has the potential to make the biggest difference to forest sustainability as it is not voluntary – all timber in EU must meet EUTR standards.
EUTR is not as wide ranging as FSC/PEFC, as the ‘illegally harvested’ regulation depends on the regulation of the country where the timber was felled. Therefore, there are relatively weak rules around indigenous people protection and the science of forestry management.
Because its regulation that EU member states must incorporate into their own national legislation, the enforcement of EUTR sometimes leaves a lot to be desired as some countries essentially only pay lip service to EUTR.
FSC is the most well-known of all three strategies – a GfK study found 50% of people in UK recognise the FSC trademark.
FSC is known to be the standard against which other certification bodies measure themselves on. Over the last decade, when FSC introduce new standards PEFC are known to follow suit closely.
FSC was introduced by non-governmental organisations, such as the WWF, and therefore all their regulation prioritises forests and surrounding communities, even if the stipulations hurt the logging companies’ profits.
FSC leads the way when examining protection of Indigenous Peoples (IP). FSC regulation includes requirements for forest managers to obtain IP’s Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) when making forest management decisions and secure FPIC through binding agreements.
Getting an FSC assessment and maintaining it is very expensive – pricing FSC out of many small and medium enterprises (SME’s) budgets. This is a big problem, as it means locally run companies owned by IP’s which are often small players struggle to compete with large multinational forestry companies.
Observers accuse FSC of being a victim of its own success. When it was first established, FSC standards were rigorously applied. However, over the last few years as ever-increasing numbers of companies join, there has been significant controversy over certain forest management systems that have been certified and a growing unease that FSC standards have slipped. Most notably, Greenpeace have decided not to renew their FSC membership due to their concerns.
PEFC is generally seen to be more friendly towards small and medium sized businesses. It is currently establishing group certification schemes for small firms and an online forest certification tool to ease the certification process.
There are strong allegations that the PEFC essentially ‘greenwashes’ questionable logging companies. It’s easy to see why – PEFC was introduced as a joint effort by logging companies rather than with cross stakeholder collaboration including environmental NGO’s. Therefore, PEFC’s regulations are said to prioritise logging companies over other parties involved in the timber supply chain. Greenpeace have even go so far as to say that they think PEFC is a fake forest certification system.
PEFC leaves Indigenous Peoples open to mistreatment. In PEFC regulation, when forest managers are making decisions, the managers only need to consult with IP’s, with the eventual decision left entirely to the manager. It is easy to imagine how the ‘consultation’ process can be misused by unscrupulous individuals or organisations. On the other hand, FSC requires IP’s FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) secured through binding agreements when making forest decisions.
The regulations are not well written, and even derided as weak. This makes them open to wide interpretation and in some cases, even protected forest has been cleared and converted into plantations while complying with PEFC which is completely unacceptable.
It’s important to view each strategy as complementary rather than competitive. The ‘Gold Standard’ for a company dealing with timber would be to have full access to EUTR-required documentation, and FSC and PEFC certification. Both FSC and PEFC provide assurances that timber is sustainable sourced, but FSC standards are more rigorous and generally of a higher standard.
Tellingly, there is a notice at the top of PEFC’s page on Wikipedia that the neutrality of the article is disputed, and it contains content that is written like an advertisement. It may be clutching at straws but given the ‘greenwashing’ allegations surrounding PEFC, it is not a great look.
Any company in the EU or UK after Brexit must comply with EUTR regulation. Taking that out of the question, it’s a contest between FSC and PEFC. Although they both provide assurances that the timber is sustainably sourced, it is safe to conclude that FSC standards are more rigorously applied and generally of a higher standard.
It’s important to bear in mind the bigger picture – deforestation continues to create existential problems for the planet and any effort to manage forests sustainably should be applauded and fully supported.