Canada: The Evolution of Sustainable Forest Management Certification Standards

Last Updated: October 16 2001
Article by Bruce McIntyre

In January/February 2000, I wrote that, "In the future we will see fewer players, following a new set of rules on a larger, more aggressive international playing field." The subject was the consolidation of forest products companies, but I could have just as easily been describing the array of competing environmental certification standards. Since that article appeared, the competition among proponents of various standards has, indeed, become more aggressive, not only in Canada, but around the world.

In this article, I will provide a brief update on trends in forestry certification and look to the future with some predictions about how the environmental movement will affect Canadian forest companies and whether a single universal standard can take hold in the marketplace.

The Impacts are Real and Ongoing

The following press headline gives us a taste of the type of rhetoric not uncommon in the current certification debate.

Headline: "WWF Report Says PEFC Does Not Comply With Basic Requirements for Forest Certification" (WWF Press Release, 04/02/01)

The tone is reminiscent of a negative ad campaign in an election. However, in this case the various parties are competing for the public's environmental vote, with dollar ballots to be cast though the purchasing power of the marketplace. This approach is by no means limited to Europe; North American standards are subject to challenge as well.

Forest and paper producers are feeling a more direct form of pressure to adopt environmental certification standards: the threat of lost business with major customers. Large-volume customers are being challenged across North America, Western Europe and elsewhere in the world, to "go green" or become the objects of highly publicized boycotts. Case in point during the last week of March, protesters hit 100 Staples stores across the U.S., and similar actions have been felt a numerous other forest products customers and industry annual meetings. Even financial institutions have been subjected to protests or Internet campaigns.

Over the past two years, top wood and paper users, including Home Depot, Lowes, Centex, Kinko's and others have committed to increase their use of recycled paper, eliminate the use of wood from old-growth or endangered forests and/or to give preference to products certified under one or more certification standards. According to ForestEthics, some 400 companies - including nearly 25% of the U.S. lumber market - have pledged to transform their approach to using wood and paper products.

A More Aggressive Playing Field

The big question for forest products companies and retailers is what forestry standard will be most acceptable in the marketplace? In North America, a number of prominent conservation players in the forestry debate approve of only one certification standard, that of the Forest Stewardship Counsil. Others support alternative standards such as the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). A key consideration for the industry is not only which standard is most technically appropriate for their operations, but which is being most effectively marketed, so that they maximize the return for every dollar invested in the certification process.

Beyond the discussion of what is the most appropriate forest management standard, a development that will make the situation even more interesting over the coming months is the advent of chain of custody and labelling programs for the major certification systems. A label is already available to organizations certified to the PEFC and FSC standards, a situation that has likely exacerbated the debate in Europe as to which system is superior. The playing field is also about to become more competitive in North America. The CSA and SFI standards are expected to introduce labels by the fall of 2001, in addition to the labelling program already available under the FSC. The credibility of each of thee systems is also enhanced by the fact that independent third-party audits are required under all three forestry standards to qualify for certification and use of the label.

Co-operation Allows for Conservation and Harvesting

The preservation versus harvesting debate is not always a battleground of irreconcilable differences. This year has seen some remarkable instances of agreement and even co-operation. The same week protesters struck retail outlets across the U.S., forest companies and environmentalists joined government and other stakeholders to announce an agreement on the conservation and sustainable management of portions of the Central Coast region of B.C. The region covers 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres). After years of acrimonious conflict, the agreement is intended to ensure new protected areas, emphasis on ecosystem-based planning and management, and areas of conflict-free harvesting. Balancing environmental, economic and social objectives will be a delicate task, however, as hundreds of jobs are also expected to be lost in the process.

Close on the heels of the B.C. agreement, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources announced a bilateral process that could lead to FSC certification of all Crown-owned forests managed in compliance with Ontario law.

When Will We Have One Standard?

Can industry and environmental organizations ever agree to just one certification standard, one label, one set of procedures? The simple answer, I believe, is no. The competing interests of producers, customers, and non-government organizations, overlaid onto a vast range of ecological landscapes and political geographies, results in a mix that is just too diverse to fit into one standard. Mutual recognition initiatives and various research studies currently underway to scientifically assess the merits of different standards, may go some distance to resolving the different perspectives, but will not be the final word. Hard negotiation and compromise, two of the key ingredients in the Central Coast agreement in B.C., will still be needed to simplify, if not totally resolve the debate.

Much of the problem is due to different views on what constitutes good forest management from a technical perspective and philosophical differences on how far a forest certification standard should reach out to embrace diverse issues such as public involvement, social conditions, or private property rights. Even in cases where there would seem to be a choice of only two, e.g., which side of the road to drive on, nations agree to disagree. Environmental certification presents much more than a simple binary choice, on or off, Beta or VHS.

The field will dwindle to a handful or possibly just two major competitors as more producers and buyers decide on their preferences, and the leading schemes break away from the pack. Perhaps as soon as 2005, we will have just one industry choice and one environmental favourite. Whatever the outcome, the decision won't be based simply on technical merit (diehards still say Beta was better than VHS), but on a combination of factors such as industry requirements, marketing success, credibility of the audit process and customer preference, as well as direction from governments an other influential stakeholders.


This article first appeared in The Forestry Chronicle, May/June 2001, Vol. 77, No. 3.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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