A press release from the FSC UK recently claimed that the FSC label on timber and timber products gives the public an "assurance that the timber used comes from forests managed to the highest environmental, social and economic standards" and that "anyone buying FSC certified products is helping to ensure a safer future for the earth's forests and the people and wildlife that depend on them".
However a new report to be published by the Rainforest Foundation prior to the FSC General Assembly in November, shows that such claims do not stand up to scrutiny and that the FSC is misleading the public about the reliability of its certification procedures. The report is based on 18 months of investigations, and includes detailed case studies of 'problematic' FSC certifications or national 'FSC processes' in Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia and Thailand (see article by Chris Lang in this bulletin).
FSC's Principles and Criteria (P&C) for assessment and certification of logging operations have been widely supported by NGOs internationally (although there are strong reservations with regard to Principle 10 on plantations, as discussed elsewhere in this bulletin). However, there is much evidence that many FSC certificates have been awarded to logging companies that are in serious breach of the FSC P&C.
The Rainforest Foundation believes that one of the underlying reasons for this is that the FSC's accredited certifiers have a strong vested corporate interest in ensuring 'successful' outcomes to certification 'assessments' --regardless of whether or not the logging company actually complies with the FSC's P&C. The certification bodies compete in a fierce market to sell their certification 'services' to clients (i.e., logging companies) who want the 'marketing opportunities' that the FSC logo represents. This has led to a 'race to the bottom' in the standards and rigour with which logging companies are actually assessed. The Foundation's report documents examples where certified companies have been implicated in gross abuses of human rights, are logging in pristine tropical rainforest containing some of the world's most endangered wildlife species, and have falsely claimed to comply with the FSC's certification requirements.
The FSC Secretariat, which is responsible for monitoring and disciplining the certifiers, and ensuring that the P&C are upheld, has been either unable or unwilling to take effective action to stop this abuse. Local communities, indigenous peoples and NGOs have often been poorly informed or consulted about certifications, and have found themselves confronted with an impossible task in challenging certification decisions once certificates have been awarded.
In some countries, the 'FSC process' has helped to bring different 'stakeholder' groups together, and has produced national certification standards that accommodate all interests. In others, however, environmental and social groups --usually represented by NGOs-- have been heavily marginalised, and have been dominated by timber industry interests. The resulting FSC national certification standards have, in some cases, been lower even than is required by national laws.
Over the last few years, the FSC has sought to expand the area certified, and to get FSC-labelled products onto the shelves of shops, as quickly as possible. Partly, this has been in order to 'compete' with other, non-performance based, certification schemes such as the 'Pan European Forest Certification' scheme (PEFC). Partly it has also been to satisfy the demand of an increasing number of large northern wood processors and retailers, which have been encouraged to 'ask for FSC certified products'. However, FSC's 'fast growth' approach seems to have encouraged a 'lax' attitude in ensuring that the certifiers actually uphold the P&C.
Moreover, several FSC 'policies' now in place such as the 'percentage-based' labelling policy --which allows for the FSC labelling of products which contain up to 70% of material which is actually not from FSC certified forests or recycled sources-- are specifically designed to help large industrial interests, but are almost impossible to police in practice. Community forests and small-scale forest managers, meanwhile, find it extremely difficult and costly to obtain or retain FSC certification.
The Rainforest Foundation believes that urgent structural, political and practical reform is needed if FSC is to survive as a credible mechanism for the certification of environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forestry. A number of detailed proposals for reform are made in the Rainforest Foundation's new report. Most importantly, the FSC must take immediate action to prevent the issuing of further certificates to logging companies that do not actually comply with the Principles and Criteria. The FSC should aim to compete with other certification schemes on quality, not quantity.