FSC’s complaints procedures in chaos

One of the essential components of a credible certification scheme is that there must be some kind of mechanism such that stakeholders who dispute decisions about certification standards, specific certificates or other matters, can challenge them and seek redress. FSC’s handling of complaints has been abysmal for many years, but now it seems to be in total disarray. Apart from anything else, FSC is probably not currently compliant with the requirements of ISEAL, the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance, to which the FSC is affiliated.

For the last nine years, FSC has operated a complaints process under a so-called ‘Interim Dispute Resolution Protocol’, which was adopted as policy by the FSC Board in April 1998. This was probably an improvement on the previous situation – in which disputes seemed to be resolved through the personal decision of FSC’s Executive Director – but it soon became clear that this hugely legalistic and labyrinthine policy was mostly unworkable. The policy placed a massive burden on the complainants, was structurally weighted in favour of certifiers and their certified clients, and largely served to exclude small NGOs, businesses and communities from submitting complaints. FSC non-members were disallowed from submitting complaints altogether. The 1998 ‘Protocol’ was also immensely time-consuming and slow: in one case that FSC-Watch is aware of – that of a complaint against the certification of the Indonesian rainforest logging company PT Diamond Raya – a period of four and a half years elapsed between the start of the complaint proceedings and their final conclusion by the FSC Board (and which resulted in no action being taken against the certifier concerned, SGS).

Under the ‘Interim Protocol’, it was also very easy for the FSC Secretariat to reject complaints for ‘technical’ reasons, such as failure to submit the relevant documentation at precisely the right time or in the right format. FSC-Watch is not aware that a single complaint submitted under the ‘Interim Protocol’ was ever upheld or acted upon by the Secretariat.

Aware that this essentially non-functioning complaints procedure represented a major ‘accountability gap’ in the system, FSC’s members rightly demanded improvements. At the FSC General Assembly in 2002, the members passed a motion calling on the FSC to “give high priority to reviewing and improving the current dispute resolution process. A revised dispute resolution process should resolve complaints in a timely manner, be more user-friendly, with clear roles and responsibilities for complainants and the FSC, and including a much needed and meaningful role for the National Initiatives.”

Five years on, and FSC’s members are still waiting.

In 2004, a ‘review’ of the Interim Dispute Resolution Protocol was started, but this was commissioned by FSC from the person who had written the protocol in the first place, the legal academic, Professor Gregory Weber. Nevertheless, in a ‘case study’ on the PT Diamond Raya complaint, Prof Weber came to the honest and damning conclusion that “The PTDR dispute revealed substantial limitations with both the overall FSC dispute resolution “system”, as well as with the Protocol itself”. However, Prof Weber’s ‘review’ of the complaint’s protocol seems never to have been completed, and no final report of it, nor of a revised protocol, is publicly available.

In July 2006, the author of this article was told by Grant Rosoman, the now Chair of the FSC Board, that a new and simplified ‘interim’ complaints procedure was, “with the FSC Board” and was expected to be considered and approved at the August 2006 Board meeting. But adoption of this new procedure, which should probably be called the ‘Interim Revised Interim Dispute Resolution Protocol’, seems never to have happened – or if it was, it was never reported. In fact, there is no trace of the ‘Revised Interim etc’ on the FSC website, whereas the old 1998 Protocol is still there in all its glory.

Despite the new policy evidently not having been formally approved or even documented, FSC-Watch has learned that this new policy has actually been used to handle a complaint brought against the certification of Ernslaw Forestry in New Zealand. If this is anything to go by, then the new policy doesn’t meet the FSC membership’s demand for a system to bring ‘timely’ resolution of complaints, because, as FSC-Watch has reported, more than two years has already passed and there is still no resolution to the Ernslaw complaint.

So it is not even clear at present which ‘Dispute Resolution Protocol’ is in operation, or how it (or they) should be used, or by whom. This is a grave failing, and one which undermines the democratic and multistakeholder basis of the FSC. It undermines FSC’s claim to be a ‘credible’ certification scheme, because, as Prof Weber has rightly shown, there is currently no effective mechanism in place to challenge ‘non-credible’ certificates issued by the FSC (of which, as FSC-Watch has shown, there are many. It leaves stakeholders in countries such as Ireland unclear about how, or if, they could or should submit a formal complaint (which the FSC’s dismal handling of the certification of Irish State forestry company, Coillte, seems to have made necessary).

It also undermines FSC’s claims to be “committed to complying with the International Social and Environmental Labelling Alliance’s (ISEAL) Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards.” FSC claims that it is the “only forestry system that complies with ISEAL’s Code”, and in its October 2006 newsletter, FSC stated that “Since July 2006, FSC is operating in full compliance with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice”.

In fact, the very first point in ISEAL’s Code of Good Practice states that certification systems“shall contain a complaints resolution mechanism for the impartial handling of any procedural complaints. All interested parties shall have access to this complaints resolution mechanism”.

It seems absolutely clear that FSC is not compliant with this ‘Good Practice’ – indeed, at the moment, it is not clear that FSC has any functioning complaints mechanisms at all. Which inevitably raises the question of why the FSC’s Board and Secretariat seem to have been so lax in dealing with this critical governance issue? We invite both to respond.

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