FSC’s new ‘Global Strategy’: a recipe for disaster?

The FSC is currently consulting on the preparation of a new ‘Global Strategy’ that will guide the organisation for the next 5 years (the strategy is, we learn, open for public consultation only until June 15th although, given that many FSC stakeholders seem to have found out about this only very late in the day, we hope that FSC will extend this deadline). A full copy of the draft strategy is available for download at the end of this posting.

The fact that FSC is looking to adopt a global strategy is no bad thing, and the fact that this is being done transparently is a vast improvement on previous strategic planning processes, such as happened in 1998, when a strategic plan was secretly developed and adopted without even the FSC’s members being aware of it. But we believe that the draft new strategic plan as it currently stands will fail to address some of the underlying problems, and will repeat some of the catastrophic mistakes of the past.

The draft plan does contain some good elements. Some of the high level ‘goals’ are worthy and appropriate – such as that the organisation will “Ensure integrity, credibility and transparency of the FSC system”. Likewise, the broad goal of ensuring “Equitable access to the benefits of the FSC system” is something which we are sure most FSC members would agree with. Specific objectives as set out in the plan are much needed, such as that there will be an “efficient and workable dispute resolution system” and that “standards are science-based, field tested and adopted with comprehensive stakeholder consultation and support”.

However, much of what is good in the plan risks being seriously undermined by what is not so good. In particular, there is only a weak commitment to tackling what we believe is a serious structural flaw in the FSC system: the accredited certification bodies are paid directly by their ‘clients’ who wish to be certified – and who therefore have a conflict of interest, because it is more lucrative to issue certificates than to not issue them. This has also led, we believe, to a ‘race to the bottom’ of certification standards, in which the certification bodies in effect compete with each to be the most lax in their certification audits, because that way they attract more business.

The new draft plan does at least recognise that this is an issue, but merely states that “Real or perceived conflicts of interest between certifiers and certificate holders are managed in ways that are procedurally and ethically credible”. This is very long way short of what the FSC must do to ‘credibly’ resolve this problem, that is to completely remove this conflict of interest by cutting the direct financial link between certifiers and certificate holders. In principle, this is not a difficult thing to do, by simple ‘administrative’ changes to the contractual arrangements between FSC, the certifiers and companies seeking certification.

But the most worrying, inappropriate and potentially disastrous aspect of the new plan is its emphasis on continued fast growth of the area under FSC certfication. The plan sets out a proposed goal that “The FSC will continue to lead in globally responsible forest management”. (This assumes, of course, that the FSC already leads in ‘globally responsible forest management’, which is highly questionable, and will probably come as news to the millions of indigenous forest people around the world who have been doing sustainable forest management for thousands of years). But the big problem with this goal is the proposed ‘indicators’ for its achievement. In practice, the plan says, the FSC will aim to get 170 million hectares certified within the next 5 years. 30 million of this will be tropical forests, 20 million will be plantations, 70 million hectares will be boreal forests, and 50 million hectares will be in temperate regions.

Apart from the fact that this represents a rough doubling of the current total FSC certified area, there is no indication as to where these targets have come from – whether they are based on a realistic assessment of what is potentially certifiable or whether, as with the similar World Bank-WWF Forest Alliance targets for certified area, they have been plucked out of thin air.

Nevertheless, most people would probably agree that an increase in the area of forest worldwide being managed in strict compliance with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria would be a good thing. However, as FSC-Watch has consistently reported, many FSC certificates have been issued to companies that fall a long way short of compliance with the P&C. In other words, FSC has been pursuing a strategy of ‘quantity not quality’. This is one of the other underlying reasons why so many unsatisfactory certificates have been issued, and why the FSC’s credibility has continued to plummet with many stakeholders. The danger with these new, ambitious, but possibly arbitrary targets is that they will simply drive FSC even faster down this certain dead-end road. The FSC cannot survive if it’s credibility is further damaged by yet more unwarranted certificates. We believe that a more realistic and much-needed target might be for the FSC to ensure that every single one of the certificates that make up the existing 80 million or so hectares of FSC certified forest are fully justified, and fully compliant with the Principles and Criteria.

Finally, there is a huge omission from the plan: there is no reference whatsoever as to how FSC plans to sustain itself financially in the coming years. The FSC is already struggling to properly manage its existing ‘portfolio’ of certificates, let alone coping with twice as many which, if the organisation’s credibility is to be maintained, will have to be much more strictly controlled than at present. We have argued in the past that the solution to this problem is also linked with changes in the contractual arrangements with the certifiers. In effect, FSC will only become financially self-sustaining, and capable of implementing its Strategic Plan, if it captures more of the revenues from certification, which are presently being almost totally captured by the certifiers. One way of doing this would be for the certifiers to have to compete for certification assessment and ‘surveillance’ contracts, which would be tendered by the FSC Secretariat, and which would charge for this ‘brokerage’ service.

Without such a change, FSC’s ambitious targets look like nothing more than a dangerous fantasy. At best, Heiko Liedeker and his colleagues will be forced to continue going to donors with an ever-larger begging-bowl, simply to maintain even basic levels of operation to retain some vestige of credibility. At worst, the FSC will have a vastly increased number of certificates, over which it has no real control whatsoever.

We urge FSC-Watch readers to have their say in FSC’s on-line consultation, which can be accessed here.

The draft strategic plan is available here: FSCglobalstrategyDraftApril202007.pdf

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