Rainforest Action Network: FSC Credibility on Thin Ice

We reproduce below a posting which appeared yesterday on Understory, the official blog of the Rainforest Action Network.

Forest Stewardship Council Credibility on Thin Ice posted by Brant in Grassy Narrows, Old Growth, RAN General on October 31st, 2007

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included coverage of “growing pains” at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Jim Carleton quotes me saying “It’s a question of how do we improve the system, not whether we can keep the system… Because if you look at the alternative systems run by industry, those are even weaker.”

The quote’s accurate, but incomplete. It’s important to fend off half-baked industry schemes like the SFI, but the more crucial point is that the FSC must improve to remain a credible tool for conserving forests.

The worth of any market standard (think Organic, Fair Trade, Made in the USA), boils down to whether its value to buyers can ultimately reward good guys for doing good and punish bad guys for not getting on board.

Storm clouds are gathering above the FSC because that formula is breaking down. Demand for FSC is through the roof, but the big buyers won’t offer a premium-only a preference. Even so, loggers from Borneo to the Boreal are clamoring for the thin market advantage. Unfortunately, there’s too few good guys to fill the shelves with FSC product. The recent certification and subsequent de-certification of Indonesia’s Asia Pulp and Paper signals severe instability in a system struggling to meet rising demand without sacrificing credibility.

Some say these signals are death knells. Last year, several prominent forest activists including one founding member of the FSC launched FSC-Watch.org as a clearing house for complaints about the program. Two weeks ago, Glenn Barry’s Ecological Internet supporters filled RAN’s inboxes with more than 3000 emails critical of our support of the FSC.

To remain credible, FSC needs to rebuild its value promise – and fast. Today, FSC’s US affiliate faces an opportunity to begin doing just that. Recent evaluations led by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation concluded that FSC certification might be a viable option for National Forests. Existing rules at FSC make that option out of the question until it can build consensus around how to go about it.

While the findings themselves are interesting, more important will be how effectively FSC responds to the spectrum of advocates pulling the system from opposite ends. Multinational retailers and loggers eager to green their image want access to more wood with a green stamp. Vocal critics inside and out don’t want any logging in National Forests, much less the legitimacy of an FSC stamp. While not a formal policy per se, RAN has consistently pushed the FSC toward conservation of all intact forest landscapes, biologically appropriate restoration and respect for the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities wherever it certifies.

If it’s to remain relevant, FSC needs to seize opportunities offered by challenges like the current debate over National Forests as an opportunity to raise public awareness, strengthen its governance, rebuild flagging consensus among its members and reestablish itself as a credible tool for conserving forests. Alternatively, the FSC will be to forestry what betamax was to video recording – better in quality, but virtually irrelevant.

Brant Olson

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