FSC acknowledges system flawed by ‘conflict of interest’

In a long article in the UK magazine ‘Ethical Consumer’, Andrei de Freitas – FSC’s Head of Policy and Standards – has admitted that the FSC system does suffer from conflicts of interest, and that the FSC is ‘not a failsafe system’.

FSC-Watch has consistently argued that one of the underlying reasons for the issuing of so many controversial certificates is because the accredited certification bodies contract directly with the forestry companies that they are supposedly independently assessing. Certifiers compete with other for business, and this encourages a ‘race to the bottom’ of certification standards, as forestry companies are likely to seek certifiers that have the laxest standards. Certifiers are likely to issue certificates rather than refuse them, as this ensures future business.

Now that this problem has been recognised, we believe that FSC must quickly move to introduce changes – such as that certifiers would have to compete for certification contracts, which would be issued by the FSC Sscretariat on the basis of tenders that would guarantee that the certifiers performed to the highest standards.


Ethical Consumer generally recommends buying FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified timber as the best way to avoid wood and paper products from unsustainably logged trees. However, a growing range of forest protection organisations are criticising the FSC, claiming that it’s not a cast-iron guarantee of sustainability. Sarah Irving asks Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation/FSC Watch and Andre de Freitas of FSC International about where consumer choices on timber are headed …

Simon Counsell helped to found the FSC in the 1990s, but is now amongst its leading critics. The FSC has, he says, bowed to pressure from big logging companies and now certifies forests where logging damages the environment and drives local communities out. He also questions the quality of some of the companies which certify forestry operations as FSC-compliant. FSC-Watch, of which Counsell is a member alleges that FSC certificates have been granted to unsuitable operations. These have included: – plywood from an area of high biodiversity in Colombia, where paramilitary killings in local communities were common; – clear-cutting of Canadian forests and their replacement with uniform plantations, and complaints by local First Nations that they had been excluded from consultations; – some operations of Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), whose Indonesian operations have been accused by environmental groups of endangering vast areas of rainforest and the habitats ofendangered species such as the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.

Simon Counsell says that: “I’d like to think that the FSC is saveable. The problem is that there’s actually quite a lot stacked against it, and one of the most alarming things that’s happened has been the gerrymandering of the FSC’s governance and decision-making structures.

It’s now almost impossible to get any major decisions through the FSC without a broad consensus. Frankly that won’t happen, so it’s hard to see how some of the necessary changes will ever come about. There’s been a long history now of poor decision-making by the elected board of the FSC, reflected in the fact that they’ve been unable even to get the executive director to stop issuing certificates which are clearly non-compliant.

So I’m not massively optimistic that it can be saved without a major shakeup, and I think there are strong vested interests stopping that. What it probably needs is one of the big funders like the Ford Foundation, which is the financial backbone of the organisation, to insist on major structural changes. One of the things I’ve been saying for five years is that you’ve got to remove the major conflict of interest at the core of the organisation, which is that the certifying companies contract directly with the companies that they’re supposed to be independently monitoring.

If the FSC contracted out the certification themselves, they would have some real control over the quality of the certification being carried out. For example, APP should have to go to the FSC and say ‘we want to get certified’ and the FSC would then issue a tender for contracts. Established certifiers like SGS and Smartwood would then apply for this contract. They would have to demonstrate that they’ve got the expertise, that they’d spend enough time in the field to carry out proper assessments and would comply rigorously with the FSC’s requirements. It would become in their interests to keep the FSC happy rather than to keep the logging companies happy.

At the moment you’ve got a ‘race to the bottom’ of certification standards because the certifiers are competing with each other to get contracts and doing this, I think, by showing that they have the most ‘generous’ interpretation of the standards. Instead you’d get a ‘race to the top’ where the best certifiers would get the contracts. So this is a pretty straightforward change that could be made if it weren’t that the certifiers seem to have a stranglehold on FSC management.

In the last few weeks it’s become clear that Smartwood [part of the Rainforest Alliance, which also certifies much of Nestle’s fair trade coffee] are about to launch their own certification scheme to rival the FSC, and they’re one of the worst, if not the worst, of the FSC’s certifiers.

There are any number of other FSC policies which also need looking at. The Mixed Sources policy, for example, is frankly an outright deception of the public. Products bear an FSC logo but the level of FSC sourced material can be as little as 10%, which means that the public thinks it’s getting a green product but actually it’s not.

Since wood labelling schemes started, environmental issues like climate change have become more important, and even non-certified local wood might often be more preferable to wood from putatively certified sources that’s been shipped across the planet. There are good reasons for making better use of woodlands in this country. There have been positive changes in how the Forestry Commission manages our wood, and we should encourage those.

The vast majority of what we import into this country is from North America and Scandinavia and it’s not timber it’s pulp and paper. This shows that most importantly we need to reduce consumption. We need much, much more recycling and reuse. One problem is that the increasing amount of FSC certified paper and toilet tissue is undermining efforts to sell more recycled paper, because people see it and think. it’s a green product so it’s ok. Actually it’s not, and it may be from oldgrowth logging in Ontario or Northern Russia, and it’s damaging recycling markets.”

Andre de Freitas is Head of Policy & Standards at the FSC’s international offices in Bonn, Germany. He defends the FSC’s track record and points out that the organisation has made a number of changes in recent years which address the concerns of environmentalists and indigenous rights campaigners.

“We’ve finished very detailed reviews in some areas,” de Freitas insists. “We now have a clear policy against GM trees being allowed in any FSC certified forests. And on the subject of pesticides, our policy is now that certain pesticides which are seen as especially hazardous are not permitted for use in FSC areas without a very clear demonstration of need and permission directly from the FSC itself, not the certifying body.

“The company must demonstrate that it can identify no alternative social, environmental or economic solution to the problem, and permissions are only temporary. The company must have impact control mechanisms in place, have consulted and be looking for alternatives. This is all followed up on by certification bodies.This has been agood approach for promoting change in pesticide practices, and our banned pesticide lists often go beyond national legislation anyway,”

De Freitas admits that allegations of conflicts of interest between certifiers and the companies they work for are ‘valid’ and that “we need to deal with this in credible ways, whether there is a real or a perceived conflict of interest.” However, he also feels that “this argument is often overplayed. It’s a common practice in other sectors – companies pay for the accountants which audit them, for instance.”

Countering Simon Counsell’s concern about a ‘race to the bottom’ in certification standards, de Freitas insists that “the main asset of certification companies is that people see them as credible and if they did a bad job they would lose their credibility.”

In the end, says de Freitas, “the FSC is not a failsafe system. There are cases that are ‘not that great’ but we do follow up complaints and take corrective action. Also, groups like the World Rainforest Movement and FSC-Watch have their own agenda and they’re not always putting out accurate information. In some places certification is not working that well but we’re trying to correct this. The plantations review is in its second phase and is a major review to make sure that the outcome is legitimate and balanced,”

“Our key message,” says de Freitas, is that “we’re trying to improve our systems and address these problems. We’re reviewing the system so that we can find ways to exclude companies which damage our image through their activities in non-FSC forests, and to be able to decide who is associated with us in a more structured way.”

================================================================== Friends of the Earth offers advice on how to select timber. with 1 representing the best choice:

  1. Repair, restore or adapt something you already have. You may need professional help but it could still be cheaper than something new.
  2. Buy secondhand. recycled, reclaimed or waste timber. A better environmental choice than buying new. Companies around Britain offering reclaimed timber or products include http://www.redaimed.uk.com/02085582811 (London) and http://www.timberrecycling.org/O161 2234400 (Manchester). http://www.salvo.co.uk is a national directory of companies reclaiming all sorts of building materials, including timber.
  3. Buy locally produced timber products that are FSC certified. If you can’t recycle, buying locally-produced timber products means less fossil fuel is used in transportation.
  4. Buy FSC certified products from farther afield. If there is no timber available from a locally certified forest, the FSC logo is always preferable.

FoE’s website offers lists of wood species with information on how severe the threat to them is, and whether they are likely to have come from endangered habitats.


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