FSC certification: what does it mean?
Paper products often carry a label showing that they are certified. But what does that really mean?
By Kathi Rowzie, President, Two Sides North America
Simply put, certification labels are a quick and easy way to tell consumers that the wood fiber in the paper products they buy and use comes from sustainably managed forests. The certification systems behind those labels provide the proof that’s true.
Certification is a voluntary, market-based incentive system that’s implemented through two separate but linked processes: sustainable forest management certification and chain of custody certification.
Forest Management Certification
The United Nations describes sustainable forest management as a “dynamic and evolving concept that aims to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental value of forests for the benefit of present and future generations.” Forest certification, which covers the certification of actual forestland, assures that forests are responsibly managed in line with challenging environmental, social and economic requirements.
This certification involves a voluntary process in which an independent, accredited third-party auditor conducts an onsite assessment to determine the quality of forest management against these requirements, typically referred to as forest management standards. These forest management standards are developed in an open, transparent process by a public or private certification organization and are adapted to local context to reflect different forest types and cultural considerations in different regions of the world.
Forest management certification is issued to a forest owner or manager who is assessed to be managing forests according to the standards. Often times, auditors request that land owners make changes in their management practices to better conform to the certification standard before certification is awarded. Landowners and land managers who have completed a successful audit can then make claims their forests are certified to these standards, and sell wood fiber off their land as certified. A summary of certification audit findings is made publicly available in support of these claims.
Forest certification increases the value of forests by building consumer trust, which in turn creates additional demand for forest products like paper and paper-based packaging. Creating additional value and demand for these products is one of the best ways to keep forests standing because it prevents them from being permanently cleared for alternative land uses like urban development.
Chain of Custody Certification
Chain of custody (CoC) certification tracks forest-based products from sustainable forests to the final product. It demonstrates that each step of the supply chain is closely monitored through independent auditing to ensure that unsustainable fiber sources are excluded. Chain of custody certification is available to those who process or trade certified wood products, such as manufacturers, mills, paper merchants, converters, printers, wood dealers, wood yards, wholesalers and brokers.
A CoC system, coupled with a product label identifying the certification system, helps consumers make informed choices by verifying that any paper or paper-based packaging labeled “certified” was produced with wood from a sustainably managed forest.
Forest Certification Standards
While there are dozens of different forest certification standards in use around the world, they share many of the same basic objectives. All demonstrate an additional measure of commitment to sustainable forestry and are effective mechanisms for encouraging and expanding a responsible marketplace for print, paper and paper-based packaging.
The Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC™) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™ (PEFC™) standards account for the vast majority of certified forests and chain-of-custody certificates around the world.
Forest certification programs operate at a national or regional level. An important mission of PEFC™ is to evaluate and endorse national and regional standards, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative™ (SFI™) standard available in the United States and Canada, and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standard.
Over 770 million acres (312 million hectares) are managed in compliance with PEFC’s™ internationally accepted sustainability benchmarks. Three quarters of all certified forests globally are certified to PEFC™ standards. PEFC™ has 55 national members and 50 endorsed national certification systems around the world. 750,000 forest owners are PEFC™ certified globally. Approximately 13,000 PEFC™ chain-of-custody certificates have been issued globally, with 253 in the United States and 176 in Canada.
In North America, the growth of SFI™ forest management certification leads all other standards with more than 375 million acres (150 million hectares) certified. Among the SFI™ Forest Management Standard’s requirements are measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, the rights of indigenous peoples, workers’ rights (including gender equity), and forests with exceptional conservation value. SFI™ accounts for nearly 35% of global certified forests and 46% of PEFC™ certifications worldwide.
FSC™ forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers while ensuring it sustains economic viability. Approximately 533 million acres (216 million hectares) globally are certified to the FSC™ standard, with 37 million acres (15 million hectares) certified in the United States and 121 million acres (49 million hectares) certified in Canada. Approximately 52,000 FSC™ chain of custody certificates have been issued globally, with 2,143 issued in the United States and 508 in Canada.
Global Certification Status
According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment (2020), approximately 11% of the world’s forestland – about 1 billion acres (426 million hectares) – is certified, with the majority of certified forestland in North America and Europe. This is net certified area, owing to the fact that some forests are certified to more than one standard. Canada has by far the most with 413 million acres (167 million hectares) certified, followed by Russia with 133 million acres (54.1 million hectares) and the United States with 94 million acres (38 million hectares). These three countries together account for more than 60% of the world’s certified forest area.