The Great Debate Over Certified Wood: FSC, SFI, Green Globes and the USGBC

Bill Walsh | April 27, 2006 | Policies

FSC logoSFI logo

In the March 24 issue [1] of Healthy Building News we discussed wood product certification standards [2] with Daniel Hall of the advocacy group Forest Ethics, which is not a member of any certifying organization. Representatives of the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) [3] -- provider of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) [4] label to its members -- immediately contacted us with challenges to many of Mr. Hall's statements. We then invited AF&PA's Senior Director of Sustainable Forestry Programs, Michael Virga, to respond to questions. Mr. Virga in turn challenged the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) [5] reputation on several fronts during our conversation.

In an attempt to provide readers with a balanced perspective, we asked FSC's Vice President of Brand Management, Dr. Michael P. Washburn, to respond to our questions as well.

BW: Let's start with the basics. Is the forest product's industry standard -- the SFI program -- more rigorous, less rigorous, or the same as the FSC program?

MV for SFI: Objective and credible studies find more similarities than differences. Most basic components of sustainable forestry are covered equally well. When it comes to managing ecosystems the two systems are similar. Only when you get into inherent value differences do you see any kind of differences at all. For example, one value difference is that FSC bans genetically modified organisms, whereas we promote the research, and require that anyone using them follow international protocols. Overall there is a lot of overlap. I would say that in the US and Canada, generally speaking the lands could be certified by either organization and vice versa. State lands are dual certified for example. The public agencies tend to think that both programs are great. It should be understood that FSC will certify vigorous logging. The largest certified clearcut in the world is on an FSC certified forest in Ontario.

MW for FSC: Unlike many existing national standards, FSC is not an industry standard, and that is important. The FSC label represents an inclusive approach from which emerges a consensus standard. Our standards reflect our members' values, and those values and the people who share them are the core of the FSC's strength. Where else does Greenpeace [6] or the Sierra Club [7] work together with an American company like Potlatch [8], or Stora Enso [9], the largest forest products company in the world, to produce a standard that consumers can rely upon as a model for sustaining forests and the industry? Nowhere. FSC created that space and has fundamentally changed the dialogue about sustainable forestry.

BW: Let's take one specific critique. Critics of the SFI specifically mention less protection to Indigenous communities under the SFI standard.

MV for SFI: With regard to Indigenous communities, we share the same goal but take a different approach from the FSC towards achieving that goal. In North America, we rely upon the protections embodied in US and Canadian law. The FSC standard was developed to protect Indigenous people's rights in the developing world, where similar protections do not exist. Some Indigenous peoples invoke the FSC standard in the Canadian context because it strengthens their hand in land disputes with the Crown. But forest certification should not be used as a tool to solve land disputes.

MW for FSC: The FSC gives Indigenous Peoples a seat at the table, where they speak for themselves, we are an inclusive consensus building membership organization. I would suggest that it is difficult to practice responsible forestry in the context of a dispute over who owns the land. The FSC principles view engagement of local people and resolution of land-tenure issues as a core component of sustainability. Not only is it an asset for forestry operations to have the support of local people, it is a basic economic risk-reduction strategy to resolve potentially expensive legal battles in advance of putting an operation on the ground. One cannot ignore a dispute as fundamental as land ownership without losing public trust.

BW: SFI's critics say that most independent studies also find significant differences between the SFI and FSC.

MV for SFI: Studies by the forest campaign groups are not objective and credible. Those groups are campaigners who intend to put us out of business. Are you going to pay attention to campaign groups that don't want to cut trees and want to return to a pre-European settlement forest conditions? The studies we point to are moderate and objective forces, Metafore [10] or the UK government [11], for example.

MW for FSC: We do not view forest protection groups as antagonists, and even though they are sometimes critical of the FSC, we respect their analysis. This is a significant difference between a consensus standard and an industry standard. The FSC process strikes a balance between perspectives of companies and people affected by what companies do on the ground. I don't believe that our members, which include some "campaign groups," and many other groups representative of civil society, expect FSC or anyone else to restore forests to their pre-settlement conditions. But all of our members, including industry members, are deeply committed to creating forests that can sustain life on the planet several hundred years out from now.

As for studies, the "Metafore study" did not analyze on-the-ground performance of either system, nor did the UK government. They are not superior to the studies released in 2005 by the Rainforest Alliance [12] and WWF [13] which we deem credible because they are conducted by organizations that have expertise in forest management all over the world. Both of these organizations have global memberships and are viewed by all objective sources as trusted advocates for the public interest. The WWF study, for its part, specifically addresses how certification improves not only the forest ecology, but also the corporate bottom line, through reduction of risk and improving relations with stakeholders. That study demonstrates that FSC certification in fact has resulted in substantial improvements in forest management, worker safety, and community well-being. The RA study demonstrated that most certified companies had to make significant changes to their practices of managing high conservation values in order to get FSC certification.

BW: I notice that the SFI works closely with some conservation organizations, only I notice that overwhelmingly the groups you work with either accept funding from or co-sponsor programs with large corporations who have financial interests in logging.

MV for SFI: Now you are showing your own bias. Is there anything wrong with working together rather than campaigning against corporations?

BW: Not necessarily. What I don't understand is this. If you say that lands certified under the FSC standard could easily be certified under the SFI standard, and vice versa, why not work with groups that endorse the FSC, but oppose SFI, or for that matter just endorse the FSC which allows participation by your member companies.

MV for SFI: We have a good relationship with the FSC, and endorse the use of that certification. We don't think it is healthy thing to have a monopoly certification system. Competition will be better for the consumers and the forests. There are some areas where FSC offers more, and some areas where we offer more, training loggers for example. But where FSC is largely based on their own definition of a high conservation value area, SFI is heavily dependent on using Conservation International's [14] and The Nature Conservancy's work. The FSC system is largely influenced, inequitably influenced, by campaign organizations. As a campaign organization you have the ability to use extortion tactics to get your way. We think we have a balanced, multi-stakeholder approach.

MW for FSC: FSC has an open membership policy, with objective criteria. FSC is a fully transparent organization that has the support worldwide of both forest product companies and a myriad number of groups whose missions are not tied to the economic success of specific companies. Our global membership and stakeholders have created consensus-based standards that ensure the conservation and responsible management of forests, and give high-performance companies a market credential to reward them for doing the right thing. This is what has earned FSC's recognition in the leading green building systems and corporate social responsibility programs worldwide.

BW: The AF&PA started the SFI program to compete with the FSC program. The Executive Director of the Green Business Initiative [15], which promotes the Green Globes system as an alternative to the LEED rating system, said "the GBI received the bulk of our start-up funding" from the forest products industry. Can you understand why some perceive your participation in one system while funding a rival system as unfair?

MV for SFI: Green Globes recognizes the positive environmental attributes of wood, where LEED fails to do so. It also puts the SFI program on level footing with FSC. We work with the GBI staff to help promote their program in the public policy arena because it opens markets for our members. We also meet on a regular basis with USGBC -- an organization which we do financially support. That is one of the primary jobs of a trade association, to prevent barriers to market entry for its members' products.

MW for FSC: Reasonable people recognize that although it's a lot harder to sit at a table with many different interests to find consensus, that effort produces results that are more credible, rewarding and enduring. This is what attracts so many diverse stakeholders to organizations like the FSC, and USGBC for that matter. FSC's role is to create a strong certification system and then let the market decide how best to use it. We do not convene the consensus process with a pre-existing position. We do not pressure anyone to use the FSC. FSC is a forest certification organization, not a special interest lobby.

BW: Thank you. You have both represented your respective memberships well.


[1] "Care About Forests? Don't Use the Green Globes Building Rating Tool"

[2] The FSC label is currently the only certification of wood products awarded a credit under the US Green Building Council's LEED Rating System, and is widely recognized by social responsibility programs worldwide. This primacy is now being challenged aggressively by SFI, an industry certification standard developed by the AF&PA, an industry trade association. [link no longer available]

[3] American Forest and Paper Association is the national trade association of the forest, paper, and wood products industry providing "value to member companies through outstanding performance in those areas that are key to members' success and where an association can be more effective than individual companies."

[4] Sustainable Forestry Initiative, an industry certification label available to AF&PA member companies signifying that "the company that produces that product participates in the Sustainable Forestry Initiative(R) Program, a comprehensive forestry management program that is a marriage of environmental responsibility and sound business practices." SFI Service Mark is used by permission.

[5] FSC is a non-profit membership organization that sets voluntary, market-based environmental and social performance standards for forest management. The FSC Logo identifies forests which have been certified in accordance with the rules of the Forest Stewardship Council and is used by permission. (c) 1996 Forest Stewardship Council A.C.