Recent op-ed misses the forest for the trees

© VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm

A recent op-ed published in Yale Environment 360, “Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed,” missed the mark in its criticisms of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an organization that certifies sustainable wood and paper products. In the piece, writer Richard Conniff concludes that the council has had little or no effect and has in fact led to greenwashing of illegal timber.

Managing the responsible production of natural resources is something I know a thing or two about: As president of the FSC in the U.S. from 1999 to 2002, I saw firsthand how the FSC sparked a keen interest in market-based mechanisms for promoting conservation.

In the years since I left the FSC and through my current work at Conservation International (CI), I have had significant interaction with those that promote and manage the responsible production of natural resources, from fish to mining to coffee. There is no question that these mechanisms work, albeit imperfectly at times, to promote responsibility in supply chains.

With all due respect to Conniff, his focus on FSC’s perceived shortcomings relies heavily on cherry-picked anecdotes and research; ignores context and history; and misses the bigger picture.

On anecdotes and research

In the article, Conniff cites one meta-analysis that supported the benefits of FSC certification and others that did not. Moreover, Conniff relies on selected anecdotes that were critical of the FSC — most of them from a single source who has long held negative views of the council.

But timber certification happens against a backdrop of fiendishly complex natural, political and socioeconomic systems, so it is no wonder that the academic record is mixed. Certification bodies (those that actually do the assessments) have an “auditing of the auditors” process to catch and reform those who bend the rules. These auditors ensure corrective actions are addressed when needed — otherwise, they lose their accreditation.

On context and history

Global concern over tropical deforestation began making headlines in the 1980s. At this time, timber companies had no way of knowing where paper and wood products were sourced from and may have unknowingly been supporting tropical deforestation and illegal timber trade.

By the early 1990s, the Forest Stewardship Council was one of the key catalysts that led to an awakening by companies selling wood and paper products, ultimately leading them to begin asking questions about the origins of the goods they sold. I’ll never forget being in Malaysia at a conference at the time when representatives from a company who had a well-earned reputation for being the “Darth Vader” of the timber industry approached me and said, “Our buyers in the U.S. want us to get FSC certified, how do we start?” While I don’t know if the company got certified, I do know that they would have lost their U.S. buyer if not.

I don’t like to think about where we would be now if not for the FSC.

On the bigger picture

Conniff ignores broader societal trends, chiefly that consumers are increasingly asking what is in their products and where they come from. The FSC and other market-based mechanisms such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Stewardship Council and others play an important role in supporting this trend.

I don’t share Conniff’s views that other, competing certification systems will degrade the FSC. On the contrary, the competition between FSC and systems like the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification force all market-based mechanisms to look in the mirror and change for the better. That is a great outcome. Are market-based mechanisms the “gold standard” of sustainability? Definitely not. But who wants a landscape dotted with a few pieces of gold while the rest of the ecosystem is trashed?  

Lambasting the FSC without seeing the broader picture and understanding how market-based mechanisms, as just one tool, can play a role in promoting responsible and sustainable management of resources plays into the hands of those who tried to prevent transparency and accountability in the timber industry before the 1990s.

So, yes, let’s discuss the role of market-based mechanisms and how they need to continuously improve. Those of us working in this arena have recognized the shortcomings and called on companies to do more — and for governments to match market-based standards with jurisdictional policies.

But let’s not forget that market-based mechanisms must be combined with policies that lock in gains, as well as communication initiatives that award the leaders and punish the laggards. We all need to keep an eye on where we want to go — to a marketplace that sells sustainably produced goods.

Hank Cauley is Senior Vice President for Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

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