by Ruth Abramson
New Internationalist magazine, November 2000
When two of the planet's largest lumber retailers announced
new commitments to sustainable forestry last year, members of
the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) heaved a sigh of relief.
Representatives from environmental groups, the forestry industry,
indigenous organizations and community-forestry outfits from 25
countries first met in 1993 to form the FSC and hammer out a set
of 'principles and criteria' to help make sustainable forestry
The Oaxaca, Mexico-based FSC has since applied strict standards
to certify wood products - from the stump all the way to the store.
And the approach seems to be catching on. In August 1999, the
US bigbox chain, Home Depot, announced it would consider adopting
a policy of selling only products made from FSC-certified lumber.
(Home Depot sells more lumber than any other company in the world.)
Then in November 1999, the Swedish giant IKEA, the globe's largest
furniture retailer, said it, too, would buy only FSC-certified
Forest companies worldwide are scrambling to acquire FSC certification.
To date more than 835 firms have received FSC approval. And the
World Wildlife Fund estimates 20,000 FSC-stamped products are
But the FSC's wild success has also created controversy- even
within the movement. The main problem is meeting the sudden massive
demand for FSC-certified wood products. That pressure has prompted
some within the FSC to consider lowering certification standards.
This huge demand has also sparked competition on the certification
front. Greenpeace forestry campaigner Tamara Stark says this is
already happening as industry conjures its own plans for 'certification'.
'The FSC is the only one that goes into a forest and looks at
what the industry is doing,' explains Stark. Companies with other
kinds of suspect certification are hoping buyers won't know the
Some FSC participants question why industry is involved at
all. 'The problem with large producers sitting at the table is
that they can influence the standards to meet their current operations,'
says Cheri Burda, a forestry strategist for the Vancouver-based
David Suzuki Foundation.
'Is the FSC's intent to certify current large-scale industrial
forestry? Or is it intended to create rigorous standards which
would only apply to a small number of producers [in a market niche
that] will grow?'
Canada's Pacific coast- home to some of the world's hottest
logging controversies - is particularly vulnerable to 'greenwashers'.
The province has the largest tract of coastal temperate rainforest
in the world and most of the area's timber licences are in the
hands of a few corporations.
Yet the Government hasn't figured out a system for granting
companies FSC certification. One stumbling block is that the FSC
says primary forests must be conserved. But more than 90 per cent
of the forested land in British Columbia (BC) is ancient or 'oldgrowth'.
The FSC also says the land rights of indigenous people must be
recognized. This is a nagging problem in BC, home to more than
100 First Nations, only a few of which have ever signed treaties
with the Government. Most say they never consented to any logging
on their lands.
Others warn that the market is not a panacea for environmental
destruction. William Rees, a University of BC ecologist and economist,
admits 'the price we pay for lumber, even if it is ecologically
harvested, doesn't reflect the costs of soil erosion, loss of
biodiversity and so forth'. Nonetheless, Rees supports the FSC
and believes certification will present 'huge threats to companies
that continue to harvest lumber in an unsustainable manner'. For
now, says Rees, FSC certification 'goes further than anything
else we've got'.
Ruth Abramson (email@example.com) is a freelance journalist
who lives in Vancouver. Long ago she was an editorial volunteer
for the Nl.