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Time for FSC to Embrace Traceability, Transparency and Technology

In a new article in Yale Environment 360, renowned environmental writer Richard Conniff identifies fundamental problems facing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification group. Unfortunately, in too many parts of the world, organizations such as the FSC are merely certifying the status quo. This often undermines any meaningful reform efforts to truly protect the world’s forests, by instead offering governments and companies the false appearance of good forest management and sourcing practices.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) supports the principle and potential of certification to enhance legal and sustainable wood sourcing, and to improve forest governance. In the past, EIA has been encouraged by the possibility of responsible companies acting as role models for following the rule-of-law in forest producing countries.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that “certification” – be it under the FSC, PEFC or any of the dozen other labels - is not the same thing as due diligence, already a legal requirement for importers of wood products into the EU, US and Australia. FSC’s lack of traceability and transparency make it difficult for buyers and the public to assess the claims of the certifier; under the current system, it’s all too easy for illegal and unsustainable timber to find its way into FSC-certified supply chains.

The passage of key amendments to the US Lacey Act in 2008 were followed by the entry into force of the EU Timber Regulations in 2013, and Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in 2014. All of these laws prohibit imports of illegally acquired timber. Notably, they require companies importing wood products to conduct some form of due diligence to assess the level of risk that the trees were cut or traded in violation of the law. Knowing the origin of timber – where the trees were cut – is an essential first step in the due diligence process.

In the Yale360 article, FSC’s director general Kim Carstensen states that the FSC system relies on external watchdogs to bring evidence of wrongdoings. However, at present, maps of FSC-certified concessions are not available to the public – much less, details about when and where the timber was bought and sold through the production process. As a first step, release of FSC-certified concession maps would go a long way towards improving the system.

Ultimately, for the FSC to keep pace with evolving global norms, it must embrace technology. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Conniff wrote about revolutionary new traceability systems for timber supply chains – systems that provide real-time information directly to the public. The FSC has the opportunity to adopt systems like this, or even better, to create such a paradigm for its member companies.

Over the past decade, the FSC has largely failed to take advantage of the opportunities brought by evolving global norms for timber legality. Among certification bodies, the FSC might be the best of the bunch, but major reforms are urgently needed to bring it in line with these legal requirements.

If you don’t know where your wood is from, you can’t know if it’s legal or sustainable. Establishing much needed transparency and traceability is a fundamental step for FSC to ensure its clients stop using the green label to launder stolen wood into the market. Only then might it become a credible force for helping to save the world’s forests.

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