W&WP July 2003

One on One:

Unique Forest Surveys Pit FSC vs. SFI

The Pinchot Institute for Conservation facilitates ground-breaking dual assessment surveys to compare and contrast the United States' two most popular schemesfor certifying sustainable forestry management practices.

By Rich Christianson

The concept of third-party certification has firmly taken root as a method for forest owners to demonstrate to the public, customers and themselves that they are managing their lands in an environmentally sound, sustainable manner.

In recent years, Home Depot, Lowes and other major home improvement center chains have adopted policies stating a preference for retailing wood products that are certified. In addition, Anderson Windows and Knoll Inc. are among a small but growing number of wood products manufacturers that have obtained chain of custody certification, giving them the right to market some of their products as "green" certified.

In spite of these gains, many consumers and woodworkers alike know little about forest and wood certification. Even among those that do, confusion abounds about the various rival schemes, including the two programs with the biggest foothold in the United States: the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

The FSC is an international group that was founded in 1993 "to encourage environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests." The American Forest & Paper Assn. launched the SFI program as an alternative to FSC certification in 1994.

During the ensuing years, the two groups have been at odds with FSC claiming that SFI is too pro-industry and AF&PA countering that the FSC program is overly influenced by radical environmentalist groups. While it is generally conceded that the vast gap between the two groups has moderated as each has evolved, the differences remain significant to the point that they are mutually recognized in the marketplace.

SFI claims it is the world's largest sustainable forestry program with more than 107.8 million acres of North American forestland enrolled. FSC says that about 90 million acres are FSC certified around the world, including 21 million acres in North America.

Enter the Pinchot Institute

In an effort to help forest managers gain a better understanding of the FSC and SFI programs, including the similarities and differences, and inherent strengths and weaknesses of each, the not-for-profit Pinchot Institute for Conservation recently facilitated two major studies.

The results of the first of these on-the-ground dual assessment studies were released last year. The study involved almost 700,000 acres managed by four public forest agencies in the states of Maine, Tennessse, North Carolina and Vermont plus forest systems managed by North Carolina State University and Duke University. Each of the participating entities had their forest management practices and policies scrutinized by both the FSC and SFI certification systems.

At the completion of the process, each of the six agencies took part in a "reverse evaluation." According to the executive summary of the 2002 report, "Their personnel assessed the relevance of independent, third-party certification to the agency's mission and goals and the degree to which the certification process facilitated improvements in the conservation and sustainable management of forest under their stewardship. Agency personnel also identified the most salient differences in the FSC and SFI certification programs based on their own direct experience to the study and compared what they regarded as the relative strengths and weaknesses of each program."

In March, the Pinchot Institute announced that it would facilitate a similar dual assessment comparison involving 670,000 acres of Idaho timberland owned by Potlatch Corp. Potlatch will also perform a reverse assessment comparing the FSC and SFI programs and has agreed to make all findings open to the public at the conclusion of the study.

To learn more about the goals and findings of the dual assessment studies, Wood & Wood Products posed a series of questions to V. Alaric "Al" Sample. Sample has served as president of the Washington, DC-based group since 1995. He is Fellow of the Society of American Foresters and a Research Affiliate on the faculty at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His professional experience spans public, private and non-profit organizations including the U.S. Forest Service, Champion International and The Wilderness Society.

 

Opponents of forest certification have argued that certification is not necessary because the industry is already doing a good job of managing its forests in a sustainable manner. What's the Pinchot Institute's view of certification's value?

The principal interest of the Pinchot Institute in our pilot certification projects has been to test the value and applicability of certification in several contexts. Overall, the adoption of certification systems of all kinds, whether Tree Farm, Green Tag, Forest Stewardship Council or the American Forest & Paper Assn.'s Sustainable Forestry Initiative, has helped to commit landowners to responsible environmental stewardship and recognize them for doing so. In some cases the landowner may have already been completely fulfilling the requirements of a certification standard. However, in most cases, landowners learn of specific improvements they must make either before or soon after they become certified. This suggests that many companies can be doing a better job.

In all of our dual assessment projects, the landowners who underwent assessments were found to have non-conformances that would have to be rectified. None of these requirements seemed frivolous, and by the landowner's account were mostly "things they should have been doing already." This suggests that certification is a good tool for identifying opportunities for improvement. In fact, the SFI Program regards continuous improvement as a critical part of conformance with its standard, implying that the landowner will proactively seek ways to improve stewardship.

Whether certification is a necessary means of achieving comparable levels of environmental performance is debatable. However, other mechanisms, such as regulation, seem less attractive and lack the positive reinforcement and incentive created by linking improvement and marketability.

 

Last year the Pinchot Institute released the results of an in-field comparison of the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative program based on actual certification assessments of several areas of public forestland. What did you find most interesting about the results of these dual assessments?

The dual assessments revealed many aspects of the certification process under the FSC and SFI programs, both in what they require on the part of the certification candidate and how these requirements are measured. These projects have also exposed some of the variability in assessment approaches and subjectivity inherent in evaluating forest management practices.

The Pinchot Institute's pilot projects have included multiple certifier firms for FSC and SFI. They include Price-WaterhouseCoopers, Plum Line, Bureau Veritas Quality International, KPMG, Quality Management Institute, Bioforest, Interforest and Arthur Andersen for SFI, and SmartWood and SCS for FSC. For us, and for the land-owners, the initial impression is always that the assessments are rigorous and comprehensive. Through the audit, landowners must present a coherent rationale for many facets of forest management encompassing everything from biodiversity to staff training for herbicide use.

The overall orientation of FSC and SFI is fundamentally different based on how each was developed. As a result, this can mean that a different approach is required to evaluate a landowner's forest based on which of the two programs is used. SFI is more focused on "whether the management system does SFI forestry." Therefore, SFI auditors tend to focus on how the system works and what it covers. SFI auditors focus more specifically on the adequacy of policies and plans, as well as the sufficiency of personnel with appropriate training to carry out the work. Essentially, the landowner must develop an SFI-style system of forest management. Then the auditor goes out in the field and makes sure the system is working in a way that meets the SFI Objectives.

FSC seems a little less focused on the system side of things and, instead, hones in on "whether FSC forestry gets done." Therefore, FSC assessors tend to evaluate whether the forest management practices they observe are consistent with the FSC Principles. Shortcomings may be linked to inadequate policies or plans to the extent that shortcomings in the field emerge from an inadequate management system. In these cases the recommendations from FSC and SFI may be the same. The ramification of this philosophical difference is that a landowner seems less likely to be eligible for SFI certification than FSC certification when his management system is inferior to their management practices.

Our dual assessment also included comparison ratings of the two systems across many aspects of forest management. These results are harder to summarize. Overall, it was fairly clear that the six agencies felt that FSC covered a more comprehensive range of issues. However, the agencies also felt that the SFI certification was a clearer and better-coordinated certification process.

 

Based on the 2002 report, what do you see as the biggest strengths and weaknesses of FSC and SFI respectively?

The 2002 report was based on evaluations of the FSC and SFI programs by six public and university organizations that manage forestland and include numeric ratings for 140 elements. These elements are the questions we used to compare the two questions. Several findings that deserve special consideration are the elements for which one system was rated significantly higher than the other was but for which neither score was very high. In other words, only one system attempted to address a certain aspect of forest management but did not do so very well. This happens more often for FSC, which overall considered more elements.

According to the agencies taking part in the reverse assessment, the strength of FSC is the breadth of management issues that FSC certification addresses and, for some, the more limited scope of SFI is its comparative weakness. An FSC assessment considers several socially-oriented aspects of forestry that are not included in the SFI standard, such as how the landowner has maximized economic benefits to the community surrounding its forestlands and whether the landowner has really considered historical and cultural uses of its lands.

The participants also felt FSC addressed more ecological concerns. For example, FSC disallows the use of genetically modified trees and since 1994 prohibits the conversion of natural forests to plantations; neither issue is addressed by SFI. However, the breadth of issues that FSC covers is also a weakness. Some of these issues are not understood well enough to be measured consistently and rigorously, leaving the landowner a bit confused as to what is expected.

Meanwhile, as I previously mentioned, all participants felt that one of the strengths of SFI is the overall clarity, efficiency and professionalism of the program and the assessment process. Moreover SFI was rated higher for the way in which it addressed staff training needs for a variety of forest management issues.

 

The Pinchot Institute is currently working on a dual assessment of FSC and SFI with Potlatch Corp. as the guinea pig. What do you hope to learn from this exercise that differs from the previous study of public land forests?

The decisions that a publicly-held timber company makes when prioritizing the multiple objectives guiding forest management will typically differ from those made by public agencies. Most public agencies are required to accommodate a wider array of activities in the forest, such as year-round recreation and they usually receive public funding to carry out some of their work. In addition, public agencies are usually subject to more intense and consequential public scrutiny. Therefore, when they are managing for timber, there is an especially powerful incentive to assure the public that they are doing so in the best possible way. As the public agency responsible for overseeing forest practices on private lands, there are few other means besides certification for a state forestry agency to assure the public that they are doing the right thing.

Our project with the Potlatch Corporation represents a different test of certification. This dual assessment is an opportunity to compare the two major certification programs in the United States in an industrial setting. FSC and SFI have been almost mutually exclusive so far in the U.S. forest products sector. Currently, Seven Islands Land Company in Maine is the only integrated industrial forest products company that is third party certified under both programs. At the time Seven Islands received its original FSC certificate, AF&PA had not yet launched SFI third-party verification. This project is a great chance to examine how FSC and SFI work in this most important segment of the world's forest products industry.

 

We think it is pretty safe to say that forest and wood certification is not yet a household word. Do you envision the day that consumers buy cabinets, furniture and other wood products based in big part on whether or not they are made with certified woods and wood-based panels? If so, what factors will create this demand and how soon might it occur?

It is difficult to tell in what form certification will remain in the marketplace and how visible it will become to the casual consumer. All of the systems currently have labels, yet none are commonly recognized. The FSC has led the way in making a label an important part of the retail sector. Its chain of custody requirements are the most stringent and in foreign markets, the FSC label has become very important to retailers and consumers. Despite endorsement from large retailers, FSC is less prominent in the domestic market. Right now it simply does not have enough companies and small landowners enrolled to become a choice for most consumers.

Meanwhile, SFI has recently launched its label. Through its agreement with Tree Farm, which has 61,000 members, this label may soon represent a large portion of the wood found in stores. So it is conceivable that in the near future many of the wood products on the market will bear a certification label of some kind.

We are fairly certain at this point that certification will become a goal and perhaps an expectation for an increasing number of landowners. Whether certified wood becomes familiar to the broader public is to some degree incumbent on the people working directly with those consumers. In the same way that consumers must first understand the difference in materials and construction of cabinet boxes, certified wood will not be preferred by consumers until someone does a better job of explaining what it is and offers them a choice. In many cases there is not even a realistic opportunity to knowingly choose certified wood. That is a shame given the effort and expense it can require to become certified. In the same way that the Pinchot Institute has tested the applicability of forest management certification in different settings, we are very interested in the evolution of certification in the marketplace.

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