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The Paper Trail: Understanding Forest Stewardship Certifications

Paper is a big part of most businesses, whether used for marketing materials, business documents, or packaging. Companies are reducing the amount of paper they use through electronic formats and sustainability initiatives. But they still consume significant volumes. For most companies, going completely paperless is not realistic in the near term.

This often prompts clients to ask us about forest stewardship certifications. What do the certifications mean? What are the differences between them? How should we incorporate certifications into our paper procurement decisions? As with many things, purchasing certified paper is a bit more complicated than it might seem.

Let’s look at the certified paper landscape (no pun intended!). The most important thing to understand is that there is a limited supply of forest certified paper. Because of this, the quantity of paper products you use is often a determining factor in your approach to forest stewardship. Companies that buy large volumes of forest certified paper will likely need to go with more than one certification standard. So, while you may prefer one standard to another, there is not always a one-stop certification for sustainable paper supply. But you can take comfort in the fact that all of the forest certification programs mentioned below are credible.

So, what are the various forest certification standards used in the US?

There are four primary forest certification bodies (or schemes) for forest management in the US. These include:

  • the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification;
  • the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI);
  • the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and
  •  the American Tree Farm System (ATFS).

According to the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) three of these systems – FSC-US, SFI, and ATFS – include “fundamental elements of credibility and all make positive contributions to forest sustainability.”

How does a company evaluate the various certification standards when sourcing or purchasing paper?

While all of these standards are dedicated to sustainable forestry and based on similar criteria, performance measures, and indicators, they are not exactly the same. To understand the differences, you would have to look beyond the label to the specific certification requirements of each system. The information below will provide you with enough background to get you started.

According to the National Association of State Foresters, >a credible forest certification program includes the following fundamental elements:

  1. Independent Governance. The governance body should include representation of economic, environmental, and social interests. It should operate independently from participants and compliance verifiers or auditors.
  2. Multi-Stakeholder Standard. A diverse group representing forestry, wildlife, conservation, industry, government, and academic expertise should establish an objective standard for sustainable forestry with specific performance measures.
  3. Independent Certification. Certification requires verification of compliance with the standard during full certification and periodic surveillance audits. Independent, qualified, and accredited third-party auditors should perform such audits. An independent accreditation body such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) should ensure that auditors meet professional standards.
  4. Credible Complaints & Appeals Process. There should be a clear process for responding to compliance concerns or certification challenges.
  5. Open Participation and Transparency.  Public and private sector landowners should have access to any forest certification program for which they qualify.

For example, both FSC and SFI have requirements for third party auditors to validate their claims. The auditing practice is a critical element in the mix. An independently validated certification determines the true impact of a standard on forest management and the paper products derived from a forest. Chain of custody (CoC) certification is another important aspect. This is a mechanism for tracking certified material from the forest to a final product. The CoC ensures that the wood, wood fiber or non-wood forest produce in a product can be traced back to certified forests.

Both FSC and SFI systems also engage in public reporting and stakeholder consultation, and have independent governance. To gain FSC and SFI certification, forests and harvested materials must meet similar criteria and indicators related to reforestation, biodiversity, old growth, endangered species protection, water quality, and sustainable harvest levels.

It is in the details of each certification standard – among the criteria, performance measures, and indicators – that the nuanced differences among them emerge. The table below shows the differences in the SFI and FSC standards’ structure.

How to best demonstrate your commitment to forest stewardship?

Companies and/or suppliers that commit to procuring forest certified paper can meet that commitment by obtaining a chain of custody (CoC) certification. The CoC certification is evidence that sustainable standards have been adhered to from a sustainably managed forest all along the value chain to delivery of the consumer product (see graphic below). Only companies that obtain a CoC certification for their forestry products can use associated standard labels/logos to promote their products. The forest certified label or logo represents environmentally and socially responsible forestry, harvesting, production, consumption, and buying decisions all along the value chain.

Here is an  infographic that demonstrates the process for sustainable forest certified products for TANA-X, a Japanese company that engages in art printing and paper processing.

So what is the main take away?

There is no general consensus that one certification program is the gold standard. All programs are credible and play a significant role in promoting and advancing sustainable and responsible forestry. When evaluating forest certification standards for paper purchasing decisions, you can look into the details of each standard to determine which ones most closely align with your values and what is most important (and relevant) for your company and its paper sourcing. Whatever you decide, make sure that your supplier has a CoC certification (directly or indirectly) for the paper products you purchase. This due diligence will enable you to use a sustainable forest certification program logo and visually demonstrate your commitment to sustainable paper sourcing.

Author’s note (8/15/15): Check out the new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study, Profitability and Sustainability in Responsible Forestry: Economic impacts of FSC certification on Forest Operators. It found that small to medium enterprises (regardless of geography) realize value by following FSC certification standards. Using cost benefit analysis, the study concludes that the benefits of FSC certification far outweigh the costs. WWF  provides a practical methodology and tools for stakeholders to assess where investing in FSC certification brings the most benefit. It’s also working on tools to help make these standards a common practice.