Toward a Sensible Approach to Sustainability in the Global Supply Chain

How to source forest products sustainably and without headaches for procurement


Forest product purchasers worldwide want to be assured that the products they buy come from well-managed forests.

Certification systems based on principles of sustainable forest management emerged in the past two decades as a means of giving customers the assurance that a forest product was derived from sustainably managed forests. In short, the certification system takes a highly complex subject, involving environmental and social sciences and economics, and condenses it down to the simplest market signal – a stamp or marque designating the product’s sustainable production.

Certification systems also can include a chain of custody, a method that allows forest products – both pulpwood and lumber – to be tracked from the forest floor, to the mill and through the transportation chain to verify sustainable forest management.

In many jurisdictions, forest management practices are regulated through detailed legal requirements enforced by national and/or regional governments. Certification does not replace legal obligations of forest companies in these jurisdictions but is instead an additional level of assurance for forest product customers. Forest companies adopt certification standards as a voluntary means of demonstrating to customers their commitment to sustainability via an independent audit.

As credible certification systems have entered the sustainable forest management marketplace, forest product purchasers have looked to these systems to filter sustainable forest practices from unsustainable ones.

Forest Certification Standards

There are essentially two major independent, third-party forest certification standards available globally: the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The PEFC is an umbrella for many national forest certification standards, including those from the U.S., Canada, Malaysia, Gabon and Finland – to name just a few. According to the United Nations, the PEFC accounted for most of the forest area certified worldwide, with “slightly less than two-thirds (64.2 percent) of the area certified globally,” or 507 million acres (205 million hectares). This compares with FSC’s certification of 257 million acres (104 million hectares).

From 2000 to 2008 the area of forest independently certified globally grew from 112 million acres (45 million hectares) to 791 million acres (320 million hectares). While substantial, this still means that only about 8.3 percent of the world’s commercial forest area is independently certified as well managed. This growth in certification has been primarily in the forests of the developed countries of North America and Western Europe. Canada alone has 40 percent of the world’s certified forest area, with almost 353 million acres (143 million hectares).

According to the UN, only 0.5 percent of the vast African and Asian forests and only 1.6 percent of forests in Latin America are certified. There are many reasons why subtropical and tropical forests have had difficulty obtaining certification. Forest certification is costly. Some of these forests (although by no means all) may be badly managed and would require substantial investment to bring them in line with forests in North America and Western Europe. Since consumers refuse to pay a premium for certified wood products, there may be little incentive for subtropical and tropical producers to invest in certification.

However, as countries such as Indonesia, China, India, and Brazil gain wealth, it is likely that more of their forest area will come under one or more forest certification regimes. The coming decade likely will see further advances in forest certification throughout the world. At the same time, certification standards like the FSC are likely to take a more balanced and transparent approach in interactions with the major tropical forest companies.

A Sensible Forest Product Procurement Policy

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