Working towards sustainable forests

Over the past decade the preservation and management of the world's forests has become an increasingly high-priority issue. Illegal logging, deforestation, conflict timber, conversion of old-growth forest to monoculture plantation - Nick Cliffe of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) explains how the list of problems keeps growing.

Even here in the UK we have lost nearly all of our natural forests and are neglecting much of what was left. We import approximately 85% of our wood needs, with little knowledge and no guarantees about the sustainability of the forest management in the source countries.

The ecology of forests is highly complex, especially in biologically diverse tropical forests. The definition of ‘sustainability’ is itself a contentious and difficult matter, and closely connected with the variety of forest management styles and the market forces that dictate them. In natural West African rainforest, for example, there are over two hundred different kinds of tree, of which more than fifty are valuable timber species.

However, only six species can generally be profitably exported, and those six are therefore selectively logged. This ‘creaming’ of the resource is wasteful and very damaging to the forest, and is the result of an economic not an environmental logic.

In the best of all worlds it would be possible to find a good market price for all 50 timber species, but architects or specifiers would need to be less conservative in their requirements if this was to happen. Simple bans on some tropical hardwoods only serve to avoid the issue rather than tackle it.

Setting higher standards

Addressing the threats facing the world’s forests is a difficult issue requiring a number of measures including improvement in government regulation, reduction of wasteful consumption, establishment of protected areas and finding incentives for responsible long term management.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) plays an important role in this point by overseeing a system of forest certification and product labelling. For timber consumers this enables them to choose timber from well-managed forests, thus providing a commercial incentive to forest managers to reach and maintain high environmental and social standards.

The FSC trademark on timber and wood products provides assurance that the forest of origin has been independently evaluated to comply with an internationally agreed set of strict environmental, social and economic standards.

Founded in 1993, the FSC is an international non-profit organisation formed as an association of members representing a diverse range of environmental and social groups, progressive timber traders, manufacturers, retailers, and forestry professionals from around the world.

Its role is to evaluate, accredit and monitor independent certification organisations that in turn audit and certify those organisations which manage the forests or process the timber along the supply chain.

Sustainability and equality

The FSC membership is evenly divided into three chambers – economic, social and environmental – each of which is further sub-divided into northern and southern hemisphere groups. This unique structure ensures that no one group may dominate FSC activity, equal voice provided to the logging company, native tribe and environmental group.

FSC and its membership have set ten international Principles and Criteria, covering all areas of forest management from maintenance of natural forests to indigenous peoples’ rights. These criteria have been designed to specify forestry that is environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable.

National working groups then interpret these Principles and Criteria and develop a set of national Standards appropriate to the local ecological, legal, economic and social context. These Standards are used by certifiers to assess the quality of management of individual forests.

By operating in this fashion, the FSC system provides an international framework for mutually recognising responsible forestry and its products. Timber from Brazil can be combined with chipboard manufactured in Scotland (using fibre from Russia) by a manufacturer in Italy to make an item of furniture and, provided all parties involved have FSC certification, then the end-consumer can be assured that no matter the origin of the timber or processing steps taken – the same high environmental, social and economic criteria have been applied.

There are two phases involved in the certification of wood products from a well-managed forest. The first is the assessment of the source forest by an independent certification body to evaluate its ecological health, the social impact of the operation and its economic viability. Secondly the certification body audits all companies involved in the Chain of Custody, tracing the wood from the forest through manufacturing to the end product.

Only when both these aspects are in place can products be called FSC certified and carry the FSC trademark (either on-product or on accompanying documentation).

Building trust, expanding operations

Over the past 10 years, over 52 million hectares in 64 countries have been certified according to FSC standards while several thousand products are produced using FSC certified wood and carrying the FSC trademark. About 4,500 producers of forest products participate in the FSC system. Major retailers in Europe, North America, South America and Asia ask for FSC certification when ordering forest products so they can assure their customers that products they are buying support responsible forestry.

Here in the UK over 1.5 million hectares of forest are certified, including all Forestry Commission land. This represents the bulk of commercial forestry. The UK is also one of the major consumers of FSC certified products, the retail market value alone is close to a billion pounds per anum.

The FSC system has also received widespread recognition, using FSC timber can increase a construction project rating under both BREAM and EcoHomes and recently the governments Central Point of Expertise in Timber (CPET) stated that FSC certified material provided assurance of meeting government procurement requirements for legality ands sustainability. FSC is, in effect, a complete solution for timber procurement concerns.

FSC UK offer a range of services designed to help you and your organisation understand and benefit from the FSC system, whatever your level of involvement. Our free Advisory Service is able to answer all queries related to the FSC system, including certificate verification and basic product searches.

If a company or organisation require more than a few questions answered we run a Subscription Service, which, in addition to full information support, provides a range of other benefits including an annual consultancy visit and regular updates and newsletters. We have a range of training courses designed to introduce and explain all aspects of the FSC system – these are usually run twice a year, but bespoke training is also available. For more information on any of these aspects of our work, please contact us.

Ultimately what FSC seeks to do is improve the management of forests worldwide. In developed countries like the UK we aim to do this by creating a market pull which reaches all the way back to the forest floor. By actively seeking to use timber and timber products from FSC certified sources anyone can have a direct and real effect on the preservation and protection of the world’s forests.

For further information contact: FSC UK Advisory Service on: 01686 413916, email:, or visit

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