Forest certification in North America: selected developments

Jean-Pierre Kiekens *


The World Forestry Congress provides an opportunity to reflect on developments in forest certification over the past decade - a period that has seen forest certification emerge as a key activity in the global forestry sector. Today, certification is becoming part of the mainstream in the forestry sector of countries such as the United States of America and Canada, while only ten years ago it was basically unheard of. This contribution focuses on North America, where forest certification is proving highly dynamic. Following a brief review of the emergence of forest certification, four strategic issues critical to its future in North America are covered. First, the labelling and logo race is presented and analysed. Second, the link between forest certification and endangered forests is discussed. Third, the funding of certification programmes is explored. Finally, the challenges forest certification faces in a critical forestry jurisdiction, British Columbia, are examined.

Background: the Emergence of Forest Certification

While there were noteworthy eco-forestry initiatives in Europe and North America, certification was mostly initiated out of concerns over tropical deforestation. In 1988, several environmental groups urged the International Tropical Timber Organization to implement a labeling program for sustainably produced tropical timber. The proposal was made against a background of perceived slow progress in the implementation of the Tropical Forest Action Plan, which was the international community response to tropical deforestation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, global forestry was one of the most controversial aspects of the international debate over development and environment. A proposal for a global forest treaty supported by the G-7, including the US and Canada, but opposed by the G-77 developing countries, was finally dropped months before the Rio Summit.

The perceived lack of progress on the inter-governmental front brought the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other environmental organizations to launch the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993. The idea was to use private, non-governmental, approaches to promote sustainable forest management. FSC became operational in 1996 with the accreditation of 4 certifying bodies. Several operations were soon certified under FSC in the United States, for example Seven Islands Company in Maine. Following the FSC emergence, several certification programs were developed, including the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) program in Canada, approved in 1996, and the Pan-European Forest Certification (PEFC) program in Europe, launched in 1999. In the US, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) was enhanced with a third party certification option in late 1998. Several major industrial companies such as International Paper soon secured SFI third party certificates for their forest management operations. Meanwhile, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), founded in 1941, was reshaped to become a certification program geared towards non-industrial forest landowners.

While most forest certification activities occur in Europe and North America, a range of national certification programs have been developed, or are in development, including in Australia, Chile, Brazil and Malaysia, while FSC certificates have been awarded in 56 countries. Today, as Table 1 shows, there are 117 million hectares certified worldwide, i.e. approx. 3% of the world's forests, with 62 million ha in Europe, 30 million ha in the US and 17 million ha in Canada.

TABLE 1: Forest Areas Certified Worldwide1


Million Ha


Certification System













Other Industrialized Countries:




Developing Countries







(NB: excludes ISO)

The North American Labelling and Logo Race

Closely linked to forest certification is the quest for market recognition through labels and logos. The label of the SFI program appeared in the marketplace in September 2002. The appearance follows that of FSC, which unveiled its logo in 1996, and the CSA, which has had a label and chain of custody system since 2001.

The launch of the SFI label has been and remains a contentious issue. For years, the architect of the SFI program, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), and its member companies argued that an on-product label and tracking of the origin of forest products were not practical and that chain of custody was a flawed approach in the US context. The key reason given by AF&PA was that 60% of the wood supplying the industry originates from million of small non-industrial private forests, making the certification of the origin of these products extremely difficult.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the SFI label has been the environmental group Rainforest Action Network, which was instrumental, through its boycott and media campaigns, in getting The Home Depot and other corporations to adopt green wood procurement policies in 1999-2000. It has described SFI and its label as "a hideous form of green washing."2 Like other environmental groups such as WWF, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network opposes all certification programs but FSC.3 In September 2002, several environmental groups lobbied members of SFI's governing Board and key forest products customers to urge AF&PA to abandon its label. However, no significant public reaction from these groups to the usage of the SFI label has since occurred.

To date, customer reactions to the SFI label have been reserved. The Home Depot declared the label would have no impact on purchasing decisions. Another company, 84 Lumber, declared it found no benefit in displaying the label. A distinctive voice in favor of the SFI label came from home builder Centex Homes, which sees on-product labels to be a means to track products and conduct random audits.

The three leading forest certification programs in North America are employing varied strategies to have their label recognized in the market place. This includes business to business publications, endorsement by celebrities or leading environmental organizations, and attempts to secure exclusive acceptation for public works contracts, e.g. in New York City.

While the certification of forest management has become mainstream on many industrial and state forest lands in the US, it remains unclear whether the branding efforts deployed by certification programs will result in the widespread use of forest certification labels at home improvement stores, lumber distributors and other businesses.

Forest Certification & "Endangered Forests"

The concepts of "endangered," "ancient," or "old-growth" forests have been, over the past decade, central to the forest campaigns of a variety of North American environmental groups. Certification programs have developed various methods to allow forest managers to assure the public and customers about their treatment of such forests. Other non-certification market based approaches directed at retailers and identifying areas from which no wood should be purchased are simultaneously being developed by a range of environmental groups.

As a consequence of the environmental groups' pressures, various market demands have been expressed through forest products procurement policies by corporations such as The Home Depot, Lowe's, Staples and others. A key aspect of these policies is to refrain from purchasing products originating from forests or regions deemed "endangered." As this term does not have an accepted definition in forestry, various initiatives attempt to fill in the definitional vacuum and to provide tools to designate additional forest areas to be set aside for conservation. This is strived for either within forest certification initiatives (FSC, SFI, CSA), or through other approaches, such as the "Wye River Process" where various environmental organizations have agreed on categories of "endangered" forest and directed their proposals to retailers.4

In 1999 the FSC developed certification requirements and guidelines for what it calls "high conservation value forests." The SFI implemented changes in July 2002 designed to improve the identification and protection of "forests with exceptional conservation value" on industrial forest lands in the United States. 5 The CSA program, was also recently revised in May 2002 to address concerns regarding protected areas.

The new SFI policy relies on the "NatureServe" project for North American forests and on "biodiversity hotspots" defined by Conservation International for forests outside of North America to identify species and communities for protection. The new CSA standard directs groups involved in setting local level indicators to strive to have representative ecosystem examples protected. The identification and management of forest areas according to FSC's high conservation value forest requirements are helped to some extent by guidance provided in an ongoing partnership project of WWF and the home furnishings retailer IKEA.

These market based processes typically intend to go beyond what is required by legislation and existing land-use planning processes. In the case of the Wye River process, collaboration is expected to take place with Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the World Resources Institute, for the drawing of maps. In the past, the institute has mapped so called "frontier forests" with large areas present in Canada, Russia and Brazil.

While definitional issues remain contentious, one of the most salient developments over the past decade has been the voluntary commitment to protect "high conservation value forests," "forests with exceptional conservation value" and representative ecosystem examples through the provisions of the key certification programs that are active in North America.

Funding Certification Programs in North America

Tracking campaign contributions to analyze the political influence of special interest groups is common practice. The same procedure can be applied to the emergence of forest certification as a private governance mechanism in forestry.

Funding of the SFI, created in 1994 by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) mostly originates from industry. This includes corporations such as International Paper, Weyerhaeuser and MeadWestvaco. A report published by the Meridian Institute estimates SFI's annual funding at approximately US$ 7.4 million, of which about 80 percent originates from AF&PA member companies.6 On top of this amount, SFI's communications campaign has a budget of US$ 21 million over 3 years.

Regarding the FSC, while several governmental grants were provided initially in the early 1990s, e.g. by the Netherlands, Austria and the European Commission, most funds have since originated from philanthropic, mostly US-based, foundations. In 2000 for example, FSC-US secured revenues of US$ 4.7 million, with virtually all funding originating from foundations. While generating revenues from accreditation and membership fees, FSC-International's offices also remain mostly dependent on charitable funding.

Several organizations that are working closely with the FSC attract substantial foundation support. The Certified Forest Products Council, which promotes FSC in the market place, had US$1.1 million revenues in 2000, with over 90 percent of its funding originating from foundations. FSC non-profit certifiers SmartWood and Sylva Forest Foundation, while competing with for-profit certification firms, regularly secure foundation grants. Environmental groups, such as American Lands Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Wilderness Society, Greenpeace and WWF also receive substantial charitable funding for advocating the FSC. Key contributing foundations to the FSC movement include Ford Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, Surdna Foundation, Bullit Foundation, McArthur Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Fund.

The duality in the funding of forest certification programs reflects traditional conflict patterns in forestry: the industry on one hand supporting the SFI, and the philanthropic foundations, allied with leading environmental organizations, on the other hand, supporting the FSC. The SFI funding from AF&PA member companies appears pretty secure, while FSC's high reliance on foundations makes it more vulnerable.

Is this duality financially sustainable in the long run, or will the programs need to come together at some point? The answer probably lies with the philanthropic foundations, which have competing demands for grants and have suffered dramatic reductions in their assets following the downfall of the stock exchange over the past three years.

Because of the economies of scale that prevail in forest certification, the costly part of certifying forests in the United States will be the non-industrial properties, which supply over 50 percent of the domestic wood supply. A critical issue for forest certification in the US is therefore the funding for the certification of non-industrial properties, through programs such as the American Tree Farm System and Green Tag Forestry.

The British Columbian Challenge

British Columbia is not only the leading Canadian province regarding forest products and exports, but also a critical jurisdiction as far the future of forest certification is concerned in North America.

With some 60 million ha of forest resources, an annual harvest of 70 million cubic meters and forest products exports of US$-10 billion per year, British Columbia (BC) is a dominant player in global forestry. The management of BC's forest resources is made complex not only by the size of the resource, but also by factors such as biodiversity, wildlife, unsettled land claims by First Nations and an active environmental movement - e.g. Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in 1971.

The BC government responded to public concerns regarding forest management in the province by passing legislation in 1995 establishing a Forest Practices Code and an independent body controlling its implementation, the Forest Practices Board. The Board carries out numerous inspections of forest practices, reports their outcomes to the public and files an annual report to the BC legislature. The code is now being replaced by a results-based code, which relies on forest stewardship plans to be developed by forestry companies.

Work on forest certification commenced in BC in 1996. FSC established an informal working group to develop a regional standard, while market campaigns by groups such as Greenpeace, exerting pressure on European customers, resulted in several major corporations announcing, in 1998, their intention to seek FSC certification. At the same time, several forest products corporations prepared to implement ISO-14001 as well as the Sustainable Forest Management System that had just been developed by the Canadian Standards Association.

A first draft of the FSC regional standard was released in June 1999. Significant resources were then invested by US foundations, and subsequent drafts were developed by a multi-stakeholder committee assisted by consultants. It took another 3 years for FSC to come up with a final draft, which was approved by FSC at the BC and Canadian levels, but was opposed by the forest industry because of anticipated reductions in harvest levels. The standard remains to be approved by FSC-International.

Most companies managing forestlands in BC sought ISO-14001 certification, as a possible first step towards certification under forestry-specific programs. To date, there are some 46.8 million ha of forestlands covered by ISO-14001 certifications.7 Forest certification under CSA and SFI is widely embraced in BC, by corporations such as Weyerhaeuser, Canfor, Interfor, Weldwood of Canada, Western Forest Products, TimberWest, Louisiana-Pacific and Tolko Industries. Certification under the CSA program commenced in 1999 and is now covering some 5.3 million ha. SFI certification started in BC only in 2001, but it is now the most rapidly growing forest certification program, with some 9.5 million ha under certification. The combined annual allowable cut originating from CSA and SFI certified forests amounts to 25 million cubic meters.

Only a few operations have secured FSC certification. A single sizeable unit certified to date is Iisaak Forest Resources, a joint venture between Weyerhaeuser and five First Nations from the Clayoquot Sound area, where conflict over forestry practices and land-use attracted massive protests in the early 1990s. Companies such as Western Forest Products and Lignum, which had announced they were seeking FSC certification, have deferred such plans indefinitely. The present area under FSC certification in BC merely amounts to 89,130 ha.

In BC, where most Canadian SFI certificates have been awarded, SFI faces challenges relating to its internationalization, as the program was initially designed for domestic forests in the US. The CSA faces important challenges, one of them being the competition created by the SFI. Both the CSA and SFI have not been able to achieve much recognition by environmental groups, especially those involved in market campaigns, which makes them vulnerable if such campaigns were to be resumed.

The biggest challenge for certification programs in BC is undoubtedly faced by the FSC. Finding broad consensus on a regional standard is proving to be particularly arduous to achieve. The challenge currently before the FSC is to avoid a similar fate as the first regional FSC standards endorsed in North America. In 1999, Eastern Canada's Maritime region had a controversial FSC standard endorsed that has been widely rejected by industry, and no major forestry company has since pursued FSC in the area.

British Columbia is of strategic importance for forest certification in North America. Three key North American programs -- FSC, CSA and SFI - are active in the province. British Columbia is an important place to watch if one is trying to figure out what the future of forest certification will be in North America.

Concluding Remarks

In only a decade, certification has become a dominant factor for forest management in North America. Most Canadian corporations have secured certification under ISO-14000 or forestry specific standards. The Forest Products Association of Canada has rendered forest certification compulsory for its members by 2006, while New Brunswick now requires forest certification from its licensees. In the US, most members of the American Forest & Paper Association have sought SFI certification, while key State forests have sought certification under either the FSC or SFI. For its part, the American Tree Farm System is focusing on providing certification opportunities to non-industrial forest owners.

The various developments analyzed in this contribution indicate that many uncertainties remain. Will labeling of forest products become common in the market place? Will the funding of forest certification programs continue to be secured in the medium and long run? Will forest certification widely reach non-industrial properties in the US, which provide the bulk of the fiber to forest products industries? Will certification be used to provide assurances to the market place regarding "endangered forests" or will other tools be used?

Despite the uncertainties, forest certification is proving highly dynamic in North America. While the various programs will continue to evolve and some consolidation is likely, it can be expected that, in the decades to come, forest certification will be a mainstream activity in the North American forestry sector.

* Editor, Forest Certification WatchTM, PO Box 48122. Montreal, QC. H2V 4S8. Canada. [email protected]

1 Forest Certification: 2002 Year in Review. Sustainable Forestry & Certification Watch. February 2003 Forthcoming.

2 Timber Industry Goes to Battle Over Rival Seals for 'Green' Wood. Queena Sook Kim and Jim Carlton. Wall Street Journal. May 23, 2001

3 Why the PEFC, SFI and CSA Are Not Credible Forest Certification Systems. 21 May 2001. Joint ENGO release

4 Endangered Forests: Priority High Conservation Value Forests For Protection Guidance For Corporate Commitments Forest Leadership Forum: Collaborative Pathways to Responsible Trade. April 25-27, 2002, Cobb Galleria, Atlanta Georgia. Contributing Organizations: World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund-US, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rainforest Action Network, ForestEthics, Greenpeace.

5 Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard Enhanced With New Measures To Protect Biodiversity Provisions Include Commitments from North American Forest Products Industry to Promote Global Forest Conservation. AF&PA. July 2 2002

6 Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) & Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFIsm) Programs Compared in New Report. Collaborative Effort Produces Information Resource for Stakeholders in Forest Certification and Forest Products industry. October 2001. Meridian Institute

7 British Columbia Forest Management Certification Status Report, December 2002. BC Ministry of Forests International Relations Unit