Feb 05, 2013
THEME: Sustainability

What is the Status of the Wood Certification Gap?

A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute’s magazine for transformational people and design. To see this and other issues of Trim Tab, go to https://ilbi.org/education/trim-tab.

All of the major forest certification systems updated their standards in 2010-2011, which many believe has leveled the playing field. Perkins+Will subsequently reviewed its internal ‘FSC + Better’ stance, resulting in the following findings. To reach our conclusions, we read all five major standards (listed below) and compared them over the course of several days, including analysis of many indicators around governance, in-forest performance criteria, and social equity. We also reviewed and compared the standards as ‘whole systems’ to get a feel for their general approach and philosophy.

Perkins+Will has been calling for ‘FSC + Better’ certified wood for use in building certification systems for several years. This stance has been based on the Forest Stewardship Council’s long history of setting the high-bar for forest management and sustainability. In many ways, FSC’s approach to Forestry is a pioneering  attempt at going beyond sustainability to create a regenerative approach to managing the world’s forests and the wide range of intersecting issues this involves.  This approach also carries into the way FSC governs itself, including open membership and equitable power-sharing across its environmental, economic, and social chambers. The same balanced perspective clearly shows in the standard’s overall strength and particularly in their precautionary approach to forest management practices. As a rule, FSC emphasizes real performance in the forest, whereas the other systems are more focused on intended outcomes, emphasizing plans or programs over demonstrated impact.

After having done an in-depth analysis of the recently updated forest certification standards for FSC, PEFC (Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification), SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative), ATFS (American Tree Farm System), and CSA (Canadian Standards Association), we have concluded that the gap is starting to close in the area of labor rights and illegally harvested fiber imports for certified products. While these improvements should be applauded, there are still disparities (which vary depending on the certification system). For example, PEFC has made some forward progress by prohibiting the use of the worst chemical pesticides and genetically modified trees in their international criteria, but none of the national certifications endorsed by PEFC standards (such as SFI and ATFS in the United States) has been accredited with this new criteria yet. In addition, there continues to be a significant gap in the area of in-forest performance requirements between FSC and the other four forest standards we reviewed.

FSC-certified forest managed responsibly by Finch Paper

In our overarching review of the five standards, we discovered that there was one key factor in their approaches to forestry that result in a nuanced, but especially dramatic difference. The FSC standard consistently leans into a precautionary approach to its requirements, but the other standards most frequently take a permissive approach.  There are some notable exceptions, but they are rare. The Precautionary Principle is a core tenant of sustainability, and a widely embraced approach at Perkins+Will. At the 1998 Windspread Conference, the Precautionary Principle was stated as: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Readers can learn more about the Precautionary Principal at http://transparency.perkinswill.com.

In very simple terms, Perkins+Will continues to believe that the FSC standard consistently establishes and requires notably higher forest management criteria than the other standards. While improvements have been made in all of the standards we reviewed, the playing field has not been leveled, resulting in our continued recommendation that ‘FSC + Better’ should be the approach for both the Living Building Challenge™ and LEED® when addressing forest certifications within their rating systems. For a more detailed look at our analysis, we encourage you to read the original article “FSC+Better? What is the status of the Wood Certification Gap?,” published in the Summer 2012 edition of Trim Tab.

We encourage individuals and organizations to explore the standards of forest certification systems on their own for an even more comprehensive understanding. Links to each of the standards reference in this article are provided below.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – US Forest Management Standard v1.0 July 8, 2010: http://www.fscus.org/images/documents/standards/FSC-US%20Forest%20Management%20Standard%20v1.0.pdf

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) International Standard 2010-11-26: http://www.pefc.org/standards/technical-documentation/pefc-international-standards-2010

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)  Requirements for the SFI 2010-2014 Program: http://www.sfiprogram.org/files/pdf/sfi_requirements_2010-2014.pdf

American Tree Farm Association (ATFS) 2010-2015 Standards of Sustainability of Forest Certification: http://www.treefarmsystem.org/stuff/contentmgr/files/1/41a4cbe655e2845e855d7e08c5bc61cd/files/aff_2010-2015_standards.pdf

Canadian Standards Association Sustainable Forest Management Z809-08 w/ May 2010 update: http://www.csa.ca/documents/publications/2419617.pdf

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