GERMANY: FSC's 'Green' Label for Wood Products Gets Growing Pains
The environmental group that runs a widely recognized labeling system to
identify "green" wood and paper products has acknowledged that some
companies using its label are destroying pristine forests and says it
plans to overhaul its rules.
The admission by the Forest Stewardship Council, based in Bonn,
threatens the credibility of an organization whose tree-with-a-check-
mark logo adorns products for sale at big retailers including Home Depot
Inc., Lowe's Cos. and Ikea AB.
Some environmentalists have long complained the FSC's rules are too lax.
A catalyst for the group's move to tighten its standard came earlier
this month when it emerged that Singapore-based Asia Pulp & Paper Co.
Ltd. -- one of the largest paper companies in the developing world and a
target of criticism for its forestry practices -- planned to start using
the FSC logo. The FSC has also faced questions about companies in other
parts of the world that use its logo.
A rising number of "green" product-labeling organizations face a dilemma
similar to the FSC's: how to maintain high standards while promoting
their logos and increasing the supply of approved products to meet
demand from conscientious consumers and big retailers.
For the past 14 years, the FSC -- with diverse members, from
environmental groups to big retailers -- has endorsed paper, furniture,
tissues and other products. Initially, the label signified that 100% of
the wood used in a product was harvested by sustainable methods. The
original standard measured a company's performance in specific forest
areas and its overall environmental record.
But there weren't many takers. In 1993, the year it was founded, the FSC
issued just three approvals and in the next few years not many more. To
boost the supply of FSC-endorsed products, the organization in 1997
added a more relaxed labeling standard, allowing producers to use an FSC
logo for paper in which just 50% of the pulp came from forests that that
met the organization's original criteria.
For the rest of the pulp, companies had to show only that it came from
legal sources. Products that passed this test could use an FSC logo with
the words "Mixed Sources" printed underneath.
The number of FSC endorsements soared. As of last year, it issued 6,276
certifications. In all, the FSC's logo now adorns about $5 billion in
products a year, in terms of retail sales, the FSC says.
The move to increase the number of certifications had an unintended
consequence, FSC officials say, allowing forestry companies to put the
FSC label on some of their products even if they are destroying large
tracts of rain forest in other places. "Companies are free-riding on our
name," said Andre de Freitas, head of operations at the FSC. "I feel bad
The FSC, which has a headquarters staff of just 26, relies on a network
of outside auditors to decide whether a company passes muster. These
auditors are paid directly by the companies they assess, a practice that
has also drawn criticism.
For APP, the auditor was SGS Group, a Geneva-based surveying firm.
Salahudin Yaacob, a Malaysia-based SGS executive who carried out the APP
audit, said that under FSC rules, his role was limited to ensuring that
about 472,000 acres of an APP tree plantation was legally owned by APP.
Also in accordance with FSC standards, he gave a green light to APP to
use pulp from that plantation mixed with fully FSC-certified pulp from
companies in Brazil and Australia to make paper that APP could label
with the FSC "mixed sources" logo.
But environmentalists charge that APP has devastated a Delaware-size
portion of natural forest on Indonesia's Sumatra island, putting the
survival of orangutan, tiger and elephant species there at risk.
Several large paper purchasers, including Ricoh Co. Ltd., of Japan;
Office Depot Inc. in the U.S.; and Idisa Papel, of Spain, have canceled
contracts with APP out of concern that its practices destroy rain
But some environmentalists were dismayed. "If they [APP] can get an FSC
accreditation, there must be something wrong with the system," says
Nazir Foead, director of the Indonesian-species program at the
Geneva-based World Wildlife Fund, a co-founder of the FSC.
After inquiries from The Wall Street Journal for this article, the FSC
this month proposed new, tighter regulations to its members, which
include environmental groups WWF, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth,
as well as Ikea and Home Depot.
Heiko Liedeker, executive director of the FSC, rescinded the FSC's
approval of APP products at the same time he proposed a tightening of
the FSC's rules. "This company goes against our mission," he said in an
APP reacted angrily. "We played by the rules," Mr. Munoz said. "To say
one company or group cannot come out with an FSC logo is, to me,
ridiculous." He said APP plans to seek certification for its products
from a standards-setting organization that competes with the FSC.
The FSC's proposed new rules, which the group's board will vote on next
month, are aimed at preventing any company that destroys rain forests or
engages in illegal logging from using the FSC's label. "This is a
significant change in the FSC systems, although it addresses an issue
which has concerned FSC stakeholders for many years," the FSC said in a
statement to members.
If approved, the measures will make it harder for companies to acquire
the green credibility -- and higher sales -- that FSC approval confers.
But it could also reduce the amount of FSC-approved paper at a time when
big retailers say it already is hard to come by. Home Depot, the Atlanta-based home-improvement giant and an FSC member, formally expresses a "preference" for wood certified by the group. Yet so little is available that it still represents "under 10%" of the company's total wood purchases, says Ron Jarvis, senior vice president of environmental innovation at Home Depot.
Critics say it is too late to prevent the damage done to the label's
credibility, and it remains unclear how it may affect the products
already on store shelves. FSC officials haven't yet decided whether the
new standards will apply to companies retroactively -- a move that could
potentially require an extensive review of the practices of every
approved forestry company.
While the FSC's standard has the widest geographic reach and the most
endorsements by environmental groups, it competes with many rivals.
In North America, for example, the timber-industry-originated
Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, encompasses about 135 million
acres of forests, while the FSC covers just 73 million acres, according
to industry records. The SFI was started in 1994 by members of the
American Forest and Paper Association in response to the FSC's founding
a year earlier, but SFI officials say they now operate independently
Still, many environmentalists regard FSC as the best of the existing
forest certification groups. "It's a question of how do we improve the
system, not whether we can keep the system," says Brant Olson, director
of the old-growth-forest campaign at the Rainforest Action Network in
San Francisco. "Because if you look at the alternative systems run by
industry, those are even weaker."
Yet Mr. Salahudin, the SGS auditor, cautions that the FSC's moves to
tighten its rules could simply push big companies in the developing
world to stop working toward approval from the council. The proposed
rules, he says, "will surely drive away most of the big players in
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