McGill Environmental Research Forest Certification Project

Emerging Trends In Forest Certification:
The Role of Chain of Custody Systems

Evolution of Forest Certification

The Evolution

Certification is a relatively simple approach for the verification and reinforcement of standard practices. It is applied in market sectors where the recognition of standards is meaningful to buyers. A wide variety of products and practices are certified through a number of certification agencies. The best known of such agencies include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in the U.S., and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Perhaps the direct inspiration for many of the early proponents of forest certification has been the success of organic agriculture certification. As a largely consumer-driven market, food products certified as organic acknowledge farmers for environmentally responsible practices by providing a premium on their products. Advocates of voluntary forest certification believe the same approach should be applied to forest products. If concerned consumers are willing to pay a premium for responsibly produced forest products, then certification may make responsible forestry economically viable for producers and processors.

By providing economic incentives for SFM certification, forest managers have the opportunity to pursue (at least appear to) the goals of sustainable management without risking the company's bottom line. Though there are many interpretations of the term, most forest managers are familiar with the concepts and practices of sustainable forest management, (Maser and Smith, 2001). Certification does not require a leap of faith on their part. The concepts of sustainable forest management which have been incorporated into forest certification are not new ideas. They have been key elements of international agreements and guidelines including the Brundtland Commission's report on Sustainable Development and the United Nations "Earth Summits" held every five years since 1992. These meetings have, at times, addressed forestry directly. The "Criteria and Indicators" established by the Montreal Process working group in 1995 helped to codify and solidify targets for SFM in temperate and boreal forests (Montreal Process, 1995). The general international consensus that progress towards sustainable development and resource use is imperative, in conjunction with the growing knowledge of these concepts within the industry, has facilitated the widespread acceptance of forestry certification programs(Nordin, 1996). This suggests that economic factors, not a lack of expertise is the main obstacle to the adoption of sustainable practices, and often lead the companies harvesting forests to consider only the "lowest common denominator" in their management strategies.

The progress political bodies have made toward standards of sustainable development is the result of the continuing efforts of concerned professionals in academia and industry. These individuals have lead the search for solutions to our current resource management problems, and attempted to bring them to the forefront of public debate. The rapid growth of interest in forest certification can also be attributed to a groundswell of public concern about the sustainability of forestry practices over the last twenty years (Kiekens, 1999; Nordin 1996; Kajiwara 1999). These concerns, which were amplified by the campaigns of environmental organizations, focus on rates of deforestation, particularly those of ancient forest lands, worldwide (Rickenbach et al., 2000). The force of public pressure was greatest in Europe where the limited extent of remaining forests was most evident (Maser and Smith, 2001). This concern was transmitted to the North American market, where pressure from European buyers and the domestic public began to have an effect on the industry.

Environmental Non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) are the most pressing force behind the movement towards voluntary certification schemes. Their campaigns to mobilize public support for alternatives, boycott irresponsible firms and agitate for more sustainable forest practices can, in effect, create sanctions on the products of specific corporations (Kiekens, 1999; Rickenbach et al., 2000; Mater 1997). These campaigns and the public pressure that has emerged with and because of them have generated concerns amongst the marketing and public relations departments in the forestry industry. As a result, forestry companies have made substantial commitments toward sustainable forestry practices in order to avoid tarnishing their corporate image and the financial risks that boycotts present (Hayward and Vertinsky, 1999).

Forest certification has developed as a very logical extension of the global dialogue about "sustainable development". Voluntary 3rd party certification approaches have been recognized by ENGOs, foresters and the general public as capable of generating a win-win situation; one where firms gain market benefits, while buyers and ENGOs are assured of the established standards being met. The continuing evolution of such systems is based on the ideal of perpetual improvement, which provides the basis for the forest certification movement in all of its manifestations.

Key players in Forest Certification:

Buying Groups:
Examples of buyers groups include the Certified Forest Products Council (CFPC) in the United States, Europe's 95+ Group, and the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Global Forest Trade Network (GFTN).

Certification Agencies:
Examples of certification bodies include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Canadian Standards Associationís (CSA), the American Forest and Pulp Associationís (AF&PA) Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the International Organization for Standardizationís (ISO).

Forest Management Companies:
Forest managers play the critical role in certification by accepting external audits of their cut blocks, or providing their own data to the certification body. Forest managers must commit to continual improvement to become certified. This entails constructing an apparatus within the corporation to account for its environmental impact.

Certified mills and other processing facilities face a number of the same challenges as forest managers. Shortages of certified wood forces most certified mills to handle both certified and non-certified product.

Retailers act as promoters of certification to the general public through advertising, whether it is in the form of in store materials, on-product labels or staff training. If a certification agency requires a supply chain verification scheme, retailers can drive demand up the chain in their search for certified products.

Important differences between Forest Certification Systems:
-Origins and governance structure
-Scale of Operations
-Verification Method and Frequency
-Public Involvement at Various Stages
-Supply Chain Verification/Chain of Custody:
Supply chain verification or Chain of custody (COC) certification ensures that products labelled as coming from certified forests are what they claim to be. This is a key component of a consumer-oriented certification system.
The credibility is based on the scale of the verification body, the frequency of verification audits and the rigorousness of the standards to be met for such audits.

Survey-based Research Comparing Certification Systems

Forest certification has been studied from the standpoint of commercial interests (Wilson et al., 2001), forest managers and owners (Hayward and Vertinsky, 1999), and buyer demand (Spinazze and Kant, 1999). Furthermore, a comparative study of the variation in size and products of FSC certified merchants was conducted by Humphries and published in 2001.
There is no current study that integrates the perspectives of organizations throughout the certified supply chain in a contemporary context. This is a consequence of the recent development of FSC COC certification and the fact that the means of contacting these organizations has only been made available quite recently. Our work attempts to fill this gap in the literature and elucidate many of the uncertainties surrounding FSC COC certification.


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