The Forest Stewardship Council may not sound familiar, but you’ll know its logo. The ubiquitous ‘tick tree’ is meant to reassure you that the wood and paper products you’re buying are ethically sourced – from forests that are sustainably managed, plantations with fair wages, and rural villages where citizens live peacefully alongside companies.
This week FSC marked its 20th anniversary at its General Assembly in Seville (you can watch the party preparations in a nice little video here) and applauded itself for its ‘continuous efforts to find solutions that benefit people and forests worldwide’. But how much should the council really be celebrating? A complaint submitted by Global Witnessto the FSC this week casts significant doubt over FSC’s credibility.
The FSC gives its seal of approval to companies operating in forests that abide by certain rules, which broadly speaking mean no harm should be done to the environment or people. In June of this year, however, the FSC re-instated the certification of Vietnam’s state-owned rubber producer Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), a company which Global Witness exposed in its 2013 report ‘Rubber Barons’ for flattening intact forest and taking indigenous peoples land in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos to make way for their plantations. The FSC had suspended VRG’s certification in November 2013 as a result of these allegations, but back-tracked on that decision in June. This means that VRG again bears the FSC seal of approval, despite the fact that illegal logging persists in and around its concessions.
This rather surprising U-turn points to a number of major problems relating to what FSC and its assessors can and can’t do. The FSC’s ‘Policy for Association’ is intended to prevent the certification ‘by association’ of any subsidiaries of FSC member companies that are operating in violation of FSC standards. In the case of VRG, this policy should apply to the company’s subsidiaries in Cambodia and Laos.
On close inspection, however, the policy appears to be no more than a ‘gentleman’s handshake’ between the FSC and its client.
For a start, the policy is not backed up by the sort of checks needed to identify potentially high risk subsidiary companies or regions. The cases revealed by Global Witness in May 2013 were not new – the social and environmental impacts of VRG’s activities had, and continue to be, well documented in national media. Yet FSC failed to identify the company as highly problematic following its move into Cambodia and Laos.
What’s more, under the FSC’s ‘Policy for Association’ the council lacks the powers to investigate subsidiaries when serious issues come to light. Contractual obligations between the FSC’s certifying bodies and the companies they certify leave them with little power to take action against subsidiaries, as the council is unable to act as both certifier and complainant. There is a glaring conflict of interest at the heart of this – the fact that FSC’s certification bodies are paid by the companies they certify. FSC therefore relies on NGOs like Global Witness to submit complaints in order to trigger an investigation.
The implications of this are significant. FSC doesn’t state how many member companies it has, but its certification reportedly covers nearly 185 million hectares of various types of forest across 80 countries – an area over three times the size of France. And yet the council has no way of monitoring whether the companies under its banner are actually abiding by its standards, meaning it’s very likely that bad behaviour is going unnoticed.
This week’s complaint was also Global Witness’ second this year. In February we pointed out to FSC that one of its members, Danish timber giant Dalhoff Larsen and Horneman, had been accused of trading illegal timber and funding a war in Liberia. Which is a pretty grievous failure of the standards it should be upholding under FSC rules. This case is still being investigated by the FSC.
Shortcomings like these have led a number of NGO members to drop their backing of the FSC, unable to continue supporting an organisation they deem to be fundamentally ineffective. Even some of the council’s founding members have turned their back on it and are dedicating significant time to exposing the organisation’s flaws.
So as celebrations continue in Seville throughout the week, perhaps the FSC should be a little less self-congratulatory and ask itself some serious questions about what, and who, it represents, and whether it is making things better or worse.