The forestry sector sustains nearly three million workers in the United States. These workers supply the everyday wood products that we use in our homes, offices, and communities. How much these goods cost often depends on government regulation of the forest products industry and the undue influence of non-government activist organizations. Consumers bear the burden of higher prices, due to the unnecessary costs created by misguided policies and pressure from these organizations. Understanding the methods of land management is essential to making informed decisions in the timber industry. Unfortunately, disinformation and confusion have been spread about land management techniques and has raised costs and consumer prices.
Forest certification programs were first formed to encourage responsible stewardship of land with a third-party audit group certifying when owners practice sound ecological management. Wood products procured from these certified forests bear labels of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). These labels let customers and retailers know they are buying and supplying sustainable forest products.
However, as certification programs have expanded and evolved, consumer understanding of the different labels and the environmental benefits they are paying more for has become muddied. Various activist groups, specifically Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics, have pushed government and businesses to adapt FSC as the single certification standard. But, a closer look suggest that a de facto monopoly standard will lead to significantly higher consumer prices, while the environmental benefits could be quite elusive.
In October, the American Consumer Institute (ACI) released a paper titled “The Monopolization of Forest Certification: Do Disparate Standards Increase Consumer Costs and Undermine Sustainability?” The paper found that FSC relies on standards that vary by country – and even within a country – effectively punishing the U.S. forestry industry and advantaging foreign markets with significantly riskier environmental track records. As a result, when consumers buy an FSC labeled product, they may be misleading consumers into believing that they are purchasing sustainable products, when in fact they are buying wood from countries with lower environmental standards, such as Russia or Brazil.
Unconcerned, activist groups have been advocating that FSC be the sole certification in the U.S., and so far the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED standard recognizes only FSC-certified timber in its credit point system. These developments undercut the necessary balance of sustainability and economic viability, essentially moving toward de facto monopoly. While North America is a leader in certified wood, a FSC monopoly would devastate the U.S. industry, since 90 percent of FSC-certified wood comes from foreign nations. This means higher consumer prices and fewer U.S. jobs, and no guarantee that the environment was better served.
Consumers and businesses who sell to them are better served by knowing the facts about forest certification programs. In this regard, ACI is now releasing a white paper, “Comparing Forest Certification Standards in the U.S., Part I: How Are They Being Implemented Today?” authored by forestry experts Brooks Mendell, PhD, and Amanda Hamsley Lang. Their study analyzed the on-the-ground implementation of FSC, ATFS, and SFI in the U.S., and describes how FSC standards confuse landowners. FSC auditors are quoted explaining how its patchwork standards lead to “companies leaving clumps of unmerchantable trees in scattered areas.” This is not the picture painted by those who promote FSC as the gold standard of certification programs.
The reliance on FSC as the sole certification standard means that consumers are still paying premium prices for products that may not deliver the environmental benefits that are expected with the FSC label. Businesses and consumers must possess accurate information to make informed decisions about how to spend precious resources. So long as they operate in an environment where government agencies, other organizations and businesses, subject to pressure from activists, pick winners and losers in the certification market, consumers will continue to be confused about the pros and cons of the competing programs. In contrast, policies that recognize AFTS, FSC, and SFI equally are the best approach to incentivizing economic development and conservation, while offering consumers a wider choice of sustainable forest products at lower prices.