History, partnership and calculated risk in times of change for the FSC

5 min readOct 8, 2017


© James Morgan / WWF

Forest and market history

Ideas shape the course of history. And as we approach the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) 25th anniversary, we should remind ourselves of the ideas and ambitions that have made forest and market history.

A failure to tackle social exclusion, rampant deforestation and illegal logging in tropical forests in the 1980s, paired with a weak outcome on forests at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit gave birth to something extraordinary — instrumental collaboration between companies and NGOs who before were ‘enemies’, and the emergence of market-driven environmental governance. Commonplace today, in the ’90s it was quiet revolution.

Within three years of the first FSC-labelled product — a wooden spatula — appearing in 1995, over 10 million hectares of forest had been certified globally. And a decade ago, the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on certified paper marked the largest single FSC paper order valued at $20 million; to be followed in 2015 by 213 million copies of the IKEA catalogue — the world’s largest FSC-certified publication. Today, 198 million hectares are managed according to FSC standards across 84 countries.

Of course, it is not all good news. Deforestation and forest degradation continue, the tropics account for just 16 per cent of FSC-certified area, and small-scale producers still face difficulties entering the programme. Yet as we debate these and other challenges at the FSC General Assembly and look to the future, let’s not forget how far we have come.

Founded in 1993 through the collaborative efforts of more than 100 participants representing economic, social, indigenous and environmental interests, the FSC is widely recognised as the highest and most credible global certification standard for forest management. This is our shared heritage.

In the company of partners

Perhaps FSC’s greatest value is as a democratic platform for dialogue, participation and consensus, in service of both conflict resolution and solution creation. It’s a role that has been fundamental to the success of the partnership between WWF and IKEA over the last 15 years.

Bringing diverse interests together through promoting the FSC in more than a dozen countries, we have helped develop the first-ever High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) toolkit; identified and protected millions of hectares of HCVF and old growth forest; fought illegal logging in the Russian Far East and Romania; supported market inclusion of smallholders in south-east Asia; advanced development of FSC national standards; and been instrumental in the certification of more than 35 million hectares of forest globally.

Our shared goal of making responsible forest management the norm is unimaginable, much less achievable, without the FSC. And the new phase of our partnership, again in collaboration with many others, will continue to focus on strengthening and promoting the FSC — to stimulate improved governance, promote responsible forest management and trade, and secure forest values, not least through expanding support for small-scale producers and developing a landscape approach.

Efficiency and calculated risk

There is a lot to be done if together we are to deliver on much vaunted commitments to end deforestation such as the New York Declaration on Forests. Under that broad agenda for change, most company commitments rely on certification and the FSC can provide viable alternatives to unsustainable logging and land conversion. But if we are to succeed as FSC continues to expand, these alternatives must remain attractive and competitive for governments, businesses and local communities — ultimately it is they who will decide how their forests are managed.

Two things that are universally attractive are efficiency and positive impact. As we seek resolution of the very real challenges contained in the FSC General Assembly’s motions, simplicity of means and purpose, together with benefit for people and nature — from improved health and safety and pay for workers to endangered species protection — should be our guiding compass.

And while the FSC is already committed to developing policies and standards that are more streamlined and outcome-oriented, unlocking delivery now requires making use of risk-based approaches to certification and auditing.

This means taking a broader, systemic view, and adopting new tactics on the ground — from accounting for ecosystem services and making better use of technology and big data to forging new ways of working with smallholders — that monitor the full breadth of environmental, social and economic impacts beyond simply hectares-certified.

Companies able to demonstrate and report clearly on positive impact, as requested by FSC members since the last General Assembly, can also help facilitate the development of a credible risk-based approach. In return, they should be able to access the advantages of streamlined auditing. Over time, this will make certification quicker and easier, offering credit where it is due while maintaining the integrity and credibility of FSC systems.

Taking calculated risks based on proven benefits will allow certificate holders to demonstrate compliance and sustainability while delivering improved performance. Motions that address these issues separately need a single co-designed solution.

Investing for the future

Involvement of all members is the life-blood of FSC. Giving agency to those that would not otherwise have a voice is what sets it apart from other certification systems. At the same time, doing fewer things better and more effectively, and focusing on core business — driving better forest management — is critical.

Credible standards and certification can accelerate delivery on many Sustainable Development Goals bringing benefits for companies, conservation and communities. To ensure that the FSC fulfils this potential, we would do well, as members, to reduce barriers to entry and invest in efficient organisational processes and programmes.

Our current challenges are small compared to our achievements and potential. Finding solutions is complex and requires leadership. Pragmatic compromise may be needed but we must not lose sight of our bigger purpose as we seek to deliver FSC’s strategic plan and create resilient forest landscapes.

Let’s take the opportunity to write our own history together so that it continues to be kind to us.

Julia Young is WWF’s Manager for the Global Forest Trade Network (L), WWF UK / Interim Lead, Forest Sector Transformation, WWF Global Forest Practice

Mikhail Tarasov is the Global Forestry Manager for IKEA




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