Forest Certification: Are we paying more for less?

American-consumer-InstituteAmerican Consumer research Institute for Citizen Research

Earlier this year, the American Consumer Institute started studying issues surrounding “forest certification” and their impact on domestic timber and consumer markets.  These are under the radar issues for many Americans, but they are important to raise because they impact consumer perception of the sustainability and commensurate value of wood and paper products.  As new research and other information shows, paying more does not always mean getting more.

In October, ACI released a paper titled, “The Monopolization of Forest Certification: Do Disparate Standards Increase Consumer Costs and Undermine Sustainability?”  We found that consumers pay a premium (in the range of 15-20% more) for products bearing the seal of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is a certification program that is promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  It is also promoted by many environmental groups who have pushed government and businesses to adapt it as the sole standard while excluding all other credible standards.  However, paying more does not necessarily ensure a superior sustainable product.  This is because FSC’s behavior around the world and its varying standards can mislead consumers into thinking they are purchasing sustainable products, when in fact they are buying something that was harvested in Russia and Brazil, where there are lower standards.  As we wrote:

“Distortions caused by differences in FSC’s standards cause confusion among consumers. Since the FSC standards are stricter in the US, this certification process imposes a disproportionately higher costs on US firms, which results in less production and higher consumer prices. … Additionally, even after paying these price premiums, there is no clear indication that consumers who purchase FSC-certified products contribute to a more sustainable environment or the preservation of greater amounts of forestland.”

Consumers and the businesses who sell to them are better served by knowing the facts about forest certification.  Recognizing there is more work to be done to give them a more complete landscape of the impact of forest certification, we are releasing a white paper titled ”Comparing Forest Certification Standards in the U.S., Part I: How Are They Being Implemented Today?” authored by Brooks Mendell, Ph. D and Amanda Lang, forestry experts at Forisk Consulting.  The paper examines the on-the-ground-implementation of three prominent standards in the U.S.: FSC, American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and it clearly notes the importance of knowing the facts about various certification programs:

“Customers of forest certification should recognize how programs actually operate and question specific claims related to forest management. All three forest certification programs in the U.S. symbolize responsible forest management; however, adherence to a given certification program does not necessarily confirm specific forest management practices or restrictions.”

It also goes on to shed light on FSC’s varying standards and quotes one FSC auditor in saying:

“The way that foresters interpret plantations in the South is not the way FSC defines plantations. FSC has narrowed its definition of plantation: basically, the only plantation in the South would be a Eucalyptus plantation.”

The consumer implication of this comment and other examples of the variation of the on-the-ground implementation of FSC’s standards is significant: When consumers buy an FSC-certified product, they have no way of knowing if it came from an area where the varying standards are stricter versus weaker.  Why pay 15-20% more for a “sustainable” product that may not actually be better for the environment?

Interestingly, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its revised “Green Guides” last month to help ensure markets make accurate claims about their products’ environmental benefits.  Ideally, this will increase the scrutiny over claims on which certification programs are best suited to increase the amount of sustainable forestland.  In recent comments to the FTC, FSC acknowledged consumers are willing to pay 5-10% more for an environmentally superior product.  However, this information we released today confirms that FSC certification does not guarantee a premium product.

We continue to believe that recognizing all credible forest certification standards – rather than an FSC-only approach – is the best approach for consumers, the environment, and the U.S. economy and will be releasing more research on this topic in the coming months.

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