An independent observer of the Forest Stewartship Council

Hard-up certifier seeks job 'on the side'Tags: Worldwide, Certifier conflict of interest, All certifiers, Rainforest Alliance SmartWood

Up until a few years ago, FSC's accredited certifiers were prohibited from certifying for other forest certification schemes, because of the obvious conflict of interest that this would represent. But, as has been the way of things in the FSC, such a ban represented an obstacle to the increase of the certifiers' profits, and was therefore duly done away with. (One of the more bizarre justifications offered for this profound weakening of the FSC's rules, from the now Chair of FSC's Board, Grant Rosoman, was that, if the certifiers were prohibited from 'moonlighting' for other schemes, then they would simply set up nominally separate organisations to get around this rule. So much for the notion that FSC's certifiers are required to work to the highest ethical standards...)

The FSC-accredited certifiers are now able to certify for whichever other schemes they want, whether or not this represents a real or potential conflict with their role as certifiers for the FSC.

In the open letter to SmartWood below, a long term supporter and member of FSC raises with Rainforest Alliance SmartWood concerns about its imminent plans to start a 'Legality Verification' certification scheme. The author's worries are perfectly valid - though they will surely cut no ice with SmartWood, which has been the most aggressively expansionist of all the FSC-accredited certifiers.

In fact other schemes such as 'legality verification' are a direct challenge to the FSC, and to efforts to encourage 'sustainable forest management'. Encouraged by high profile campaigns against 'the illegal timber trade', some governmments, companies and other agencies have been quick to realise that if they can show that they are only importing or trading in 'legal' timber, then hopefully the public will therefore think that the 'forest problem' has been 'solved'. Increasingly, 'legal' is being equated with 'sustainable', though of course this completely overlooks the reality that it is perfectly possible for timber to be legal but totally unsustainable - as is the case with almost every stick of 'legal' timber coming out of the tropics. Some FSC certifiers anyway have a lamentable record in detecting illegalities in timber operations, as various postings on this website have shown.

So, whilst 'legality verification' is a potentially very lucrative market for the certifiers, it could serve to directly undermine the wider objectives of the FSC. Apparently not content with sucking out most of the revenue streams from FSC certification - leaving the FSC itself permanently under-resourced - some certifiers are evidently moving on to even more profitable activities, regardless of whether or not this harms the FSC.

To: Jeff Hayward jhayward (at) ra.org


Submission re proposed certification standard verification of legal origin (VLO) and verification of legal compliance (VLC).

Dear Jeff

We appreciate Smartwoods transparency and the approach taken of seeking broad stakeholder input and review on the standards for 'legal' compliance and 'legal' origin. However we are writing to express our grave concerns on the broader context of legality verification and Smartwood's expansion into this field.

Our concerns relate to a number of keys issues.

1 There is no legally binding global governance structure for trading in forest products consequently there is no accepted international framework for or definition of 'legal' wood. As a result there has been the development of a plethora of voluntary mechanisms to try and ensure legality in the global timber

2 In the absence of legally binding global governance and accreditation structures the only credible third party guarantees of 'legality' actually comes when voluntary certification is based on full responsible management assessment to a credible third party scheme.

3 This approach will see very perverse environmental outcomes, where supposedly 'legal' wood will come from the conversion old growth forests or native ecosystems to monoculture food, fibre and fuel crops. Indeed this issue is already a major point of contention with some of the PEFC endorsed schemes

4 Even in fully developed economies we have seen 'legality' redefined when courts find that logging is occurring illegally. We refer you to a recent decision of the Federal Court of Australia (Brown vs Forestry Tasmania). The court found that the land manager was acting illegally by failing to protect endangered species. The Australian Government responded by changing bilateral agreements to accommodate the status quo.

5 Smartwood already has an approach 'Stepwise' to provide low level entry to certification. Legality verification should only be used in the context of a stepwise approach to ensure that legality verification is the beginning of the process rather than end.

6 The development of standards around legality to secure market access for products into environmentally aware markets will inevitability degrade the value of all certification, as verified 'legal' products will compete with fully certified ones, and particularly when the ENGO sector has to respond with negative campaigning attacking 'legality branding'

7 While legality verification is a part of determining responsible forest management, when it is stand alone no public claims should be able to be made. We urge you to remove the ability to make public claims from your legality verification standards. It should be a business to business arrangement only.

We would urge you to reconsider your whole approach to this issue given your leadership role within the voluntary certification market.

Yours Sincerely

Sean Cadman

National Forests Campaign Coordinator The Wilderness Society PO Box 188, Civic Square ACT 2608 ph +61 437 075 212 Canberra Number 02 62496491


TO: Chris Lang and other stakeholders

FROM: Jeffrey Hayward, Verification Services Manager
Richard Z. Donovan, Chief of Forestry, Rainforest Alliance

RE: Rainforest Alliance/SmartWood Response to Chris Lang Blog Entry 17/05/07

DATE: May 25, 2007

Chris Lang’s blog and criticisms raised of certification bodies can be constructive and lead to improvements in the FSC system.

Two observations he makes in a May 17th post – 1 in the title about “hard-up certifier” and the second about “sucking out most of the revenue streams from FSC…” are interesting and speculative, since we are not aware that he has ever had a conversation with us about either our revenue or our financial status.

Rainforest Alliance has been driven by mission, not profit, for 20 years. Our certification programs are not confined to FSC-only, but span a range of standards for sustainable agriculture, forestry, and tourism. Our SmartWood program began in 1989 – four years before FSC. Our Rediscovered Wood program – for reuse and reclaimed wood was created in 1996 nearly eight years before FSC included reclaimed fiber in its certification standards. Our stepwise, phased approach to FSC forest certification – SmartStep - began in 2005. Currently, FSC does not have an operational system for this, but recognizes the value and is in dialogue about how to support or accredit such phased certification programs. We mention this to inform Chris and readers of this blog that we have been a pioneer and a catalyst for FSC, through new approaches later adopted by FSC.

Though most people familiar with FSC would know where we stand, maybe we need to state the obvious - we were founding members of FSC and have unequivocally supported it since its formal creation in 1993. In fact, our senior staff helped to establish the FSC, starting in November 1990. We remain steadfast in our support for FSC, though like all FSC members (and non-members) we retain the right to make constructive criticisms to improve the system, when we see problems.

However, perhaps a more important point, is what we are focused on and why? Approximately every 5 years we have done strategic reviews of activities. We are evolving as an organization, developing additional programs and services in response to need – with the ultimate mission being a more sustainable society. To us, sustainability is a never-ending journey – and, in terms of forests, we are committed to taking actions that will help move society in that direction. FSC is a vital part of that, but not the only answer or solution. It is not all we do. We’ve always sought to provide independent third party evaluation, where we might change business practices and foster better natural resource management, so we have been innovative.

So why do believe verifying legal origin is important? Basically, because it is critical to know where wood is coming from, especially if it could be coming from illegal logging.

A well-known retailer, more than a decade ago, asked, “how green is your door?” If a company couldn’t provide an answer it probably meant it didn’t care or didn’t know. Since that question was posed, thousands of companies worldwide have pushed some amount of their purchases, production, or sales to FSC certified. For some of these, there remain unanswered questions about their timber sources. The need to know remains as critical as ever. They want to know. And they very well may know, but need to provide assurances to their customers, owners, investors, or the general public - who are now demanding to know.

Saying “only buy FSC” isn’t the complete answer for them, at least in the near-term. FSC can and should be a core element of their purchasing policy. However, for companies with extremely complex supply chains with multiple processing and handling steps from forest to distribution, it will take time to re-orient and “green up” their supply chain. Even the most committed FSC certified manufacturer may be pressed to rapidly increase the volumes of FSC certified, and particularly if they are committed to working in a region where there are higher risks (from social or environmental perspectives). In the meantime, such companies may be required to demonstrate progress – phasing out unknown and uncertified, phasing in known, legal, controlled wood (a la FSC), or are engaged in our SmartStep approach.

Illegal logging is a global crisis. It is out of control and forecloses future opportunity for sustainable forestry. There’s a mounting body of research on the negative impacts of the problem from draining governments of revenues, depriving communities of resources, unfairly competing with responsible forest managers and driving timber prices to lows that undercut the high level of investment needed to manage a forest well. Legal logging may be destructive, too, and that point is well taken – we are aware that in some countries or regions within countries it is completely legal to convert natural forests or ecosystems to parking lots or plantations. Unequivocally, on any significant scale, we disagree with that and frankly that is why we support the FSC approach, which very aggressively attempts to deal with those issues, at least in forestry.

Confronting illegal logging takes huge efforts in governance, enforcement, prosecution, and transparency. Independent forest monitoring, verification of legality, and certification may help companies direct their investment and trade away from uncontrolled and illegal harvesting. Verifying origin is a limited first step. It can not and should not be seen on par with forest certification, but we do see it as a step in the right direction, particularly for many countries where illegal logging is rampant and a major challenge.

FSC is and will remain SmartWood’s core focus. We need it to survive and will not undermine it. It is important to mention that Chris Lang mistakenly depicts our foray into legality as coming through some overturned prohibition of FSC accreditation rules. This is absolutely wrong. If he had bothered to ask us, we could have explained that.

To clarify a point, FSC accredited certifiers have always been able to offer auditing services verifying timber tracking and origin systems. In fact, some FSC accredited certification bodies performed timber traceability and assurance audits, using generic methods of chain of custody, or other approaches, long before accreditation by FSC.

Our efforts to reach out and seek comment on a draft generic Verified Legal Origin (VLO) standard, and to develop such a program, are based on our perception of need and real forest issues, and also the fact that there is no commonly agreed upon standard for VLO. The latter point is crucial - even though multiple other certification organizations are providing that service, there has been no transparent process for developing such VLO standards. We and other organizations see this as a weakness. We have pointedly have discussed it with NGOs. For this reason we are developing VLO, and being transparent in the way that we are doing it.

In fact, requests for verification by SmartWood are not new. Our first requests started to filter in during 2003. These were done for companies that already were assessed for FSC certification (typically chain of custody), which mostly had a need to demonstrate they were meeting a particular purchasing and sourcing policy, where known origin needed to be established. Such procurement directives are now becoming more common, particularly in Europe. Many have FSC targets also included, thankfully. Most have incremental acceptable steps from known legal right to harvest, to phased certification (a la SmartStep), to Controlled Wood (developed by FSC with our strong involvement and support).

With more interest and concern globally about illegal logging, VLO is expected to increase. We understand this and intend to provide the service, though we also believe it should not enjoy either the strength of support or benefits that FSC certified operations do. FSC certified operations can put a label a logo on a product – we do not believe VLO operations should be allowed to do this and we are not allowing it.

To be clear, VLO must not become an acceptable end point for companies we work with. We won’t let it become an end to itself. It’s only an interim measure as a company moves on a pathway to responsible forestry or forest product procurement. To date Rainforest Alliance has never done a verification of wood origin for a company that wasn’t already using FSC certified products, and we are committed to focusing on VLO as only a small, but important, step in the right direction.

Debate on the merits of the approach we are suggesting is open, as we have publicly stated. We will accept critique and suggestions as we move forward to forge credible policies to ensure that FSC is not being eroded as a system by legal verification. If Mr. Lang, or anyone else, has substantive questions or suggestions in this regard, we welcome them.

To conclude, we look forward to further inputs. We believe in a transparent consultation process; this is healthy and constructive. We are currently acknowledging responses received, evaluating comments, and then following up with all respondents. We look forward to opening up wider discussions with a range of stakeholders and talk thoughtfully and considerately about these issues. We will also be reaching out to other non-governmental and governmental organizations, with the intent of working with them to develop a framework and standard for VLO auditing and verification that is transparent, global and constructive.

Thank you.

‘Legality’, SmartWood-style | FSC-Watch
FSC Watch: 'Legality', SmartWood-style
In his long and thoughtful comment to an earlier FSC-Watch posting on 'Legality Verification', Jeff Hayward, Lead Auditor for SmartWo...

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