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Forest Certification Programs: Environmental Dreams Become a Marketing Reality
Certified Lumber: Environmentally conscientious customers are demanding more sustainable practices from suppliers. Most have heard about this trend for lumber. Discover how one enterprising pallet company is using certification to its advantage.

By Matthew Harrison
Date Posted: 10/1/2007

   As more companies hop on the environmental sustainability bandwagon, forest certification is becoming a popular marketing trait. But just in case you believe it’s just for lumber companies, think again. Progressive pallet companies have even found innovative ways to use forest certification programs to their advantage.    

   For over a decade, forest certification has become a more common practice. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are the two primary forest certification organizations that set standards for responsible tree harvesting. These organizations are also actively involved in monitoring land-use, ecosystem diversification, and wildlife habitats. 

   The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is committed to sustainable forestry, as well, but consists only of private, family-owned forests. Although ATFS is widely recognized as a sustainable source of timber for commercial purposes, many ATFS certified land owners do not harvest their timber stock. 

   Because the FSC and SFI programs are geared toward larger tracts of land, big businesses choose either of these as sources for certified sustainable lumber. Although forest preservation is highlighted by both companies, their fundamental goals and background are different.

   As environmental stewardship and sustainability become more desired by consumers and companies, some customers may start asking for another stamp to go alongside the ISPM-15 mark.


FSC vs. SFI: Two Sides Of the Same Coin

   By working with third-party auditors, the FSC acts as a governing body to ensure that environments are biologically diverse and safe from unnatural hazards while providing economically viable land management. Furthermore, the FSC provides incentives to local people to recognize the benefits of long-term forest management strategies.

   Two types of certification are available from FSC, one for land use and the other for raw material production. A forest management certificate is granted after an FSC-accredited auditor verifies that a forest complies with FSC’s management practices.

   The second certification is considered a chain of custody certification, meaning that each stage of production from the forest to the consumer is FSC certified. This includes processing, manufacturing, and distribution.

   FSC Communication Director Katie Miller explained that companies are beginning to look at forest certification as a new business standard.

   “If you’re a forest products company, you’re going to go with what your customers want,” she said.  Katie added that wood products companies seek FSC certification because it “is regarded in the marketplace as [having] more stringent environmental and social controls.”

   The recent commercialization of environmental awareness has led companies like Victoria’s Secret and Williams-Sonoma to do business with FSC-accredited paper companies.

   Miller also mentioned that support from Greenpeace and the National Wildlife Federation sways many customers when choosing a forest certification program. “Corporate customers tend to be very aware of the differences [between FSC and SFI], she said.

   “Williams-Sonoma and Victoria’s Secret print tons and tons of catalogs each year, and a company like that certainly weighs all the options before they make a commitment.” Katie remarked.

   The SFI program integrates the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the protection of wildlife, plants, soil, water, and air quality, according to its Web site.

   SFI also offers chain of custody certification to prove that wood products originated from responsibly harvested forests, not as a result of illegal logging. Like the FSC program, SFI collaborates with third-party auditors to implement its forestry and chain of custody standards.

   Jason Metnick, Manager of SFI Labeling and Licensing noted that SFI forest certification is a product of growing consumer demand.

   “Environmental issues are becoming very main stream,” Jason said.  “Consequently, consumers are more aware than ever. Forest certification is a way to demonstrate that the wood products companies and consumers are buying from well-managed forests.”

   Jason noted that land management training is a large part of why forest products companies seek SFI certification. “The SFI program has the most comprehensive standard that audits family forest wood fiber, trains loggers and foresters in best management practices, and has specific objectives for investment in sustainable forestry research,” he said.

   SFI certification also requires wood producers to adhere to rigorous, science-based standards for certification, while simultaneously encouraging companies to provide forest management education to small landowners.

   With such seemingly parallel agendas, picking one certification program over the other may appear cumbersome and overly critical. Nonetheless, it’s the little asterisks that make a big difference to companies that want certification stamps.


The Fine Line Between

   The most notable difference between the two programs is their origin. The FSC was founded in 1990 by trade organizations, as well as environmental and human rights groups as a global umbrella of sustainable forest management standardization.

   Some consider SFI an industrial response to FSC. It was conceptualized by the American Forest and Paper Association’s (AF&PA) adoption of Sustainable Forestry Initiative Principles and Implementation Guidelines in 1994.

   “SFI was started by the paper companies, so it’s sort of like insider trading to me,” said Nick Frost, co-founder of a.k.a. Green, an environmentally-friendly building firm. His business partner, Mike Dalrymple, created PBS’ Build It Green! television series.

   “They’re interested in trying to steer certification so it makes their processes easier,” said Frost of the SFI certification program. “They didn’t get into it to start preserving. It was a way for them to capture a portion of the marketplace.”

   Environmentally-driven Web sites like dontbuysfi.com, sponsored by the Alliance for Credible Forest Certification, denounce the SFI program. This site claims that SFI “condones environmentally harmful practices including large-scale clear-cutting and chemical use, logging of old growth and endangered forests, and replacement of forests by ecologically degraded tree plantations.”

   Frost explained that “it’s either your wallet or it’s your heart that drives you” to choose between SFI and FSC. “Typically, people looking at it from a wallet standpoint just don’t get it, and people looking from their heart understand what needs to happen, and I think that’s really the difference.

   Even though he favored the FSC program, Frost admitted that SFI is making strides to match FSC standards. “We’ve seen SFI slowly increase their standards over time to trying and get them more comparable to FSC,” he said.

   For business owners with little choice but to keep wallets in mind, several studies have been conducted to compare programs from a more practical perspective.  

   A 2006 study from Oregon State University highlights a few of the key differences between the FSC and SFI certification programs. 

   FSC has very stringent rules on how plantations are managed, whereas the SFI does not define or regulate them. FSC also restricts clear-cutting, but SFI allows clear-cutting for an average of 120 acres. Naturally, SFI makes exceptions for “forest health emergencies and natural catastrophes.”

   Another stark contrast is that the SFI allows the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with adherence to government regulations; FSC prohibits GMO use in certified forests. 

   In 2001, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation collaborated with state forestry agencies from Maine, North Carolina, and Tennessee to evaluate the FSC and SFI programs in the field. Each site was inspected by both FSC and SFI auditors, and program participants were asked to rate the performance of each certifying body.

   The FSC program scored consistently higher in three categories of evaluation: standards, process, and outcome. FSC scored a medium or high rating in 88 of the total 134 elements under review, as opposed to SFI’s score of 66.

   The report concludes that both entities have considerable strengths. FSC is noted as more comprehensive, more adequate biological/ecological and social issues in its standards, and more relevant to state agencies’ forest management objectives. SFI is commended for having clearer guidelines, better assessment processes, and being more rigorous in terms of improvement over time and staff training.

   The other aspect in question is the price tag associated with certification, but there’s no simple answer for that. Since both programs use third-party auditors, it depends on which auditing service a customer chooses. 

   “The cost depends on the size of the company,” said Jason. “It can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a couple hundred thousand dollars.”


Green Pallets Get FSC Nod

   Forest stewardship is quietly seeping into the pallet market too. The Ongweoweh Corporation, founders of gotpallets.com, is working with the FSC to ensure that some of its pallets meet chain of custody certification criteria.

   Although FSC certification is not required by any of Ongweoweh’s customers, “We’re trying to do the right thing, so we try to be proactive,” said Systems Manager Jason Brennan.

   “Our company has always been very environmentally conscious,” Brennan continued, “We saw [the FSC] program as an opportunity for our company. We like what they stand for.”

   Ongweoweh’s Green Pallet program started out not only as an environmentally conscious decision, but as a logical way to keep tabs on pesky odd-ball

   “It’s been a great program for International Paper,” Brennan acknowledged. “We’ve gotten close to 200,000 pallets a year for them.” He added that the FSC-approved Green pallet stamp allows Ongweoweh to maintain business with its bigger customers, while also helping small-time recyclers make use of odd pallets.

   Brennan explained that International Paper is a perfect example.

   “It’s a 46.5x35 4-way pallet,” said Jason. “Nobody wants it. You tear the deckboards off and the stringers are no good because you can’t cut it down. It’s a relative garbage pallet to everyone but the paper industry.”

   He added that the Green Pallet program allows pallet repair companies the freedom to do as they wish with stamped pallets. Brennan explained, “We pay the fair market value for the pallet and we don’t demand the pallet back; it’s their pallet.”

   One of the biggest advantages of using the FSC program is ensuring that the remanufactured pallets are of high quality from certified forests.

   “Unfortunately everybody doesn’t repair to the same standards,” said Brennan. “You can put out a specification, but to get everybody to do it the right way is nearly impossible.”

   Certified repair facilities, inspected and approved by FSC auditors, control quality and ultimately keep more pallets in circulation for Ongweoweh’s customers. The FSC stamp also helps Ongweoweh get more pallets back, too.

   John Vurovecz, owner of Pallet Servicing in Holyoke, Maine, runs one of Ongweoweh’s FSC certified repair facilities. He said that the Green Pallet program helps him make some extra cash, because he can do something with the odd-sized pallets aside from sending them to the grinders.

   Although John works almost exclusively with GMA pallets, putting out nearly 500,000 per year, his company is very meticulous about handling Green Pallets.

   “We physically go through every single one of them,” he said. “We take those unsalvageable pallets, strip them down, and recover everything and anything that’s usable in that pallet, and we use that toward repairing the broken ones.”

   John admitted that he doesn’t see too many oddball pallets, but he expects GMA pallets will eventually need green stamps to prove that they come from sustainable forests. “It would be beneficial if they did,” he concluded.

   As the companies continue to market their environmental merit, more customers will eventually begin to look for certification from groups like FSC and SFI. 

   “People are looking for ways to separate themselves from the status quo and [certification] is a good way for them to be able to do it,” said Nick. “I think those industries will be able to educate consumers as to what some of the choices are as well.”

   The bottom line is that certification from either organization is better than nothing. There is no definitive winner in the FSC versus SFI grudge match, but competition is healthy.

   “Certainly, competition is good,” said Miller, adding that it makes both companies improve forest management. “Each program has it own set of standards, and each customer has decided which values match with their own, but the marketplace is going to help determine that.”

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