Eco-labelling: short-lived fad or growing trend?
In an increasingly globalized and mass-produced world, it’s understandable that consumers want to know more about what they are buying and the conditions in which it was made. Nobody wants to encourage child labour, kill dolphins, eat food contaminated by pesticides, or contribute to environmental destruction.
On the other hand, it’s not always clear what these labels mean and how independent they are. Where is the boundary between objective information and advertising?
Things are relatively clear for some labels. At least in developed countries, there is a degree of government control over health claims or the use of terms such as 'organic', for example.
But for the most part, confusion reigns. Many commonly used terms, such as 'environmentally friendly' and 'non-toxic', are in fact meaningless. Other labels stem from voluntary codes of conduct adopted by manufacturers. These may be well intentioned, but in the absence of independent checks for compliance there is no way of knowing if manufacturers have actually abided by the code.
There are, however, a few labelling schemes that have gained credibility internationally - and without needing government regulations to enforce their standards.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one.
The FSC’s origins go back to the images of large swathes of clear-cut forest in Canada and the Amazon that made world headlines in the 1980s. The initial response of some environmental groups was to propose boycotts of tropical and Canadian timber. But it rapidly became clear that this was not an effective solution. Many countries need to use at least part of their forests to generate income and jobs. If they can’t sell timber, the temptation is to cut down the forests and replace them with agricultural crops.
So a more sophisticated response appeared: how about labelling timber from forests managed according to specific standards and promoting it in the market? In other words, why not use market-based incentives to encourage good forest management?
So in 1993, an improbable group gathered in a stuffy meeting room in Toronto, Canada, to discuss setting up the world’s first forest certification organization - a credible system to ensure environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of forests.
The group included environmental organizations such as WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace; indigenous forest dwellers; professional foresters; big retailers such as Sweden’s IKEA and the UK’s B&Q; and large and small forest companies. Together they hammered out agreements on what standards would be required and how decisions would be taken in the new organization.
The FSC was formally established in September 1994. At that time there were no certified forests. 10 years later, nearly 50 million ha - an area larger than Spain - in 62 countries are certified by independent certification bodies accredited by the FSC.
In addition, hundreds of retailers are now Chain of Custody certified, meaning that consumers can purchase timber and other products guaranteed to come from an FSC-certified forest. In the US, for example, these include Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumbermens. Other sectors of the forestry industry, including timber processors and architects, have also committed to producing, trading, or purchasing certified forest products. In all, over 20,000 FSC-certified products are now available around the world.
So is the scheme working?
From the consumer side, demand is definitely growing. For example, Home Depot realized a 65% growth in sales of FSC-certified wood in 2003, and the amount of paper produced to FSC standards quadrupled in Europe in the same year. So it seems that consumers are beginning to recognize the benefits of buying products from well-managed forests.
However, most of the forests certified so far are in Europe and North America, and are not the most severely threatened. Nevertheless, other parts of the world are making great strides.
Bolivia and Brazil, for example, each have over 1 million ha of FSC-certified natural forests, including community-owned forests and forests used to produce non-timber products such as rubber and Brazil nut. China now has 60 chain of custody-certified companies and recently had its first 2 certified forests, while in Japan, the number of FSC-certified companies in the paper industry rose from 1 to 58 last year.
Although the last 10 years have been successful, it hasn’t been easy. Forestry is a complex and controversial business and some of the FSC’s decisions have been subject to criticism. In addition, other certification schemes have sprung up and are providing vigorous competition, with squabbling occasionally breaking out between schemes.
But despite this, there is a message of hope - and not only for the world’s forests. Once fierce enemies, the world’s leading environmental NGOs, social groups, and forest companies have now been working together for a decade on practical measures to save forests and improve people’s well-being. Maybe they’re on to something that other industry sectors could learn from?
* Chris Elliot is Director of WWF's global Forest Programme
Forest certification and the FSC
Widely seen as the most important initiative of the last decade to promote better forest management, forest certification is a system of forest inspection plus a means of tracking timber and paper through a Chain of Custody - following the raw material through to the finished product. This is to ensure that the products have come from forests which are well managed, meaning they take into account environmental, social, and economic aspects.
The key to improving the way forests are managed through forest certification is the credibility and quality of the certification system. WWF supports credible certification, and currently considers the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to be the only credible system to ensure environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of forests. FSC enjoys the support of most national and international environmental NGOs, unions, social groups, indigenous peoples, private, communal and state forest owners, timber industries, scientists, and numerous individuals in more than 60 countries worldwide.
The FSC will celebrate its 10th anniversary on 10 September 2004 at its international headquarters in Bonn, Germany.