Latest evidence of the group’s belief in this yawning chasm of disparity in righteousness between them and us (and particularly the us which is business) is its new report Destruction: Certified.  Essentially this is Greenpeace taking its hatchet to certification schemes and their business adherents. And, yes, this is the same Greenpeace that was previously best of bedfellows with the FSC. But times change and perhaps being quite so cozy with an organisation that ultimately sanctions felling of trees (albeit in a sustainably managed way) eventually grated with a group that has always been among the most eco-puritanical and non-consensual of environmental NGOs. Being hardcore and walking a stony path alone is central to its brand, and no doubt key to driving membership and garnering headlines – not that I’m saying this had anything to do with its falling out of love with the FSC or the abrasiveness of this latest report, of course, although on the headlines (see below) others beg to differ.

The tone of Destruction: Certified is archetypal Greenpeace. It has come down from the mountain with tablets of stone bearing commandments that must be obeyed, no ifs, buts or compromise.

It sets urgent targets, with scant explanation of how they’re to be met, but dire warnings about the consequences if they’re not. It sets out rigid templates for countries to manage their economies and resources, which, where it deems necessary, include curbing people’s appetite for growth and development. It also tosses enormous figures around to heighten the sense of alarm, with little detail on how they were arrived at.  The report for instance says that governments should ensure that by 2030 ‘30% of land, representing all ecoregions’ should be under rights-based legal protection’. Why 30% and legal protection from what is unclear. By this date, Greenpeace also wants to see ‘restoration of at least 500 million ha of natural forests’; whether completed or underway, how this is to be achieved and why 500 million ha precisely are similarly blurry.  

The report evaluates the performance of nine certification schemes. Besides timber and wood products (FSC and PEFC), these cover palm oil, soy, cocoa, coffee and biofuels.

Few would dispute its core conclusion that certification alone is not up to the task of halting deforestation. While these schemes have operated, loss of forest area has continued, with conversion to agricultural production, principally grazing, soy and palm oil plantations, being the principal factor.

Fewer still would argue that maintenance of forest area is key to combating man-made climate change and that we all bear a responsibility to support it; from industrial and financial sectors, to individual consumers. There’s pretty much universal agreement too on another central tenet of Destruction:Certified, that governments worldwide must continue to act on the issue;  to crack down on illegal logging and the illegal timber trade and on illegal forest conversion and trade in produce from illegally converted land.

There is probably less accord on some of Greenpeace’s broader pronouncements. These include, in order to reduce pressure on land, that government policies and business models be adopted to reduce global meat and dairy consumption by 50% by 2050 – and 70% by 2030 in ‘high consuming regions’.

Going further, says Greenpeace, these policies and models must ‘contribute to a transformation of the current capitalist paradigm fixated on GDP growth into a socio- economic system that respects boundaries of nature and supports social justice and democratic engagement’. Easy, perhaps, for a western environmental organisation to say put the lid on GDP growth (Greenpeace is headquartered in Amsterdam), less so for a developing country focused on growing its economy, creating employment and raising living standards.

But back to certification schemes. Clearly there are reputational and marketing benefits to timber companies, and businesses trading in other forest region products, to sign up to environmental certification. However, while for some image is all, and others might bandy about their certified status and not live up to their certification obligations – and there are bad apples in all walks of life, perhaps even environmental NGOs – most timber companies would say a core motivation for getting certified is to do the right thing. After all, timber business people are human beings with families. Why would they care less than anyone else about protecting forests and combating climate change  ?

But Greenpeace questions their motivation. Central among flaws it sees in the various certification models is their alignment with commercial interests of trade and business. The term greenwash or greenwashing figures over 20 times in the 121 page report, with its starkest use being in reference to the PEFC-endorsed North American SFI scheme. Its operation in Canada, it says, ‘cannot be considered as anything more than a greenwash’.  

It lays out its premise early on in one of its many sweeping and damning generalisations.  First among certification’s ‘several inherent limitations’, says Greenpeace, is that it’s a ‘market-based mechanism, in which the primary incentive producers and consumer companies have for meeting environmental and social standards is not ‘sustainable’ production of products but the reward of increased market access and sales’.

The lack of rigour in standards and implementation of some schemes, it adds, are also such that ‘some companies may be able to obtain certification make a claim of ‘sustainability’ while continuing with business-as-usual destructive practices’.

Greenpeace’s view that commercial interest taints certification is further made clear where it addresses schemes’ governance and decision making. “The main issue is that the business sector tends to be disproportionately represented in these schemes’ governing bodies,” it says. “This entrenches power in favour of corporations – the entities they seek to regulate.”

The whiff of business skewing the system crops up again in the report when it comes to certification scheme auditors and certifying bodies. As these are paid by companies being audited, says Greenpeace, there is ‘intrinsic conflict of interest’. The client, it adds, can also ‘always choose another certifying body if dissatisfied with an audit’s results’. You wonder what the reaction of some of those certifying bodies, which live or die by the impartiality of their audits, is to this ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ implication.

When it comes to timber plantations, while they get a bad press from certain environmentalists, many would say they have a value where established on non-forest, degraded or already deforested land. They help meet growing demand for wood, while acting as a buffer against further incursion into natural forest.  However, the further controversy the Greenpeace report stirs up, as far as PEFC is concerned, is on the historical cut off point after which schemes should not certify plantations converted from  natural forest land.  In the draft report submitted to PEFC and others, it set 2014 as a ‘sufficiently strong’ cutoff date for ecosystem conversion on its ‘scorecard’ for rating certification schemes. This, says PEFC, was subsequently changed to 2008 to ‘make certification systems appear to be underperforming’.

“While a 2008 cut-off date ensures most certification systems fail this indicator, almost all meet (or partially meet) the 2014 date,” says the organisation.

PEFC also cites complaints from other certification schemes about the Greenpeace report’s tone, its ‘significant shortcomings and numerous factual errors’ and the fact that it ignored ‘ample clarifications provided by us and others’.

“We share the sentiment, voiced by others, that the report is ‘written in a biased way and seems to aim at making headlines with simple messages instead of constructively addressing content and discussing it appropriately’,” said PEFC.

This view will no doubt be shared by the majority of the timber sector.  While not perfect, certification has significantly raised awareness among producers, buyers and consumers of the need to source timber sustainably. It’s engaged the supply chain in the task of forest maintenance through purchase of certified sustainably produced timber, which helps incentivize uptake of sustainable forest management,.

Certification schemes themselves acknowledge that they cannot combat deforestation on their own. Producer and consumer country government action to counter illegal trade and support environmentally sound forest management are also key. But certification is an important part of the solution and certification schemes are intent on strengthening its contribution.

By undermining certification Greenpeace threatens to undermine consumer confidence in using timber, the ultimate low carbon, renewable raw material, at a time when we should be using it more to substitute energy-intensive, man-made materials. Its allegation that business is simply using certification as a smokescreen to continue environmentally destructive practices is also a wild and damaging generalization. Timber companies have gone above and beyond and invested billions to achieve certification and are essential players in  the battle against deforestation and the illegal wood trade.

PEFC International chief executive Ben Gunneberg gave his reaction to Destruction:Certified.

 “We need to move to constructive engagement over destructive criticism,” he said. “Our forests are at risk. We need all the tools. We need all the stakeholders. We need everyone to work together, and we need to do so now.”