Greenpeace signals new direction on certification

18 April 2018

When Greenpeace International became one of the founding members of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) back in 1993 it was a landmark moment.

Global concern had been rising about deforestation in the 1980s and the need for action, particularly to protect tropical forests. The situation reached a head at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Following this both NGOs and industries set up FSC as a voluntary worldwide forests and timber certification scheme. It gave the timber trade a great way to demonstrate the supply of legal and sustainable timber and has been, along with other certification schemes, an important part of trading for many years.

So, the news that Greenpeace International is not renewing its membership of FSC seems like a big moment. It now believes timber certification is a “helpful but inefficient tool” in saving forests.

The campaigning environmental group had only ever backed FSC, but says it has lost faith that the certification body alone can guarantee forests sufficient protection. Greenpeace says, if implemented effectively, FSC could improve forest management, but it is “not consistently applied across regions, especially where there’s weak governance”. It also said FSC and other certification schemes needed to improve transparency.

This will create headlines because of Greenpeace’s worldwide standing as an environmental NGO and may also raise eyebrows in the trade.

FSC (and PEFC) are a reality in the timber trade and widely acknowledged as necessary tools for traders to demonstrate sustainability compliance.

But there are some grumblings from timber companies who complain about the cost, bureaucracy and logistics of certification, while others are confused about the difference between FSC/PEFC and FLEGT-licensed timber, wrongly assuming certified timber is a green light to EU Timber Regulation compliance. And there are those that want harmonisation between various certification schemes and others who talk about beyond certification.

FSC, of course, still has a lot of backers among its hundreds of members, with WWF being another major NGO supporter. And Greenpeace International says some of its offices operating in regions with stronger governance will be allowed to maintain FSC membership. How Greenpeace’s message will affect others’ views is difficult to say, at least for now.

It wasn’t long ago that Greenpeace activists were abseiling down UK government buildings highlighting alleged illegal timber product use. This is probably unlikely to happen again as the UK timber trade and certification schemes have worked hard, with the legal and sustainability landscape now a very different and much improved place.

While certification schemes can always seek to improve, it’s difficult to know how much more they can do to satisfy Greenpeace.