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The Ethics And Unintended Consequences Of Forest Certification

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This mistake of judging policies by their intentions instead of their results continually repeats itself when government regulations in private markets create incentives and processes that undermine the very goals they were set to achieve. These missteps take place in the increasingly competitive forest products market as hypocritical activist groups, such as ForestEthics, push their agenda in the face of hard facts and data that contradict their assumptions and consumer expectations. The disinformation of these agenda-driven groups deserves to be exposed to the realities of the forest certification market.


The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), an organization that attempts to promote ethics in public life, just released a white paper that examined the forest certification market. It concluded that many involved in the debate over certification programs display environmental hypocrisy with their promotion of a single standard, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Forest certification aims to incentivize the preservation of land and prevent deforestation. It grew in size and scope as a result of changing consumer preferences and a desire of landowners to preserve their property. Ideally, it is a free market process that allows sellers and buyers to select from a variety of choices, as competition forces businesses that make forest products to offer the best quality goods at an affordable price. This allows businesses to choose from a large number of certification programs to find the best system that fit their needs and allows consumers to choose from a growing number of forest products that fit their preferences.

Unfortunately, environmental activists and organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) seek to enforce a framework where only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified timber gets recognized as environmentally sustainable. The USGBC’s “LEED” program uses a point-based rating system for buildings that awards credits to FSC-wood. This bias means that most wood products procured from land certified in the U.S. are severely disadvantaged; FSC recognizes only about one-quarter of North America’s certified forests. The other three-quarters of certified forests – recognized by groups such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and American Tree Farm System (ATFS) – are shut out of the competition, despite standards which are quite similar to those of FSC, and in some cases significantly better than the FSC standards.


The anti-competitive nature of the LEED system becomes more apparent after taking into account that hundreds of cities require LEED standards in building projects. Advocates of the FSC standard influence government agencies to promote the LEED, using taxpayer dollars to favor one certification program over another.

Regulations that promote FSC at the expense of other programs end up creating real environmental costs in contrast to activists’ claims that FSC is the gold standard for forest certification programs. 90% of FSC certified wood products come from outside the U.S., meaning there are more transportation costs. Additionally, there is no single FSC standard as its guidelines and benchmarks vary greatly from country to country. This undercuts any certainty to the consumer of exactly what standards apply to the product being purchased. Third, many of the perceived “abuses” – such as harvesting old growth trees – can occur even if a wood product is certified.

Furthermore, activist groups such as ForestEthics attempt to bully U.S. corporations into using FSC-products exclusively, as they promote FSC as the best certification program. These businesses need to know the facts before they succumb to this pressure.

Given the financial and environmental costs of a framework that pushes the use of FSC-certified wood in the U.S., policymakers should instead promote a free, open system that increases competition and promotes innovation in the certification market.


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