Posts Tagged ‘FSC’

In which CORE bids to Stop the War on the Poor by declaring bizarre war on FSC

This has me much bemused. FSC could do with some tightening up on standards and procedures, that is for sure, but the Congress on Racial Equality’s conclusions leave me asking WTF? They claim to expose three myths:

  • Myth 1: FSC is Transparent – FSC created its own NGO-influenced certification system without regard for national forest management standards or international standards bodies. FSC therefore lacks the arms’ length separation and independence enshrined in more reputable certification systems, such as Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) or Program for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC).
  • Myth 2: FSC Protects Endangered Species – FSC products contain tropical forest species such as red lauan (shorea), a species listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
  • Myth 3: FSC Helps the World’s Poor – FSC labels increase the cost of otherwise low-priced goods in places like Wal-Mart for America’s disadvantaged, minority communities. Additionally, FSC certification is denied to goods produced from land converted from forests after 1994. This rule denies the developing world’s poor the opportunity of greater access to global markets.

It is questionable whether these even deserve the time of day to respond, but here goes:

  1. Quite apart from the fact that many people – myself included – might believe that FSC’s independence is a good thing, how is that not transparent? Transparency has nothing to do with the degree of separation between different entities. FSC certification is voluntary any way, so if you don’t like it, you can ignore it.
  2. CORE’s complaint here ignores the alternative. FSC is not perfect, but you can bet that FSC certified products have far lower proportions of such endangered species than non-certified ones.
  3. This is the most nonsensical allegation of the lot. FSC certification acts to ensure that environmental destruction costs are not externalised; such externalised costs fall predominantly upon the poor (e.g. as with climate change). Such externalities are far more common and typically more egregious in developing countries than in rich ones which have more robust institutions to police them. FSC also has significant safeguards to ensure local communities and the workforce get fair deals. As for the argument about the impact upon poor customers, one might as well argue that slavery should never have been abolished due to the impact on sugar and tobacco prices for poor, benighted consumers.

The longer report makes a smidgeon more sense, but is still a mix of confused arguments and contradictory positions: for instance it’s either a good thing to exclude endangered species from paper production or you can keep prices rock bottom for those poor American consumers (who aren’t half as poor as poor Indonesians suffering from respiratory illnesses due to out-of-control forest fires), but you cannot have both. I have previously argued that the barriers to entry for FSC certification should be simplified, and that would benefit poorer producers in developing countries, but let’s not hold any illusions, the vast majority of cheap wood and paper products are felled and manufactured by sprawling industrial empires; short of a penny or two to improve their operational standards they are not.

The Congress on Racial Equality is barely known in the UK, so I am unsure as to exactly how big a beast they may be on the other side of the pond, and how seriously they may be taken. But one look at their website tells me they are virulently against the environmental movement and firmly aligned with American conservatives (“Niger Innis [the author of this pathetic ‘report’] gets standing ovation at Conservative Leadership Conference ”). Have they received any donations from Asian paper barons recently, one wonders?

As for their report on FSC certification: tosh, utter tosh!


Certification: all things to all men?

IIED’s Sian Lewis has an intriguing piece on Fair Trade over at the Due South blog. My eye was particularly taken by this section:

Other participants shared Justice’s concerns over the infrastructure for fair trade certification. Jorge Chavez-Tafur, from the Centre for learning on sustainable agriculture (ILEIA), asked “Is it true that fair trade standards are so complicated that companies can’t cope?”

It seems the answer is yes. Even from within the movement itself, there were calls to address standards. Merlin Preza, coordinator of Fairtrade Small Producers in Latin America and the Caribbean, said “the problem lies not in meeting standards — of course producers can meet them — the problem is verification”. She explained that poor farmers, who are often illiterate and live in isolated rural areas, often find it very difficult to navigate all the ‘red tape’ involved in registering products and proving where and how products are grown.

“We are asking for simpler — not lower — standards,” said Preza. “They need to be regionally specific because local contexts and cultures can be very different,” she added.

The same problem pertains to forest certification by FSC et al, and I see similar dangers in the emerging standards and safe-guards for REDD+ schemes, especially in the voluntary market. (I’m not familiar with MSC certification of fisheries, but suppose there is likely to be similar issues.)

The dilemma for certifying agencies, I suppose, is that some investigative journalist comes along and exposes some, perhaps relatively small element of a certification supply chain for, say, having dodgy labour practices. The resulting negative publicity could tarnish the entire brand, so the certification standards bodies put in a rule about that.

Unfortunately this is a slippery slope to massive complexity. I’ve seen FSC certification checklists which extend to more than 200 items. Each criterion or sub-criterion on its own is reasonable and generally not too difficult to deliver, but put all together and it becomes immensely challenging. FSC-certified forest managers nearly always have several Corrective Action Requests on the go; failure to improve by the next inspection could see their certificate suspended.

All of this drives up costs. Sian’s post continues:

A bigger problem for fair trade — especially as it goes ‘mainstream’ — is competitiveness. Being able to compete with big business has always been a major challenge for small-scale farmers, who have fewer resources, less bargaining power and limited access to the latest technologies.

Big businesses are taking advantage of a scheme that was originally designed for small-scale producers and now compete with those producers, creating a major problem, said Preza.

This issue is magnified many times over for FSC certification, which was originally devised to reward sustainable management of tropical forests by or involving local communities, but most holders of FSC certificates are big companies, most either based in temperate zones and/or managing plantations not natural forest. Why? Because they have the resources to meet the myriad demands that forest certification makes, and secondly because if you’re running a pine plantation in Europe, you probably already meet 90% of the requirements as otherwise you’d be breaking the law. Conversely, even for big companies managing forest concessions in the tropics I hear that it is marginal as to whether it is profitable to get FSC certification. One could argue that is a market failure, but nonetheless it illustrates the size of the challenge.

So for anyone working on certification type issues, I have one big plea: keep it simple! Decide what are the most important criteria, and focus on them. If you want to add further criteria, then do it on a Bronze, Silver, Gold or similar type ranking (credit therefore to CCBA who’ve taken this approach), with ascending degrees of complexity. I’m all for setting the bar high, but don’t make it ridiculously high (otherwise you’ll limit take up), and don’t go for so many different bars that we lose track of what it is that we basically stand for.

Ethical Publishing for Dummies

“A book is a window on to the world.”

So said a poster I had on my bedroom wall as a kid. However, as all quantum physicists know, observing the world perforce changes the world. And not always for the better, according to this report by the Rainforest Action Network on paper sources used by publishers of children’s books, which alleges pulp from illegal clearance of tropical forest in Indonesia is being used in many children’s books. The publishers’ side is put by this article forwarded on to me my someone I know who works in publishing.

Not being an expert on paper usage by publishers I am not in a position to say exactly to what extent publisher’s efforts to improve their paper sources thus far represent a serious and significant initiative or little more than green-washing. The lowest hanging fruit are always plucked first. Publishers claim that there is not enough FSC certified paper to go around, but have they put enough pressure on their suppliers? If the demand is sufficiently strong and persistent then the supply will surely materialise, and possibly quite quickly. On the other hand we should not demonise firms who are doing everything reasonable to improve things but are constrained by real world limitations.

In the past people just didn’t think through issues like the environmental impact of paper supply, and we shouldn’t hold the publishing industry responsible for the sins and business models of their fathers. However, now that they do know about it, the onus is on them to turn things around, which might require some imaginative thinking, e.g. on reducing the regular over-printing of books which are later pulped, a clearly wasteful strategy that might make a lot less sense if all environmental externalities were properly accounted for. This is undoubtedly a time of upheaval in publishing with the arrival of electronic books and the print-on-demand paradigm, so maybe the stage is set for a radically improved business model?

Thus I raise one cheer for all those publishers who are making genuine efforts to control their paper sources, and another cheer in RAN’s direction for keeping up the pressure. All in all this is another good example of focusing on the end products used in the West rather than chasing shadows in developing countries who have little real interest in policing their own environmental laws.

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