NEW YORK, July 19, 2011 (RISI) -Forest certification programs must be more than simply a strict standard. Responsible forestry must account for the fact that, by anyone's definition, forests are a source of economic and social health as well as environmental benefits. It is more than just a product label. Without a "big picture" approach, according to the latest progress report from Sustainable Forestry Initiative, no certification program can reach its full potential.
"The main purpose is responsible forestry," says Kathy Abusow, president of Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Inc. "I don't think you do certification for the market. You do certification because you care about responsible forestry. From that, you get marketplace benefits."
Forests are dynamic and need to be continually managed; a job that's never done, continues Abusow. Changing climate contexts, business contexts and land ownership demands are forcing forest certification programs to reassess how they will address an increasingly complex landscape. It's a task SFI is gearing up to tackle over the next few years, a change that will build on the organization's existing standards.
"Our indicator for success isn't just how many forests are certified to our standard," says Abusow. "We are driven by how we are changing responsible forestry, how we are impacting it through our on-the-ground contribution."
Approximately 90% of the world's forests remain uncertified,
underscoring the importance of certification programs.
Benefits of competition
The threat to the world's forests is a large enough problem to accommodate everyone who wants to participate in responsible forestry. But despite the substantial efforts of the major certification programs in the last two decades, approximately 90% of the world's forests remain uncertified, a statistic Abusow mentions frequently to underscore the importance of these programs.
"We do not believe that one program alone can meet the variety of forest contexts nor do they have the capacity to deal with all these global, pressing issues," says Abusow. "There shouldn't be a monopoly on responsible forestry."
Forest certifications programs continue to grow in popularity because of overarching concerns with deforestation and illegal logging, both by the public and the industry. Providing proof legal and sustainable practices help satisfy stricter laws and the demands of a modern, informed consumer.
The SFI program has grown considerably since its inception in 1994, accounting for more than 74 million hectares in North America. It is the largest single forest standard in the world, recognized by the global PEFC standard, with more than 2500 organizations involved in the program. With strong roots in North America, the SFI program is now a non-profit overseen by SFI Inc., an independent organization that draws on equal leadership from environmental, social and economic groups.
The results of having more than one player in the certification market have brought many benefits to the table, creating a healthy competitive environment for each program. In an effort to distinguish the SFI program as one of the best, Abusow points out that taking a leadership position means more than being called a standard. Defining a sustainable forestry initiative requires a multi-point approach that addresses the needs of all the groups involved.
For these goals, SFI is focusing on more inclusive efforts, such as research and community collaboration, in addition to a best-of-class forest certification standard. By adding specific strategic goals, SFI is able to build in the shared objectives with conservation and community parts to improve forestry practices at the local and global levels.
"Future forests depend on the economic viability of forests,"
says Kathy Abusow, president of Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Inc.
"Otherwise, you may not have any forests left."
SFI's recent progress report highlights this combined, strategic approach. Research has been a long-standing requirement for SFI program participants. In 2010, SFI program participants invested $81.4 million for research activities, and since 1995 have invested more than $1.2 billion.
"We are unique in regard to our standard's requirement for research," says Abusow. "There are very few, if any, forest certification programs that are really looking seriously at forestry research."
To extend SFI research goals, SFI kicked off the "Conservation and Community Partnerships Grant Program" to allow program participants to help direct the needs for research with local conservation groups and community-based organizations. SFI is currently in the second year of the grant programs and Abusow is personally very pleased with the initial level of support and encouragement from existing program participants.
"This continues to be an important focus point for us moving forward," says Abusow, "expanding our partnerships across North American and globally to understand how these sorts of projects can be applied to a broader spectrum of the SFI program participant community."
Recognition of a community network is another focus for SFI. The program is the only standard that also has a network of implementation committees. Currently, there are 37 different implementation committees across North America, traditionally engaged in actions to directly improve forestry practices "on the ground", including loggers training and landowner outreach.
Active participation in projects with Habitat for Humanity, the Boy Scouts and Canada's Girl Guides are core parts of SFI community network. While they may sound commonplace, these kinds of projects are practical ways to educate generations of stakeholders in responsible forestry, in ways that touch their lives on a daily basis.
Forestry's connection with economics is one of the strongest arguments for responsible forestry practices. Critics argue that industry groups only adhere to standards in order to placate the need for "social buy-in." Addressing the marketplace concerns of deforestation and illegal logging are important, but they are not the only reason for certification. Opening the doors to public scrutiny and inviting participation with conservation groups helps improve forestry on the ground and improve sustainability overall.
"I do think the North American forest sector is, and should be, recognized internationally as a leader in terms of managing with multiple values and interests," says Abusow. "Forest certification can't take all the credit for that, right? It's one tool that has contributed, but there are many drivers for change."
Companies should be given credit for taking a leadership approach by completing a third-party certification program such as SFI's. As Abusow explains, economic health is being comfortable with the economic services being provided from forests, a result that can only happen if a company is managing them responsibly. If there is no economic return, forests will be converted to a higher economic purpose, especially under private ownership.
"People have to get comfortable with understanding that future forests depend on the economic viability of forests," says Abusow. "Otherwise, you may not have any forests left."