Commentary: Beyond Certification

Lead Author: Kathryn Fernholz

Publish date: 05.09.2012


In 2013, the world will mark the 20-year anniversary of third-party forest certification. After 20 years of effort, approximately 10% of the world’s forests have been certified through the various programs.  During this time, many changes have occurred in the forest sector and in the practice of forest management. Yet, in spite of many successes, major hurdles remain.  Although it could clearly be argued that global forestry has been affected positively, not only are 90% of the world’s forests uncertified but also the certified 10% was already the best-managed forestland in existence. So the key question now is what will the next 20 years of forest improvement look like? Will we continue on the certification path we are on, or will we thoughtfully assess and apply the lessons learned in order to chart an improved course?  Based upon the knowledge gained over the past two decades and the experiences of other eco-labeling systems, it is clear that a better method is needed, and is possible. It is time to move beyond the forest certification of the past generation and entertain a broader, more inclusive, and more cost effective approach.


The existing approach to forest certification is extremely complex and is inflicting significant cost on the forest sector.  It is complex in that current systems have become moving targets with ever changing standards and inconsistent interpretations that undermine the credibility of the entire effort.  The current approaches to forest certification have created confusion, hypocrisies in the way standards are being applied, and they have failed to adequately address emerging issues such as illegal logging and bioenergy production.  Forest certification is also costly.  To date, it is likely that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in order to recognize the existing best-managed forestlands in the world.  One shudders to think of the costs and the complexities of addressing the remaining forest segment under the current approach.  There are many diverse benefits being realized from forest certification, but the focus needs to be on the forest, rather than the process, and the approach needs to be easily applicable to more diverse forest management situations.


In marketing terms, forest certification is a well-defined attribute, but an unclear benefit[1].  When organic certification was evolving, a similar situation occurred.  Organic certification was initiated by non-governmental organizations and evolved into competing systems that established diverse standards and attempted to raise the bar on each other to gain recognition as the “gold standard”.  Over the course of nearly 20 years (1972-1990), as the market potential for organic increased, the competing standards and their changing requirements became a barrier to growth and a bottleneck to supply.  In addition, the perceived benefit from “organic” became muddied by the growing and diverse claims of various producers scattered over wide geographic areas.  In response, the U.S and other nations chose to establish government-based programs for managing organic standards.  These programs resulted in many significant changes.  Key among these was a clarification of the legal definition of “certified organic” which demystified the benefit to the marketplace.


These changes were followed by dramatic growth in the organic market.  The U. S. sales of organic products have grown from $1 billion in 1990 (when the Organic Food Production Act was passed) to an estimated $20 billion in 2007; and grew an average of 18% each year between 2007-2010.[2] The USDA Organic Program also drove the creation of a new space for the direct marketing of local products as a “deeper shade of green.”


So, what would a better forest certification system look like?  How can the benefits of certification be clarified in the marketplace?  There are many possible answers. One approach would be to have forest certification simply take greater advantage of existing forest management infrastructure and expertise, recognize the benefits of existing, effective regulatory systems (e.g., U.S. laws), and utilize terminology that has greater acceptance in, and attraction to, the marketplace.  Marketplace acceptance could be tested for attributes like GMO-free wood, wood grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides, or wood from forests that are regenerated with native species.  Another approach would be to develop a comparative index that ranks forest practices based upon a small number, but clearly identifiable and understandable forestry considerations.  Using this type of approach, product market claims could be based on regional or global rankings (e.g., wood comes from forests among the top 10% in the world or attains four out of five stars).  In addition to these possibilities, further approaches and/or improvements in forest certification could be defined by interviewing both current and potential users (especially in Tropical areas) to identify those methodologies that they would see as having significant potential to increase the practice of responsible forestry.


Pursuing additional options and enhancements might allow the forest sector to rapidly move beyond the current limits of forest certification.  The original goal hasn’t changed.  We still need to dramatically decrease deforestation in tropical areas.  According to the UNECE[3], in the twenty years since certification was formed we have certified only 2% (200 million acres) of tropical forest while over 700 million acres of tropical forest has been deforested.   We also need to be able to identify wood from well-managed forests across the globe.  In addition, U.S. markets need to be assured that the wood products they purchase meet the requirements of the Lacey Act.


The first question that matters for the forest sector at this point is:  Do we want the next 20 years of forest certification to look like that last 20?  If the answer is No, which it must be for anyone who cares about forests and the forest sector, then the next question is:  How can we most effectively move beyond current forest certification methodologies to dramatically benefit forests?  And the answer to that question is to pursue a system that leads us to the core principles of what wood means as a renewable, infinite, sustainable, responsible and natural product.  Good examples and abundant experience now exist to allow us to modify, change, and adapt to a better future.


Dr. Jeff Howe, Ph.D.

Kathryn Fernholz, Executive Director

May 2012


[1] An attribute is a characteristic of a product (e.g. it is blue), a benefit is the customer’s perceived value of that attribute (e.g. they like, or dislike, blue).


[3] Kraxner, F., K. Fernholz, and T. Owari. 2011. Certified Forest Products Markets, 2010-2011.  UNECE: Forest Products Annual Market Review 2010-2011, August 2011. pg 101.