The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 that claims to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. While the FSC set standards on forest products, it has been debunked as an instance of “greenwashing”, wrongly certifying and labelling unsustainable products as eco-friendly, leading many environmental NGOs to discontinue their membership with FSC.
The FSC’s stated mission is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests”. To this end the body has published a global strategy with five goals:
- Advancing globally responsible forest management.
- Ensure equitable access to the benefits of FSC systems.
- Ensure integrity, credibility and transparency of the FSC system.
- Create business value for products from FSC certified forests.
- Strengthen the global network to deliver on goals 1 through 4.
These goals are supposedly promoted by activities which are managed and developed through six program areas: forests, chain of custody, social policy, monitoring and evaluation, quality assurance and ecosystem services.
It claims that forests managed to its standards offer benefits to both local and wider communities and these are said to include cleaner air and water, and a contribution to mitigating the effects of climate change.
Directly or indirectly, FSC addresses issues such as illegal logging, deforestation and global warming and some reports indicate positive effects on economic development, environmental conservation, poverty alleviation and social and political empowerment.
Using the FSC logo supposedly signifies that the product comes from responsible sources—environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable. The FSC label is used on a wide range of timber and non-timber products from paper and furniture to medicine and jewelry. and aims to give consumers the option of supporting responsible forestry.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, half of the world’s forests have already been altered, degraded, destroyed or converted into other land uses. Much of the remaining forests today suffer from illegal exploitation and otherwise poor management. FSC was established as a response to these concerns over global deforestation.
Tropical deforestation as a global concern rose to prominence in the 1980s and can be somewhat attributed to a fight for action by environmentalists and northern countries over the need to protect tropical woodland. Prior to this, a number of other economic and regulatory mechanisms such as financial aid, policy frameworks and trade conventions were established in the fight against deforestation. These include the International Tropical Timber Agreement (1983), the Convention of International Trade on Endangered Species (1975) and the Global Environment Facility (1991). Despite the increased level of concern on the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, tensions between the North and the global South over access to finance and technology for the preservation of forests protracted negotiations. Although many Northern countries had hoped for a legally binding convention the resulting Statement of Forest Principles represents the “mean position of the lowest common denominator” and is voluntary. Disappointed with the outcome of the Earth Summit, NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) began to turn their attention to industry for a more meaningful governance-orientated resolution to the problem of deforestation.
In the lead up to the Earth Summit, social groups, NGOs and industries were also beginning to consult on the issue of deforestation. In America the consultation process that eventually led to the establishment of the FSC was initiated in 1990 and concluded in the confirmation of support for the development of a voluntary worldwide certification and accreditation governance system that would cover all forest types. In the UK, NGO WWF began to facilitate action through the establishment of the 1995 Group, recruiting organisations that had been spurred on by instances of direct action and boycotting over the sale of tropical wood to form an NGO-business partnership. Through stakeholder involvement it became apparent that a standard-setting body would be required to verify the source of wood products and define sustainable forest management. After 18 months of consultation in ten different countries, the Forest Stewardship Council was finally established in 1993.
The failure of governments to reach any notable form of consensus in the form of an internationally reaching and legally binding agreement caused both disillusionment and an opportunity for change through the involvement of civil society and business actors to form “soft law”. As such the establishment of the Forest Stewardship Council as the response to this disillusionment also represents a global shift from government to governance and its creation is a primary example of the use of market and economic factors to create movement on a global environmental issue. The evolving historical context in which the FSC was formed is theorised to reflect a much broader skepticism towards state power and as a consequence a shift away from traditional state-centric forms of regulation. That said, although the FSC transcends national boundaries, the state continues to play a part in the regulatory landscape of the domestic forest and as such the FSC must develop appropriate domestic governance to reflect this.
Structure and governance
FSC is an international membership organization with a governance structure based on participation, democracy, equity and transparency. It is a platform for forest owners, timber industries, social groups and environmental organizations to come together to find solutions to improve forest management practices.
It is governed by its members, who join either as individuals or as representatives of organisations; they come from diverse backgrounds including environmental NGOs, the timber trade, community forest groups and forest certification organizations. Members apply to join one of three chambers – environmental, social and economic; each chamber is divided into northern and southern sub-chambers and votes are weighted to ensure that north and south each have 50%; this system is designed to ensure that influence is shared equally between different interest groups, without having to limit the number of members.
FSC has three levels of decision making bodies: The General Assembly, the Board of Directors and the Executive Director.
- The General Assembly, which takes place every three years, is made up of the three membership chambers and is the highest decision-making body in FSC. The most recent General Assembly took place in 2014. Every member has the right to attend, formulate and submit motions, and vote. The General Assembly represents an opportunity for everybody to share, learn, establish new alliances and exchange and explore business opportunities to create a better future of the forests.
- The FSC Board of Directors is accountable to the FSC members. It is made up of nine elected individuals who are FSC members and advocates. One member of the Board of Directors is elected from each sub-chamber of the General Assembly.
- The Executive Director runs FSC on a day-to-day basis with the support of a multi-cultural professional team at the FSC International Center. He or she is accountable to the FSC Board of Directors.
While the FSC International Center is based in Bonn, Germany, it has a decentralized network of FSC Network Partners that promote responsible forest management on behalf of FSC. FSC Network Partners include FSC National Offices, FSC National Representatives and FSC National Focal Points.