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Published: 07 August 1998

The general purpose of certification is the improvement and documentation of forest management practices. Certification schemes exist or are being developed in a number of countries in North America and Europe. Currently, products from a scheme developed by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international, non-governmental organization, are visible in several European marketplaces.

What is a "certified forest product"? It is a forest product bearing a certificate which demonstrates, in a verifiable manner, that it comes from a forest which is managed sustainably. Certification is a way in which consumers and retailers can check the suppliers of goods. It is also a means for good forest managers to promote their products.

However defining what exactly is meant by "sustainably managed," and setting up fair and credible systems to verify that a product is in fact produced sustainably, poses many problems and has been the cause of much tension in the forest sector, at all levels.

A special chapter in this year's Timber Bulletin "Forest Products Annual Market Review" from the UN/ECE Timber Committee outlines the current state of the marketplace for certified forest products (see abstract in Annex).

For any further information please contact:

Mr. Ed Pepke

Timber Section

Trade Division

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Palais des Nations, Bureau 390

CH - 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Telephone: + 41 22 917 2872

Fax: + 41 22 917 0041

Will certification save our forests?

There are now several active certification schemes in the ECE region with many others, especially in western Europe, under development. These schemes are generally designed to improve as well as document forest management practices. The UN/ECE Timber Committee is questioning the markets for certified forest products.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an environmental, non-governmental organization associated with the WWF, has created a performance-based, third-party certification scheme. This scheme requires processors to assure that they keep certified and non-certified materials separate. This allows products to carry an FSC logo or ecolabel that is designed to communicate to consumers that the product comes from a well-managed forest. FSC labeled products are becoming evident in the retail sector in the United Kingdom and they are beginning to appear in several other European countries.

Some companies and landowners are becoming involved with certification because they see potential advantages. Certification can allow them to communicate more credibly with customers and the general public. They also are able to use certification to enhance their image with stakeholders. Offering certified products can provide companies improved access to markets. Although it has been inconsistent so far, companies can sometimes get higher prices for certified products.

Final consumers are currently not actively demanding certified forest products. Rather, demand is originating from retailers and their suppliers in a few key countries.

Retailers have begun cooperating to form buyers' groups with a commitment to buy certified forest products whenever possible. For example, the most established buyers' group, the 1995+ Group, in the United Kingdom has over 85 members. Participation is driven by a variety of factors including a corporate ethic of "doing the right thing", obtaining assistance in dealing with forestry issues, perceived competitive advantage, and risk aversion. Retailer associations are also forming in other countries.

There is also demand for certified products coming from governments at various levels from local to national. Some companies operating outside of buyers' groups are also demanding certified forest products. For example, some high-end retailers in the U.S. want to have the fixtures in their new stores made from certified wood.

Although it is clear that there is a niche market for certified forest products, it is impossible to quantify the production, trade, and consumption trends due to the absence of reliable statistics. Though demand appears to be growing, certified products are still a minor part of the global industry.

Despite the high profile nature of certification, there are a number of factors that are limiting the growth of the marketplace. If general consumers become interested in certified products it could significantly increase demand. However, few consumers currently know anything about forest certification or certified products.

Supply is another limiting factor. Those companies that want to buy certified products often have difficulty finding them. Some of the companies in the 1995+ Group have a very serious commitment to buying 100% certified products by the year 2000. However, it has been very difficult for them to develop the necessary supply to begin meeting this commitment.

Although certified forest products are still a minor part of the forest products industry, their impact is important. Following developments in this marketplace will be critical for industry and governments alike. In the meantime the Timber Committee is following the development of the markets for certified forest products, both the demand and the supply, and they will be a topic for discussion in their next session on 29 September 1998.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05