Product certification which offers the reassurance of an environmentally friendly label is a popular consumer solution to deforestation. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), founded in 1993, is one widely recognised label testifying to the social, economic and environmental quality of timber products. However, timber certification has struggled to achieve decisive results for a variety of reasons; for example, only 13% of timber sourced from tropical forests is covered by the FSC label.

One problem for certification is the high volume of timber that has been felled illegally in countries unable to enforce their own laws. The US and Europe have responded with their own regulations to reassure sensitive consumers. The 2008 US Farm Bill created the world’s first legislative ban on the import or purchase of illegal timber. And in 2010 the European Parliament approved the EU Timber Regulation, with a similar objective. The first successful prosecution under the new US law was completed in 2012 when Gibson Guitars agreed to pay a fine for importing illegal rosewood from Madagascar.

Palm oil certification since 2008 has been led by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Like the FSC label, the RSPO has faced criticism and embraces only 21% of the total market for palm oil. The dominant producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, prefer to promote their own standards with voluntary safeguards.

Popular global consumer campaigns have therefore played the more effective role in slowing the pace of deforestation, especially those which target the reputational risk of big corporate brand names. In 2017, Greenpeace published a report alleging that HSBC bank had arranged over $16 billion of financing for big companies engaged in clearance of Indonesian forests for palm oil. Within months the bank revised its lending policy, conscious of reputational damage amongst its millions of retail customers.

A sequence of similar campaign victories has unleashed an avalanche of “zero deforestation” policies announced by the sector’s most significant global companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper, McDonalds and Cargill. By 2017, over 400 commitments were on record, many of them coordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of consumer companies.

All of these attempts to reassure consumers, whether through labelling or corporate promises, depend for their effectiveness on a common understanding of the required supply chain safeguard. The broad principles are clear – no deforestation, no destruction of rich peatlands, and no exploitation of local communities – but detailed interpretation is fraught. For example, an agreed definition of “high carbon stock” to classify land is proving elusive. There is also consistent evidence that companies are having difficulties in monitoring their own supply chains.

Very few companies therefore achieve unconditional endorsement by environmental campaigners. Nevertheless, consumer-based solutions to deforestation are considered by many observers to be more potent than protracted negotiations to enact international laws. Formidable challenges remain, in particular to bring public pressure to bear on the world’s other major timber importers – China, Vietnam and Japan.

An opportunity to persuade these Asian countries to introduce legislation against imports of illegal timber has been missed through the withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Trade (TPP). The TPP has now been revised to exclude the crucial clause.

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more Forests briefings (updated April 2018)
Importance of Tropical Forests
Deforestation and Forest Degradation
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Causes of Deforestation
Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links