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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2002 : Special Section

Special Section
Taking Care of Our Forests

Responsible business practices influence global forest health.

By David Ford

"So long as wood retains its importance in human life, logging will remain an essential human activity. Just as with farming, the issue is not eliminating the practice but making it more environmentally sustainable."

—Forest Futures, Population Action International, 2000

What do companies like IKEA, Starbucks and Andersen Windows have in common? They all use forest products and they all care about how their patterns of consumption affect global forest health.

Business leaders in a wide range of sectors are increasingly exercising the market influence of their companies to improve the health of the world’s forests. This growing trend among retailers, suppliers, procurers and specifiers reflects rising social concerns about the relationship between forest products consumption and the sustainability of forest management practices, both local and global. Whether motivated by opportunities to establish their brand identity with consumers, a desire to develop risk management practices or simply a commitment to do the right thing, individual businesses are recognizing that they have the power to make a difference in determining how forests are managed.

Over the years, there has been much debate about sustainability. Yet, for all the energy spent on the topic, no clear and practical definition of how to achieve sustainability has been agreed upon by all interest groups. Partly in response to this, many business leaders have moved beyond the debate about defining sustainability and are communicating their visions in terms of responsibility.

Responsible patterns of behavior are a means to work toward sustainability while the debate about its definition and implementation continues. Because responsibility conjures different images and is open to different interpretations, it is defined and validated through an inclusive dialogue based on shared values and available information. Responsible practices are characterized by a process of continual improvement, the development of new market tools for implementing practices and measuring progress and a generally high degree of public scrutiny. Moreover, they require active engagement of business leaders with civil society.

This article seeks to advance the dialogue about responsible business practices as they relate to the world’s forests. To promote an understanding of responsible actions, it begins by briefly examining some of the key issues that are being addressed in the marketplace. The next section turns to some of the mechanisms that are available to help business consumers use the power of purchasing and sales to improve the health of the world’s forests.


While a complex web of factors determines the health of the world’s forests, several issues have come under scrutiny by environmental, social and business interests. These include illegal logging, forests of unique or high
conservation value, well-managed forests and responsible consumption.

• Illegal Logging

While recognized as a global problem, illegal logging is difficult both to define and to identify. Broadly, it includes activities that are not in compliance with applicable laws, such as harvesting in protected areas, exceeding allocated harvest levels and operating without license. Analysis by the Brazilian government estimates that up to 80 percent of harvesting in the Amazon basin is illegal. In Indonesia, this number is 70 percent and in Cameroon, 60 percent.

In addition to the rampant environmental degradation caused by illegal logging, these activities also tarnish the reputation of the global forest products industry. Because consumers and retailers may not be able to tell where the wood they buy came from, all wood is suspect until it can be proven that it is derived from a legal forest operation. Moreover, in the highly commoditized forest products industry, cheap wood entering the market from illegal operations tends to set the bottom price in the market, impacting the bottom line of legitimate producers.

• Forests of High Conservation Value

In addition to the wood products, forests provide a multitude of less-recognized services to society, such as watershed protection, preservation of biodiversity, global climate moderation, wildlife habitat and resilience to natural disturbances. Different forest ecosystems around the world provide unique combinations of these broad values. Moreover, while many forests can be actively managed to produce wood products while maintaining a stream of ecosystem services, other unique areas and ecosystems are particularly sensitive to disturbance. These areas of high conservation value require specific protection that often constrains or excludes active harvesting.

• Well-managed Forests

Beyond issues of illegal logging and high conservation value forests, the quality of forest management practices varies considerably worldwide. At the worst, poor forest harvesting practices can damage water quality, destroy wildlife habitat, create wildfire risks, deplete soil productivity and potentially destroy ecosystems.

These are by no means inevitable outcomes of forest management, which has been an evolving professional practice for over a century. Well-managed forests produce a stream of forest products and services with limited negative side effects by managing to standards that minimize environmental risks. While there is no single agreed-upon forest management standard worldwide, several evolving mechanisms recognize a well-managed forest.

• Responsible Consumption

The annual global consumption of approximately 1.6 billion cubic meters of wood is not spread evenly across the world. Per capita wood use in the United States, for example, is 15 times that of China. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population have not yet achieved a level of paper use that is considered necessary to meet basic needs for literacy and communication (Forest Futures, Population Action International, 2000).

As populations and levels of development continue to grow, it will be critical to increase efficiency of wood use through engineering and design, as well as to consider the appropriate use of wood and potential substitute materials. While some may argue that wood use should be displaced by greater reliance on steel or agricultural fibers, these trade-offs must be examined within a larger context, as forest products can often be deployed with less overall environmental impact than other substitute products.


"I think that if a company our size and posture can pull this off, and I know that we can, then we will be a catalyst for change among a lot of companies."
—Arthur Blank, Founder, The Home Depot

While the challenges facing the world’s forests are serious, new business practices are being developed to harness the power of the marketplace to improve forest management and health. As business leaders examine their role in using and promoting responsible forest products, many are discovering that these practices are not only good for the environment, but they also benefit corporate bottom lines.

Recently, large retailers such as IKEA, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Lanoga Corp. and Wickes Inc. have adopted responsible forest products purchasing policies that favor products from well-managed forests and committed to avoiding those from illegal sources and high conservation value areas. Other companies such as Nike, Andersen Windows, Centex, Norm Thompson and Starbucks are actively pursing responsible forest products purchasing in their production lines, capital improvements and catalogs. By using their business position to support the market for responsible forest products, these companies, and many others, are creating demand for improved forest management.

The responsible business practices of leadership companies are facilitated by market mechanisms such as forest certification, evaluative tools like life cycle analysis and collaborative engagement processes with other businesses and environmental and social interest groups.

• Certification

"We see certification systems … as one of the most important methods for encouraging and rewarding production practices that rise to the highest global standards."
—Michael Conroy, Senior Program Officer,
The Ford Foundation

Independent certification is one of the most powerful tools for providing credible assurance to consumers that they are purchasing responsible forest products. Under this approach, an independent organization develops standards of good forest management, promulgates methods for auditing forests based on those standards and accredits independent auditors. To be credible, forest certification must:

• be conducted by an independent third party organization;
• provide meaningful involvement to all environmental, social and economic stakeholders;
• be transparent;
• employ consistent forest management standards.

Nearly a decade ago, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) developed and promulgated global criteria for forest certification that have been used around the world. In North America, other initiatives such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the Canadian Standards Association and the American Tree Farm System provide alternative certification schemes.

In addition, to be useful to businesses and consumers, certification schemes must also track the wood from the forest through the mills, producers and distributors to the retail outlets. In this way, purchasers may feel confident that the forest products they are buying are derived from certified well-managed forests.

• Life Cycle Assessment

Is it more responsible to use wood than steel in building construction? Should wood pulp be replaced with fiber from intensively managed agricultural crops such as flax, cotton or hemp?
Responsible consumption of forest products does not necessarily mean avoiding wood in favor of other materials. Wood, after all, is a natural, renewable product with many sound environmental qualities. Nonetheless, these trade-offs are not obvious, and businesses are increasingly using evaluative tools such as life cycle analysis to help identify the right material for a specific use. Life cycle analysis tools are based on using a consistent sustainability framework for material use based on long-term environmental impact.

• Collaborative Engagement

Historically, there has been a false dichotomy between business and environmental interests, created in large part by the extremes on both sides. However, there is an increasing recognition among leaders in businesses, as well as among environmental and social organizations, that much can be gained from collaborative engagement around issues of responsible forest management.

The Skamania Initiative is one of these opportunities. Named after a lodge near Portland, OR, the Skamania Initiative is a network of leading businesses advocating environmentally-appropriate and socially-responsible forest products production and procurement as a standard market practice. The business participants in the Initiative believe that it is their responsibility to connect the business of producing and consuming paper and wood products with the conservation of forests. Together, with the Certified Forest Products Council as a host organization, these leading businesses seek to develop practical tools and market mechanisms that encourage business to incorporate procurement, consumption and sales practices that promote the conservation, protection and restoration of the world’s forests.

Another opportunity to develop the broad middle ground through constructive collaboration is the Forest Leadership Forum, which will take place from April 25 to 27, 2002 in Atlanta, GA. For the first time in North America, the forum will convene environmentalists, the forest products industry and retailers and buyers to highlight shared values and opportunities to promote trade in responsible forest products.

The forum will explore many of the issues addressed in this article, including illegal logging, forests of high conservation value, responsible consumption and certified well-managed forests. While there are many different perspectives on these issues, the goal is to openly address the key challenges and opportunities facing the forest products industry in the 21st century. Together, forum participants will seek ways to use the power of the marketplace to promote responsible forest management.

David Ford is president of the Certified Forest Products Council. Additional information about the topics addressed in this article can be found in The Forest Industry in the 21st Century, published by World Wide Fund for Nature. Visit /Forests4Life.

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