What is FSC certification—and is it working?

Forest in Ecuador
FSC logo

What does this logo mean to you? Can you even name the type of products it references? I know, but then I work here at WWF, which helped create the logo about 20 years ago. Here’s the answer: the logo represents the Forest Stewardship Council®—and it signifies that the wood or paper product originated from a forest that was managed carefully with trees, animals, and local community benefit at heart.

But how do you know if FSC® is legit? (I can’t believe that got through WWF higher ups). I was talking with my colleagues Annika Terrana and Katie Zdilla about their recent field trip, shadowing a Rainforest Alliance FSC audit of Columbia Forest Products in Coal Creek, TN. While Terrana and Zdilla both cut their teeth on forest management in Africa, being in Tennessee in June, is “Southern hot” and for their troubles they also got to bond with an “unlimited number of ticks” in the yellow poplar dominated forests of the Appalachian Mountains. Good times.

What they saw there firsthand is that FSC works. Companies and landowners are improving environmental performance—in this case addressing steps to prevent erosion. And it helps with the people-related aspects of forestry too, such as discussion on harvesting techniques or engaging with the communities near the forest where the wood is harvested about the certification. All well and good—but being a scientist—I wanted to see what insights the scientific method might suggest.

Recently there has been an uptick in the number of studies that take statistically rigorous looks at the causal effects of conservation policies—broadly this is called impact evaluation. These studies attempt to account for what actually happened with an intervention (such as FSC certification) to what would have happened without it (i.e., the counterfactual). They use a variety of statistical techniques to systematically address as many of the possible differences in the analysis so all that is left is the ‘treatment’ and the comparison is of ‘apples to apples’ variety rather than ‘apples to kiwis’ (oranges is just too cliché). Education, economics, and biomedical research has long embraced impact evaluation, but it is a relative newcomer to the conservation field.

This summer my colleagues from Duke University and I published one of the first papers  to get down to the question of whether that FSC label is providing measurable benefits to the tropical environment or local communities—when compared against forest concessions that did not get FSC certification. Our study area was the island of Borneo—specifically the Indonesian part called Kalimantan. We found that “yes” FSC areas had reduced the deforestation in FSC areas by 5%, when compared to the (very) similar non-FSC concessions. But that is not all. We also found that FSC areas had reduced air pollution and respiratory infections and dependence on firewood—positive impacts on the health and well-being of the local communities. A number of other groups are also looking into this question, including CIFOR in Indonesia and Brazil, RFF in Mexican ejidos, and another collaboration between Duke University and WWF in Cameroon and Peru.

So is FSC legit? So far both the anecdotal and scientific evidence say yes.

Colby Loucks is WWF's Deputy Goal Lead and Senior Director, Wildlife Conservation Program