Resolute: A Major Step Away from Sustainable Forestry

The is the first of a six part blog series examining issues relating to Canada's boreal forest, including 1) threats to the Forestry Stewardship Council, 2) the deteriorating condition of Canada's threatened woodland caribou population, 3) the state of forestry in Canada's boreal forest, 4) the need for sustainable economic models for Canada's northern communities, 5) the loss of the boreal's intact forest areas and 6) the important role the boreal plays in addressing climate change.  

At a critical moment, one of Canada’s largest logging companies, Resolute Forest Products, may be stepping away from the very system that is poised to make critical gains in protection the boreal forest—the blue-green crown at the top of North America. This forest plays a significant role in helping to regulate the global climate by keeping massive amounts of greenhouse gases emissions in its trees and soils, providing habitat to thousands of plant and animal species, serving as a global freshwater storehouse, and being home to more than six hundred First Nations communities. It is an area containing some of the last unbroken wilderness on earth large enough to support complex, intact and native ecosystems.

Logging plays a major role in the degradation of this “Serengeti of the North” and some of the most biodiverse parts of the forest are under threat. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)—the  world’s leading independent certifier of sustainably managed forests— works in a consensus manner with indigenous peoples whose traditional territories span the boreal, logging companies, environmentalists, and local communities to push companies to practice sustainable. To accomplish this sustainability mission, FSC Canada is drafting a new boreal national standard that will better protect the threatened woodland caribou, intact forest areas and indigenous cultural landscapes, and the implement a consent system—known as Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)—for recognizing indigenous rights. Meanwhile, FSC International is working to develop guidelines for protecting intact areas and cultural landscapes under a resolution adopted in 2014 known as Motion 65. These developments mean that it is a key time for certificate holders (those companies whose operations are certified by FSC) to be “leaning in” and participating in the development of these rules.   

FSC System as Preferred Standard

For the last two decades, the Forest Stewardship Council has been recognized around the world as a leader in third party certification of responsible forest management.  It is the strongest sustainable forestry certification standard available today. FSC requires rigorous auditing and monitoring—including requirements for critical habitat and species conservation—and recognizes the importance of the rights of indigenous people who rely on the boreal for everything from food to water supply. 

Major corporations like McDonald’s, IKEA, International Paper, Kimberly-Clark, and Procter & Gamble all sell FSC-certified products. Certain companies like 3M, Aetna, Allied Electronics, Allstate, AT&T, Comcast, Disney, Crate and Barrel, Eden Foods, Hewlett-Packard, Office Depot  give preference to FSC-certified products over products covered by other certifications systems because they view FSC to be the only credible and truly independent standard for sustainably managed forests. FSC is the only system supported by many of the world’s leading environmental and conservation organizations including NRDC, Stand, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation.

Why a focus on Resolute?  

While many people may have never heard of Resolute Forest Products (RFP), it is one of Canada’s largest logging companies and has a major footprint in Canada’s boreal forest. Resolute currently has logging rights in over 50 million acres of public lands in Canada’s boreal (equivalent to an area larger than all of New England), a portion of which it harvests every year for products like paper, tissue, and lumber that get sold to the U.S. and other markets. Because of Resolute’s size, it’s commitment to sustainable forestry practices is an issue of regional, national, and international concern due to the boreal’s role in cleaning our air, storing fresh water, keeping our planet cool, and providing habitat for species that migrate, in some instances, across multiple continents.

In recent years, instead of taking a constructive approach to work with the environmental community to support sustainable forestry in the boreal, Resolute has chosen to challenge freedom of speech and undermine meaningful dialogue with stakeholders engaged in proactive conservation efforts. Not only has the company brought an array of lawsuits against public interest groups who have raised serious and important questions about the company’s forestry practices, it has also embarked on a communications campaign with the goal of undermining its critics. In addition, the company has taken an aggressive posture toward the Forest Stewardship Council.

Retreat from and Attack on the FSC System

Resolute, like many other logging companies, made commitments to embrace the FSC system. In 2010, they committed to bring 80% of the public land they manage under FSC certification by 2015. Unfortunately, since Resolute made this commitment, over fifteen million acres of land managed by the company and initially certified by FSC—three times the size of Massachusetts—have seen FSC certificates either suspended or terminated. Resolute has also allowed their suspended certificates to terminate (or expire). Consequently, instead of reaching its laudable FSC certification goal, Resolute has now overseen a 46 percent decrease in the area of its woodlands certified by FSC. See Note 1.

In lieu of pursuing FSC certification, Resolute has turned to an alternative industry-backed greenwashing certification system to ensure that its operations continue to be labeled as “sustainable.” See Note 2. Resolute’s preferred certifier is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)—a weaker and less rigorous certifier than FSC. Among other things, SFI’s certification standard allows the label of “sustainable forestry” to be applied to irresponsible logging practices including vast clearcuts; excessive spraying of toxic pesticides, fungicides and herbicides; logging in old-growth forests; and violating human rights by allowing forests to be cut without the consultation of Indigenous People.

"Our organization does not consider the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to be a credible standard – as it allows some of the most ecologically damaging practices to occur on the ground, such as the conversion of highly biodiverse natural forests to lower biodiversity industrial tree plantations. It also fails to ensure adequate protection for the habitats of imperiled, endangered and threatened species, and for special, rare, or disappearing ecosystems."

Debbie Hammel, Lands and Markets Initiative Director, Natural Resources Defense Council

But Resolute is not just taking a step away from FSC certification. It has also lodged a very public campaign against the certification system itself all while remaining a voluntary participant. Its recent actions on this front include:

  • In May 2014, Resolute brought an unprecedented lawsuit against one of the auditors within the FSC certification system charged with reviewing the practices of logging companies. In that case, the certifying organization, the Rainforest Alliance, had recommended suspension of one of Resolute’ s certificates after an audit of two of the company’s operations in Ontario, Canada. Resolute’s lawsuit sought to prevent the public release of Rainforest Alliance’s audits while the case was adjudicated. The case was ultimately settled and Resolute succeeded in sealing Rainforest Alliance’s audits of its operations, making them unavailable to the public. See Note 3.
  • In November 2015, Resolute publicly announced it would no longer pursue new certifications in the FSC system while also questioning the “viability” of the FSC system because FSC had adopted new protection measures, including one measure that requires the protection of large intact areas of wilderness. This change in strategy was particularly hypocritical, given that just the year before Resolute had claimed that “FSC certification is of critical importance to Resolute’s reputation and business relationships.” See Note 3. One might infer that as soon as FSC’s policies deviated from what was in Resolute’s pure economic self-interest, the company quickly shifted from praising the certification system to aggressively attacking it.
  • In December 2015, Resolute publicly questioned a proposal by FSC International to engage in a mediation process over their loss of certificates arguing instead that the process should be led by the provincial government. According to Kim Carstensen, Director General of FSC International, “During a meeting with Resolute FP’s CEO, there were no signs that Resolute is willing to engage in efforts to resolve the problems they pointed out so eloquently. This confirms the consistent, negative signals we are receiving from Resolute, and for this reason, FSC is abandoning the idea of a mediation process involving Resolute Forest Products.”

Resolute’s actions have also led to its loss of recognition by leading conservation groups. 

  • In December 2015, the World Wildlife Fund raised concerns about Resolute’s engagement with FSC and end the company’s participation in its Climate Savers program. Specifically, WWF stated that it would not extend its endorsement of Resolute due to its failure to reach its commitment to increase FSC certification of management forests to 80 percent by 2015.
  • In May 2013, six of Canada’s top environmental organizations working on boreal protection announced they would “suspend further work with Resolute under the collaborative Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement” citing the company’s lack of good faith in following through on its commitment to ensure caribou survival.

“[D]espite three years of work we feel we have not been able to make meaningful progress towards science-based conservation and sustainable forestry plans with Resolute Forest Products on its large tenures in Quebec and Northwestern Ontario. After creating and revising numerous conservation analyses, and putting several workable proposals on the table, we have come to the sad conclusion that Resolute will not do the minimum that the science says is required to protect our forests and the threatened caribou that call them home.”

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Wildlands Chapter, May 21, 2013

Time for Resolute to Take a Different Approach

Resolute’s actions towards its critics and its public retreat from FSC certification make it clear that it has backed away from its commitment to forest sustainability. Their actions have resulted in an extraordinarily hostile approach to civil society organizations and reflect a striking unwillingness to positively engage to identify credible and lasting conservation solutions. Taking all of the activities outlined above together, we believe the behavior of Resolute threatens the overall protection of the Canadian boreal forest; accepted practices of the FSC system; and the capacity of civil society organizations to engage in and broaden sustainable forestry practices in Canada and around the world.

NRDC is calling on the U.S. marketplace to urge the logging company to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable forestry and conservation. The first place to start is for Resolute to drop its litigation against public interest organizations, cease its attacks on the FSC system, and ensure free, prior and informed consent from First Nations on their territories. Beyond this, Resolute must work to regain FSC certification of their lands, and support efforts to establish strong woodland caribou protection plans especially in Quebec and Ontario. It is time to get back to the bigger goal of conserving the boreal forest and a real commitment to sustainable forestry.

Note 1: In 2012, RFP managed 20,750,635 hectares of public and private woodlands. Of those, as many as 13,903,813 hectares were covered by valid FSC certificates at the time. Today, only 7,511,548 hectares of RFPs woodlands remain FSC certified. The decline from 13,903,813 hectares to 7,511,548 hectares is equivalent to a 46 percent decrease.

Note 2: As Resolute has decreased its FSC acreage over the past five years, it now claims full certification of all of its lands to the SFI system. Today, RFP claims that 100% of its woodlands are certified by either FSC or SFI, with SFI certification covering all of their woodlands. 

Note 3: Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Resolute Statement of Claim against Rainforest Alliance, lnc. et. al,, May 6,2014, p. 1 and 30