FSC Canada Pulls Even Further Ahead of the Pack

In order to honor Indigenous Peoples’ rights to make decisions about their traditional territories, stabilize the global climate, and protect threatened species, safeguards around forestry in Canada are urgently needed.
Image source: Government of Canada, 2018

A New Announcement

Canada has the third highest rates of intact forest landscape loss in the world, and its boreal forest is being logged at unsustainable levels. A wave of provincial elections has swept in conservative governments that, in various cases, are trying to weaken rather than strengthen environmental protections in Canada. In order to honor Indigenous Peoples’ rights to make decisions about their traditional territories, stabilize the global climate, and protect threatened species, safeguards around forestry in Canada are urgently needed.  Against this backdrop, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Canada’s newly released standard for FSC-approved forestry will provide an important tool for producers and purchasers of Canadian wood to pursue a more sustainable way of doing business.

FSC is a global nonprofit organization that sets social and environmental standards around forestry, and for years, NRDC has highlighted FSC Canada as being significantly stronger and more legitimate than competing certification schemes in Canada. Today, FSC Canada has launched enhanced new requirements for FSC-certified Canadian forestry operations, making the contrast between FSC Canada and its competitors even starker.

FSC Canada’s new standard includes strengthened indicators around Indigenous rights, conservation area networks, and landscape management. The heightened requirements for companies to obtain Indigenous Free, Prior, and Informed Consent for proposed operations are particularly significant, and will be the subject of future NRDC blogs as more FSC guidance emerges around this requirement. Another important indicator, which is the focus of this blog, will increase requirements for forestry companies whose operations could impact boreal caribou: an iconic but threatened animal whose populations are swiftly declining from habitat loss. This in turn will influence whether U.S. companies purchasing Canadian wood and pulp from these forestry companies will be able to make defensible claims about their sustainable sourcing.

As concerns grow around Canada’s lack of forest protections, and alternative weaker certifications threaten to greenwash unsustainable operations, strongly-implemented FSC safeguards—combined with company commitments to reduce the industrial footprint into intact forests—will be an important tool companies should use to prove their operations don’t adversely affect the rights of Indigenous peoples and homes of threatened species.

Boreal Caribou in the New Standard

Across Canada, various caribou herds are disappearing so quickly that caribou experts say this species is in danger of facing extinction in Canada: an especially tragic prospect considering they have all but vanished from the contiguous U.S.  Scientists consider the decline of forest-dwelling boreal caribou to be especially alarming in light of their role as an “indicator species” whose populations reflect the broader health of the boreal ecosystem. Canada’s federal 2012 boreal caribou recovery strategy highlighted steps necessary for protecting declining populations of Canada’s boreal caribou, and urged Canadian provinces to ensure that a minimum threshold of boreal caribou ranges (at least 65 percent) remain undisturbed in order to give boreal caribou a fighting chance at long term survival. Yet to date, no province has implemented these mandated boreal caribou recovery plans.

Recognizing this lack of provincial leadership, FSC Canada oversaw a multi-year process with consultation from various communities to make sure its new standard would include new requirements for wood and pulp producers that better incorporate the habitat needs of boreal caribou. FSC’s new standard aims to reflect the boreal caribou habitat disturbance limits outlined in the 2012 recovery strategy.

Voluntary certification cannot take the place of legally binding conservation policies, and we continue to support Canadian partners calling for governments to implement enforceable legal protections for boreal caribou ranges that keep at least 65 percent of individual ranges undisturbed. But in the current absence of adequate legal protections, FSC’s updated standard is significantly stronger than any existing certification requirements around boreal caribou habitat.

The caribou indicator in FSC Canada’s new standard gives companies options: they can commit to setting aside sizable areas of caribou habitat to be undisturbed by their operations, or demonstrate that a proposed method of caribou habitat management is supported by best available information and peer-reviewed science (an option which will need to be closely monitored by Indigenous leaders and self-identified stakeholders). Another (ideal) FSC option requires companies to meet the habitat protections of a provincially-established caribou protection plan, but because no such provincial plans exist yet, this option is still hypothetical. So based on current government inaction and ongoing boreal caribou declines, how should the standard be implemented?

The Importance of Strong Implementation

In light of the large amount of Canadian wood and pulp that Canada exports to the U.S., American consumers concerned by the devastating threats of climate change and species loss are expressing their preference for sustainably sourced pulp-based products that have not come at the expense of old-growth forests. The industrial footprint in Canada must stop expanding into intact forests in order to prevent ongoing boreal caribou declines and significant ecosystem carbon loss. To avoid significant harm to their brands, major tissue companies including Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific will need to reduce their reliance on pulp from intact forests, commit to increasing recycled content in their products, and ensure that where they do obtain Canadian wood and pulp, forestry operations are FSC-certified with strong implementation and robust audits. We will look to U.S. purchasers of boreal forest products to ensure all wood products they purchase from Canada are FSC-certified, and that the forestry companies from whom they source comply with the new standard in ways that implement the caribou habitat needs outlined in the 2012 recovery strategy, which emphasized the need for at least 65 percent of individual boreal caribou ranges to be undisturbed.

The passage of the new, stricter standard will also create a new test for whether forestry companies will choose FSC certification instead of weaker schemes. FSC’s new  standard will create an even larger divide between FSC and the competing Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which is industry-dominated in its decision- and policy-making, and significantly less rigorous in its environmental requirements. This means on the certification front, the burden has fallen on FSC to set the standard for forest certification. Yet in the past, the more rigorous requirements of FSC Canada have resulted in some forestry companies opting to shun or drop FSC-certifications and adopt certifications that are weaker and easier for them to meet, adding to the greenwashing of many unsustainable forest practices. It is thus critical that U.S. companies move Canadian wood producers to get their operations FSC-certified, and push for its strong implementation.

A Critical Piece of the Puzzle

FSC’s new caribou safeguards are not a silver bullet; they are not legally binding forest protections. Moreover, we will look to FSC to robustly enforce the new standard with strong audits, ongoing Indigenous consultation and consent, and stakeholder reviews, and to complete and adopt currently-being-developed indicators that would further safeguard intact forests and Indigenous cultural landscapes. We will also look to FSC Canada to help ensure that purchasers of supplied wood don’t exploit FSC’s controlled-wood standard in order to seek the bare minimum requirements around FSC wood.

But in the certification race, FSC Canada has sprinted forward and further widened the divide between its competitors. With strong implementation, strengthening the protections for boreal caribou will create an important new global precedent for species safeguards in voluntary standards, which can be a critical piece of the puzzle as the international marketplace seeks sustainable sources for wood and pulp products. Ultimately, U.S. companies must reduce their consumption of products from intact forests and increase recycled content. When they purchase wood from Canada, FSC-certified wood with robust implementation should be the obvious choice.

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