Over the past several years, as consumers have become more conscious of the impact their purchases can have on the world, third party certifications like Fair Trade and B Corporations have sprung up to help audit the supply chain and business practices of companies around the world. In the global wood furniture and flooring industry, the most well-known third party certification for eco friendly furniture is managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Many people stumble upon the FSC certification while looking for sustainable wood furniture. In this article, we explain what it means to be FSC Certified, why it’s not the gold standard it’s perceived to be, and what to look for instead.
What is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)?
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests. It is widely regarded as one of the most important initiatives to promote responsible forest management worldwide.
Launched by environmental groups in 1993, the FSC maintains an international standard for well-managed forests and a process for tracking and certifying wood furniture, flooring and other products derived from those forests.
The FSC has done a tremendous job over the last several decades of pressuring large, international corporations to clean up their supply chains, discouraging illegal logging practices and other environmentally damaging sourcing tactics.
What is FSC Certified Furniture & Why is it so Expensive?
FSC provides one of the most rigorous certification processes available. It’s widely considered the gold standard in sustainable forestry and has moved the world forward in many areas of rainforest conservation. FSC certification for furniture is a good indication that the furniture has been independently evaluated and determined sustainable or eco-friendly, but what exactly does that mean?
The FSC label provides certification of the chain of links between the forest where a product originates and the consumer. For example with wood furniture, each of the following businesses involved in transforming a tree into a piece of furniture would have to be FSC certified in order for that furniture piece to be FSC certified:
- Certified forest owner
- Certified logger and sawyer
- Certified lumber wholesaler
- Certified lumber retailer
- Certified furniture maker
- Certified furniture retailer
For a vertically integrated furniture company, that might just mean a single certification. But for small businesses, it’s difficult to get each link in the supply chain to buy in to the expense of becoming FSC certified.
Where the FSC Falls Short in Promoting Sustainable Practices
Critics of the FSC say that it’s a pay-to-play greenwashing tactic that doesn’t actually enforce sustainable standards. They point to large corporations with questionable business practices being certified by the SFC as evidence that although the intent of the FSC is pure, it is falling short of its goals of establishing high standards for sustainability.
As you might expect, FSC certification involves extensive rule-making and auditing that can be quite expensive to implement. It can add up to 35% to the price of the end product, although the hope is that this cost will decrease as FSC certification becomes more mainstream. Still, many small manufacturers are unable to assume this cost and are thus not FSC certified.
Another challenge for FSC is the rampant counterfeiting of FSC documentation accompanying raw lumber that is being illegally clear cut from the Amazon and other endangered areas of rainforest. Also FSC has been criticized by certain environmental groups as being too lenient, particularly with their policy allowing limited old growth logging.
In recent years, however the FSC has been under fire from conservation groups like Rainforest Relief and Ecological Internet for alleged lax performance and for certification of the logging of ancient, old-growth, primary rainforests. They criticize FSC for certifying the harvest of ancient trees (often 500 years old or more) in Brazil’s Amazon forest and in other ecologically sensitive rainforests habitats around the world. In what could be an impending domino effect, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation recently resigned from FSC after making several formal complaints that FSC failed to address, regarding FSC certified logging of Swedish old growth forests.
Other Standards for Sustainability in the Furniture Industry
Eco conscious customers are beginning to question the integrity of FSC certification of eco-friendly wood furniture and other forest products. More and more consumers who are concerned about where their wood furniture comes from are wondering if FSC certification is enough. The concern has evolved into a movement towards buying American made furniture that is built with sustainably-harvested wood from well-managed, domestic forests.
Supporters of the sustainable American-made furniture movement prefer the use of American wood (whether it is FSC certified or not) over the use of imported FSC certified wood. They note that in 2008 the volume of American hardwoods was 90 percent larger than it was 50 years ago along with the fact that nearly twice as much hardwood grows in USA forest lands than is harvested every year. These statistics make a statement about the sustainability of wood furniture that originates in American forests that goes far beyond the criteria FSC has laid out for FSC certified wood furniture.
Some of the other criteria you can look for to determine if furniture is coming from sustainable sources include:
- The Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC)
- 1% for the Planet
- Wood Furniture Scorecard (SFC x National Wildlife Federation)
- Sustainable Forestry Initiative
In general, if furniture is made in the US with domestically sourced materials, it’s probably more sustainable than most furniture that’s FSC certified.
What’s the Difference Between the FSC and the SFC?
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) are often confused among consumers, and it’s easy to see why.
Unlike the FSC, which is an independent, global organization, the SFC is a coalition of furniture manufacturers, designers, and retailers “dedicated to raising awareness and expanding the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices across the home furnishings industry.”
We were one of the “Founding Members” of the Sustainable Furnishings Council in 2006, along with a couple dozen other American furniture companies. SFC members support the triple bottom line and lead the industry in best practices throughout their supply chains. Members are committed to continuous work toward a healthy future, inside and out.
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