Sustainability Certification for Wood: FSC vs SFI

Did you know that wood and paper products can be certified as sustainable
if they meet certain criteria? Wood-based products can be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), if they meet the organization’s sustainability and certification criteria. But what do these certifications mean, and are they equal in what they do for ecosystem protection?

The FSC was formed in 1993. In their words: “After the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio failed to produce an agreement to stop deforestation, a group of businesses, environmentalists and community leaders came together to create the Forest Stewardship Council.” The FSC mission is to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests.”

The SFI was initiated by the American Forest & Paper Association in 1994 “as one of the U.S. forest sector’s contributions to the vision of sustainable development established by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.” SFI describes itself as “A solutions-oriented sustainability organization that collaborates on forest-based conservation and community initiatives that demonstrate and enhance our shared quality of life while providing supply chain assurances through standards, data, and authentic stories.”

Examinations of FSC and SFI standards and how they’re implemented by certified companies suggest there are big differences between these organizations. BuildingGreen, publisher of Environmental Building News and the BuildingGreen Report, published an article in 2015 that compared the FSC and SFI. The Portland Tribune section Sustainable Life published an article titled “Pulp Fiction” in 2013 that made a similar comparison. Here’s a summary of how the FSC and SFI compare in key areas, from these articles and their published standards, rules and audit reports:

Herbicide and pesticide use in forestry operations

: Forestry companies on the board of the SFI have lobbied to exempt logging companies from Clean Water Act regulations on chemical pollutants (read more here), and the SFI maintains that chemical use “plays a vital role in prompt and effective restocking of forest lands after harvest.” The FSC has stricter standards for chemical use: companies must apply in advance for an exemption to use chemicals, and the request must be approved by a committee that includes scientists. Despite these stricter standards, audit reports show that herbicides are also used in FSC-certified forests.

Protection of old growth forest and endangered or threatened species:

The SFI is vague in its requirements. It requires “support of and participation in plans or programs for the conservation of old-growth forests in the region of ownership or forest tenure” and to “have a program to protect threatened and endangered species.” In contrast, the FSC prohibits harvesting and road construction in old-growth forests and requires managers to “develop a list of RTE [rare, threatened, or endangered] species present in the forest, modify management plans accordingly, and implement management activities to maintain or enhance habitats for the species. Where adequate plans or information do not exist and the likely presence of RTE species is indicated, the forest owner or manager is required to follow a precautionary management approach and manage as though they are present”.

Conversion of forest to plantation

: Bernd Heinrich writes about forest ecology and plantations in his excellent book The Trees in my Forest. He has this to say about tree plantations: “Calling the growing of wood on plantations ‘forest management’ is the same as defining the farming of corn in Iowa as ‘prairie management.’” The SFI allows conversion of natural forest to plantations if it doesn’t “adversely impact Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value, old-growth forests, or forests critical to threatened and endangered species.” The SFI defines Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value (FECV) as those containing known and viable populations of critically imperiled or imperiled species. If imperiled species aren’t already known to be present, or if their viability ranking is “Fair” or poorer, the forest is not protected (see Section 6.1, p. 88 of the SFI Standards and Rules for more details on companies can avoid the FECV designation). The FSC states that plantations can help meet global needs for forest products, but the “FSC does not support conversion of natural forests into plantations” and it maintains that plantations “should complement the management of, reduce pressures on, and promote the restoration and conservation of natural forests.”


: Clearcutting removes all trees (and birds, mammals, insects, etc.) from a forest area, leaving exposed soil in its place. The SFI has a blanket requirement that the average clearcut size across a company’s operations must not exceed 120 acres, and has the vague requirement of “documentation through internal records.” The SFI standards make the claim that early successional forest stages are lacking in parts of North America (if this is true, it’s largely because forests have been cut down for wood and development) and that these “habitats” “can easily be created by proper selection of harvesting methods including clearcutting” (Section 7.1, p. 91 in the Standards). The FSC standards on clearcutting vary with the forest type and location, from allowing none to allowing extensive clearcuts. These standards are spelled out in detail in their Forest Management requirements. Thus, both the SFI and FSC allow clearcutting. The FSC uses ecosystem-based criteria to determine the size of clearcuts allowed, while the SFI has one generic standard it applies to all forests.


: Compliance with FSC or SFI standards is checked by audits. Under FSC certification, companies must make their audits and forest management plans public. Under SFI certification, audit reports, but not forest management plans, must be publicly available. A 2014 review of SFI and FSC audits for Canadian companies by ForestEthics (now Stand) reported that the SFI audit teams were mostly made up of foresters. The FSC audit teams consisted of foresters, biologists, and sometimes community specialists or members of First Nations. I read through the SFI and FSC audit reports for the same Michigan forest area (available here), prepared by the same auditing team. This gave an opportunity to see how auditing and reporting differed for the SFI and FSC. The SFI report found that the Michigan DNR had achieved compliance with SFI standards, and that “No new Non-conformances or Opportunities for Improvement were identified.” The FSC report also found that the Michigan DNR was in compliance, but the audit requested that the MDNR take further steps to assess high conservation value (HCV) areas, to incorporate HCV assessment into management plans, and to include public review of the assessment and management of HCV areas.

Forest management standards

: The FSC and SFI forest management standards are available online for anyone to read. The FSC standards provide detailed requirements that vary by geographical region. The SFI standards require forest management plans to include conservation principles and considerations but give few specific requirements. The responsibility for interpreting and implementing the principles in actual forest management is left to the land managers (logging companies), leaving the industry room to regulate itself and report conscientiously.

My takeaway from all of this
: I’ll look for products with the FSC symbol. Neither standard thoroughly safeguards sustainability. The FSC bases its standards more firmly in ecosystem science and has detailed requirements for forest protection, harvesting and restoration practices. The SFI standards are vague and have major loopholes; they emphasize “plans” rather than actions and appear to rely on companies to interpret and implement them.


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