forest certification really work? Written by Shreya Dasgupta, research by Zuzana Burivalova. by on 21 September 2017

Mongabay Series:

What is the Forest Stewardship Council?

The FSC is a certification program that works by laying down a series of standards to guide logging companies. If these standards are diligently followed, the FSC says that the companies will see better economic returns for their products while also being good for the environment, workers, and local communities.

The FSC logo — a green checkmark and tree — aims to assure consumers that the certified wood products have been tracked throughout their supply chains and are guaranteed to come from responsibly managed forests independently monitored by credible third party auditors.

“In the tropics, where illegal harvest and degradation are widespread, FSC represents the single-best tool that exists today to conserve tropical forests while also offering economic opportunities to the myriad landowners, especially communities and smallholders, working responsibly in those regions,” Corey Brinkema, president of FSC-US, told Mongabay.

Today, there are more than 50 certification schemes relating to the management of forests, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of these, the FSC is the fastest growing scheme in terms of certified area added annually.

Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 50 million hectares (123.5 million acres) of forest — an area roughly the size of Sweden — was newly certified by the FSC. As of September 2017, about 198 million hectares (489 million acres) of forests are being managed according to FSC standards across 84 countries. The bulk of these FSC-certified forests (about 83 percent) lie in Europe and North America. The tropics — Asia, Africa, and Latin America — account for 16 percent of FSC-certified areas.

Map produced by GreenInfo Network.


FSC certification is not only expanding rapidly, but is also one of the most respected forest certification schemes out there.

The international conservation NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a founding member of FSC, considers the certification program to be “the best certification system to ensure environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of forests.”

Catharine Grant of Greenpeace, another environmental NGO that is a founding member of the FSC, told Mongabay: “A 100 percent FSC-certified forest management system is the only system that has stringent social and environmental requirements when implemented correctly.”

But is FSC certification really effective? Has the certification scheme delivered the promises it set out to realize? To find some answers, we reviewed 40 studies that looked at the impacts of forest certification and talked to six experts (both independent researchers and experts within the FSC).

State of science on FSC certification

The scientific literature on FSC certification’s impacts is currently poor.

Most studies measuring the effectiveness of FSC certification are either biased by design or lack methodological rigor. Very few studies make appropriate comparisons — simply comparing an FSC-certified forest with a non-certified forest, or comparing a forest before and after certification, is not enough to tell us if the changes we see are truly because of certification. The changes could be due to other factors that may have come into play since the forest was certified.

For example, a reduced deforestation rate in an FSC-certified forest compared to a non-certified forest could be because of a number of reasons: it could be due to logging operation changes brought about by certification, due to the forest’s remote location, or simply because the logging company was already relatively environmentally friendly and may have had eco-friendly logging practices in place even without certification.

“This inability to demonstrate the extent to which changes on the ground have been due to FSC certification adoption is a major weakness,” Claudia Romero, a researcher at the University of Florida, told Mongabay.

Then there is the problem of connecting the dots. There are individual case studies on FSC spread across continents. But it is nearly impossible to average their results and come up with a unified conclusion about the effectiveness of certification.

“And that’s a big problem,” Cerutti said. “It is very difficult to come up with a clear, generalizable message that can cover at least a continent or an entire sub-region.”

Time is another shortcoming. Almost all the studies we reviewed have looked at FSC certification’s impacts over short time scales of one to five years. But certification’s intended impacts are multiple — higher profits, better resources for local communities, improved habitat for wildlife — and could show up in a certified forest only after several years of assiduously implementing FSC’s standards. Even though the FSC has been around for nearly 25 years, we found no studies that had looked at the long-term impacts of FSC certification.

How we reviewed available evidence

To build our evidence base, we targeted rigorously designed studies that specifically compared two different forest management regimes: certified logging forests with non-certified, conventionally logged forests in the tropics. However, we could find only 13 studies that fit our criteria, so we also included 27 studies that compared the effects of managing a forest under Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) standards with those of managing a forest conventionally. This is because almost all FSC-certified timber forests use RIL standards — a set of logging guidelines that experts believe leads to much lower damage in timber concessions.

Overall, out of the several hundred studies we reviewed, we selected 40 of the most relevant peer-reviewed scientific studies focusing on FSC certification or RIL in tropical forests. These studies were highly variable in how they were conducted — they followed different methodologies, measured different outcomes in a variety of ways, and had different sample sizes, for example. So we could only consistently extract information on whether certification was better than, the same as, or worse than no certification. We have not always been able to quantify the difference.

For detailed methodology, click here. To view the infographic on the evidence we collected, scroll down or click here.

Is forest certification better for the environment?

Yes, mostly. In general, a certified forest seems to be better for the environment than a conventionally logged one.

Logging changes a tropical forest in many ways: as individual trees are extracted, tree cover can decrease; logging not only removes standing stocks of trees but also often damages surrounding, non-target trees; loggers have to build road networks to haul wood out, which can fragment forests; these road networks can make illegal hunting or logging easier; and with increased disturbance in the forests, species of wild animals and plants can disappear.

Tropical forests logged according to FSC or RIL standards seem to perform better on many of the above outcomes.

In an FSC-certified or RIL-managed forest, ground or soil disturbance due to the use heavy machinery is likely to be lower, for example, allowing greater forest regeneration in the future. These forests also tend to have fewer roads and trails, have lower damage to non-target trees, and store more carbon in their tree biomass (because of careful logging and fewer damaged trees).

These forests have lower loss of canopy than conventionally logged concessions (tropical forest canopies, or the network of tree crowns, are home to rich biodiversity and influence the amount of light that penetrates into the forests and also affects the micro-climates inside). Tropical forests managed under RIL guidelines also tend to have more animal and plant species. One meta-analysis of 41 studies found that RIL-managed forests had smaller changes in numbers of bird, arthropod, and mammal (especially bat) species than conventionally logged ones.

These positive changes are likely due to improved harvesting techniques under FSC or RIL management, experts say.

For instance, FSC certification and RIL guidelines require that loggers map and create an inventory of trees in the concession, harvest only specific timber tree species and not cut indiscriminately. Under these management regimes, logging crews tend to be better trained, taking care to plan and minimize collateral damage of non-targeted, neighboring trees. Crews are also expected to carefully plan roads and trails to minimize ground disturbance by heavy equipment. Lower overall disturbance could be slowing down loss of biodiversity.

Stacks of FSC certified wood in Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

These changes look encouraging. But one of the key motivations behind creating the FSC was to stem tropical deforestation. The evidence is sparse on that. Only a handful of studies have looked at whether certification is associated with reduced deforestation, and the results are mixed and unclear.

A recent study in Mexico, for example, compared 64 FSC-certified forest units with non-certified ones and found no difference in deforestation rates. This could either mean that FSC certification has not reduced deforestation, or, as the researchers point out, they were unable to measure the potential impacts of certification on forest loss.

Another study in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, found that forests that were FSC-certified had slightly lower deforestation rates compared to non-certified timber concessions between 2000 and 2008. But certified forests also had more “holes” in the canopy (or greater degradation) created by small clearings within the forests. A few other studies have found only minor reductions in deforestation rates in certified forests.

Furthermore, while these studies tell us how certification may affect deforestation rates over short time spans, there is no research to tell us the fate of certified forests over the long run.

For example, a certified logging company could continue to preserve a forest as a forest and keep managing it well. Or it could give up its concession’s lease and sell it off to another company planning to bring in a more profitable industry like an oil palm plantation. Or it could simply give up its certificate and fall back to environmentally harmful logging practices.

For other environmental outcomes of certification — like changes in illegal hunting and other environmental crimes — we found few to no studies.

This bias towards measuring certain outcomes while ignoring others could simply be because some environmental outcomes are easier to measure. Tree cover and canopy loss can be measured relatively accurately using satellite imagery, and animal species diversity can be monitored using well-established population monitoring techniques. Outcomes like illegal logging, however, can be trickier to quantify.

Despite these shortcomings, the available evidence shows that FSC-certification or logging under RIL guidelines does offer several environmental benefits compared to conventional logging. However, we still can’t say whether these improvements are enough to make the forests truly sustainable.

“If by sustainable you mean that if we go back to the forest in 30 years, will there still be timber that can be harvested and will make a profit for the logging company, for the people around the concession, and for the government in terms of tax? The answer is yes,” Cerutti said. “But will the forest have the same commercial species of trees then as you have now, I don’t think we can answer that. And if there is a change, it could be because of logging or it could be because of other factors we don’t yet understand completely.”

The scientific evidence on tropical forest certification

Is certified forest management really better than conventional logging for the environment, people, and logging companies’ bottom lines?