Forest Stewardship Council: What is the FSC and What Do They Do?

forest stewardship council what is fsc

Seeing the FSC logo on wood-based products will be important to you if you care about the sustainability of forests and woodlands.

If you’re like me, buying something that has the FSC seal of approval gives you a good sense of doing the right thing. You know you’ve done what you can to act as sustainably as possible and helping the environment over the long term.

Being an international organisation, it’s likely that you’ve seen the Forest Stewardship Council label on many items.

Look on the back of one of your books on the bookshelf. See it? You may see it on the packaging of your toilet paper or even a box of tissues. Perhaps a table you’ve bought from IKEA or on some cardboard packaging.

Does this mean all these products are actually from well-managed forests? What does the FSC logo mean and what do the Forest Stewardship Council do?

What does the FSC stand for?

The FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council.

Being a fairly lengthy name, the Forest Stewardship Council is often shortened to FSC both in writing and on the highly recognisable logo.

Both are the same organisation and I’ll refer to it in both ways throughout this blog.

What is the FSC?

First established in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council is an international, non-governmental organisation. The FSC worldwide headquarters are based in Bonn, Germany, but there are multiple national offices across the world.

The FSC was created in response to escalating deforestation as a way to take care of our world’s forests in a responsible and sustainable way.

The FSC aimed to provide a better, more environmentally friendly way to do business and a way to gain higher wood prices for those managing forests in a sustainable manner.

In the 1980s as deforestation was increasing at alarming rates, it seemed that governments wouldn’t go far enough to put legislation in place to protect forests. This caused a combination of industry leaders, social groups and NGOs to get together and consult on a way to tackle this issue.

After a long consultation period, it was established that a standard setting body would be needed to verify wood sources as well as manage forests sustainable and this would be done via a worldwide certification and accreditation system.

In 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council was formed, an example of a market-led approach to govern a global environmental issue rather than a government or state-centred approach.

The FSC run a worldwide certification programme for managing forests and the wood that is produced.

How does the FSC work?

The FSC is an organisation run as a multi-stakeholder group. It’s governed by its member list, General Assembly, Board of Directors and the Executive Director who runs day-to-day business.

From its origins, the FSC aims to be a platform that brings together various members of society with forest management interests – such as forest owners, the timber industry, social groups and environmental organisations – to improve the state of our world’s forests.

In the UK for example, there are a mixture of individuals, businesses and organisations that make up UK FSC members. These include The Woodland Trust, WWF UK and Soil Association are all members.

The FSC UK is governed by a board of directors who serve as trustees. All members and trustees are assigned to one of three chambers: environmental, economic and social.

Globally, there are 1,165 members across 89 countries.

What do the Forest Stewardship Council do?

The FSC was first set up with the mission of providing an eco-labelling system that would help consumers to easily identify and buy wood and paper products made with materials from sustainably managed forests as opposed to wood and forest products from unmanaged, forest depleting sources.

To do this the Forest Stewardship Council set up a global certification and accreditation system.

Their mission: “The Forest Stewardship (FSC) shall promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests.”

Their vision: “The world’s forests meet the social, ecological, and economic rights and needs for the present generation without compromising those of future generations.”

There are two main components to what the FSC do:

  1. Forest Management
  2. Chain of Custody

Forest management certification

The forest management component is about certifying sustainable, well-managed forests. A forest manager or owner can gain certification, in line with national and internationally agreed standards, to show the long-term forest management is in a good place. For example, in the UK the FSC forest management certification is based on the UK Woodland Assurance Standard.

To get certification, the forest and the current management practices must be fully audited by an independent FSC accredited certification body. Once certified, products from that forest, such as wood and timber, can be labelled with the FSC logo.  

Chain of custody certification

Any company who wants to promote a product as FSC certified, or say they have bought a certified product, must have a FSC chain of custody certification.

This shows that the wood products have been checked at every stage of the processing from the forest to processing, transformation, manufacturing and eventually to the end user. So, timber traders, builders, publishers and printers who want to use the FSC logo and trademark to promote their products must all have certification.  

To gain chain of custody certification, an independent FSC accredited body must audit the product and the documentation to show where it has come from.

Once certified, FSC certifications are valid for five years but will undergo a surveillance audit annually to verify continued compliance.

FSC 10 Principles and Criteria of responsible forest management

The FSC has 10 principles for responsible forest management, known as FSC P&C.

These principles include points such as maintaining or enhancing the social and economic wellbeing of workers and local communities, upholding indigenous peoples’ rights, maintaining ecosystem services and environmental values and the long-term economic viability of the ‘management unit’, aka forest.

The latest FSC facts and figures declare that there are 223 million hectares of certified forests around the world.

Source: fsc.org

What does the FSC logo mean?

The FSC logo on a wood-based product lets you know that it is from, or at least contains, wood that comes from a Forest Stewardship Council certified forest.

The FSC logo that you see is known as the ‘tick tree’ logo.

There are three variations of the FSC logo too:

  • FSC 100% – all the timber or fibre comes from an FSC certified forest
  • FSC Mix – the timber of fibre in the product comes from a mixture of FSC certified forest, reclaimed wood and that from other uncertified but controlled sources
  • FSC Recycled – all the timber or fibre comes from reclaimed material

The FSC label should also contain a unique licence code to give further assurances which can be verified on the FSC certificate database.

forest stewardship council fsc logo

What is FSC certified wood?

FSC certified wood means that the timber or wood product has been independent verified and audited by a FSC accredited body. It shows you that the wood has been sourced from sustainable, responsibly managed forests.

So where are all these FSC certified forests?

Of the 223 million hectares of FSC certified forest across the world, the vast majority is found in northern Europe and North America.

Here’s the country split of the top 10 FSC certified forests by total area (as of February 2021). These top 10 countries represent around 79% of the total area of FSC certified forests across the world.

CountryTotal FSC certified forest area (million hectares)Percentage of global total of FSC certified forests
Russia56.925.5%
Canada48.421.7%
Sweden19.08.5%
United States14.26.3%
Belarus9.04%
Brazil7.93.5%
Turkey6.73%
Poland6.73%
Ukraine4.52%
Indonesia3.11.4%
Data from fsc.org

Go one step further and around 88% of the certified FSC forests lie in the northern hemisphere. The FSC was originally set up to make a difference in the tropical forests where a lot of deforestation is occurring. There isn’t much representation in the tropics, which is a cause for concern.

You can find the full list of countries plus other facts and figures on the FSC website.

What products can be FSC certified?

Any wood or wood-based product can be FSC certified.

This can cover a wide range of materials and products, such as: decking, sheds, kitchens, wall paper, flooring, doors, toilet paper, paper and cardboard.

The FSC label can also cover non-wood but other forest-based products, such as cork, bamboo and natural latex.

Does the FSC actually protect forests?

So far, I’ve dealt very much with the basic facts and top-level information out there. But there are a number of questions that hang over the FSC certification system as a whole and question how effective it is at protecting forests.

It’s been almost three decades since the FSC was founded: are forests and woodland around the world now more sustainably managed? We see the logo on products often enough, surely this means the world’s forests are managed more responsibly?

The impacts of FSC certification on forests are still pretty poor. There have been no long term studies looking at FSC impacts.

There have been a small number of independent short scale studies that have concluded that FSC certification has had slight improvements on things such as workers rights and conversation. Some of these studies have performed impact evaluations, which compare how an intervention (such as FSC certification) marks up against a non-intervention forests (non FSC).

On the island of Borneo for example, FSC areas were shown to have reduced deforestation by 5%. Significant in the grand scheme but is this enough?

Other studies, such as this assessment of Russian FSC forests, found that FSC areas were still clear cut up to 90% causing significant structure and ecological change. A Greenpeace report, who are also an FSC member, accused FSC-certified loggers in Russia of not playing by the FSC requirements.

There has also been a level of controversy and exposes against the FSC revealing system abuse by FSC accredited third-party auditors. The FSC doesn’t actually carry out any forest or product audits itself. All of the verification processes are caried out by FSC accredited companies, who are hired by the companies themselves.

To me, this does leave the door open to abuse. Although the FSC are supposed to oversee everything, it works in the favour of both the company being audited and the third-party accreditor to verify the source. There’s an economic advantage to get clients and keep clients, which does result in a ‘race to the bottom’, as one of the FSC founders and now FSC Watch creator Simon Counsell puts it.

The FSC really do need to have a very hands-on, stricter style in regulating auditors. The FSC have admitted themselves that they need to be more ‘rigorous’.

The whole FSC certification process was set up to provide a market advantage and help give the companies who are genuinely operating sustainably access to more premium prices. This hasn’t really happened. FSC timber is generally the same price as non-FSC timber. When it costs money to manage forests in a sensitive, responsibly manner, you can see why this doesn’t quite add up.

The FSC label is also accredited on a product-by-product basis. This means companies with questionable track records in sustainability can also have FSC certified products.

Why is the FSC important?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, half of the world’s forests have been altered, degraded, destroyed or converted into other land uses.

We need to look after the world’s forests for our health, the environment and for their resource producing nature. We rely on forests, if not for their natural resource, then for the oxygen they emit.

Forest creation via tree planting on a small scale, such as creating urban forests and planned city spaces, as well as natural regeneration of woodland over large scales could very well be the main answer to avert the climate crisis we find ourselves in. Trees are a natural carbon dioxide absorber – more trees in the ground, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

Despite the lack of studies, FSC certification in generally is better for the environment and social conditions.

The FSC are the world’s most prominent and widespread promoter of sustainable forest management. For this reason alone, the work the FSC does is important. The World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have said that the FSC certification system is the best one out there for environmental, social and economic benefits.

The FSC certification system does allow end-users to make better, more sustainable choices when it comes to wood-based products. However, consumers act in good faith that the label means exactly what it says and for this reason the whole system needs to be fully compliant against the FSC standards.

As the FSC state themselves, ‘FSC certified forests must be managed to the highest environmental, social and economic standards’ – yes they do.

Wrap up on Forest Stewardship Council

The work the FSC set out to do in the 90s had, and still has, very good intentions. The FSC work and mission is important.

It seems however that there are a few systematic problems, such as the third party accreditation, hands off audit approach, that are putting the FSC principles and goals in jeopardy.

I also think more recent labels, such as FSC Mix, are a bit misleading. The consumer can’t be 100% sure if the wood has indeed come from a fully sustainable and responsible managed wood source, but to the consumer the ‘seal of approval’ is still there. Until writing this blog, I would have put complete faith in all FSC labels.

In general, I think a consumer can be pretty confident that a product carrying the FSC 100% logo has been sourced from a well-managed forest.

The Forest Stewardship Council is the most credible forest certification system out there. However, there is a large gap of FSC certified forests in the tropical regions which is concerning.

From a UK perspective, most of the timber imported comes from nearby Europe and Canada where management tends to be better and overseen by the government. This should give greater confidence.

Hopefully the FSC can continue to grow across the globe, clean up its operations and systematic issues and provide fully sustainable wood from well-managed forest sources.


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