Re: FSC-certified paper
Mon, 15 Nov 1999 17:26:32 EST

Dear David,

Re: Your message, "I wonder if any of you have been following the Forest
Stewardship Council's recent efforts to certify paper? Any thoughts?"

I've been teaching a workshop for the Coastal Rainforest Coalition on how
major purchasers can implement procurement policies to avoid old growth
forest fibers. A significant part of the workshop is dedicated to discussing
alternatives - FSC-certified products in addition to source reduction,
recycled, tree free and chlorine free products.

What I've learned about FSC-certified papers is that there isn't much yet
happening in that arena because the Forest Stewardship Council is still
debating how to set criteria for them. To date, the only FSC-certified
printing and writing papers that I know of are a book paper from Lyons Falls
and several grades available from New Leaf Paper. (One of New Leaf Paper's
glossy FSC-certified sheets was used for the new World Wildlife Fund 2000
Calendar and another was used for the cover of a Norm Thompson Outfitters
catalog.) I believe that all of these papers also have some postconsumer
content - both companies are very good about attention to environmental

I don't think that any packaging or other types of papers have been certified
yet, which is why McDonald's has led a research project to find out about the
environmental characteristics of many of the paper companies that supply
their packaging.

At this point, FSC-certification for paper means that 70% of the virgin
content of the sheet can be guaranteed to come from FSC-certified sustainably
managed forests. (This may be a pulp plantation, but may also be forest
harvests.) This is useful because even most recycled sheets have considerable
percentages of virgin pulp. (I hope in the future that that virgin pulp can
be supplied from non-wood sources, but at this time that's not the reality).
The virgin pulp is coming from all over the world, including British Columbia
temperate old growth rainforests, Brazilian old growth forests, Indonesia,
and pulp plantations in the southeastern U.S.

The issues that I see as problematic are:

1) 30% of the virgin pulp does not have to be from sustainably managed
forests -presumably, it could even come from clearcut old growth - yet the
paper still can claim to be FSC-certified.

2) FSC-certification itself does not rule out old growth fiber. They
evaluate forests on the basis of "high conservation value" for the specific
region the forest is in, and in some cases accept cutting old growth trees.
Right now, there is great debate going on about how to set standards for
FSC-certified timber harvesting in British Columbia. Some logging companies
wanted FSC-certification despite the fact that they're clearcutting old
growth. The environmentalists, foresters, and many others that are part of
FSC are involved in intense debates about what is acceptable there and what
isn't. I have heard of one paper mill in BC that has been "pre-certified" (I
don't see how that can be meaningful) but my understanding is that they don't
yet have any FSC-certified forests or logging operations to get the wood
from. FSC is still working out the criteria for certification in this
specific region although apparently there is one logging company (which
clearcuts old growth) going ahead with the process of getting certified

By the way, for the FSC-certified portion of products, the company with the
certification should be able to tell you the forest(s) involved. Then the
forest manager and/or the actual FSC-certifier can answer questions about
whether there is old growth being cut there.

3) The reason that the requirement is only 70% is because paper mills buy
pulp all over the world, and often on spot markets. They say they cannot
trace the forest sources of their pulp, although several certifiers I've
talked to say that all pulp shipments have shipping tags that can be traced.
I think that this is similar to the late 1980s and early 1990s when pulp
mills and wastepaper brokers said it was impossible to track postconsumer
content, that there was no way to identify and segregate it. However, when
purchasers kept insisting on postconsumer, the mills and brokers figured out
a system to do it, although I still hear many of them grumble about it. I
think that as buyers insist on knowing the forest sources of their wood fiber
products, more of a system will develop to track them.

But, because of this global pulp market, FSC is revisiting their paper
certification criteria and actually considering LOWERING the percentage of
FSC-certified fiber that's required to qualify.

My take on this is that I don't think 100% virgin paper should be used at
all, unless there are no environmental papers available to meet the specific
technical need (and there are not very many situations where that's the
case). It's best to look for high recycled/postconsumer and tree-free content
as a first choice. Even cost should not be the barrier that people claim it
to be these days: There are a number of source reduction applications that
can often be done to lower costs when necessary. (For example, the Norm
Thompson catalog used a lower basis weight sheet to get a price equivalent to
their previous paper, after focus groups showed it wouldn't affect customer
perceptions, which reduced both cost and fiber use.)

But even then, of course, you're still usually dealing with some virgin
content. For that portion, I think that FSC certification is helpful - at
least you know SOME of the source of the virgin fiber, when otherwise you'd
know none. But because FSC certification does not give you enough
information, you will still need to rely on your own tracing of the forest
sources, as well as totally chlorine free status, to determine the
environmental soundness of that virgin content. I have been putting a lot of
information about how to trace forest sources up on the Coastal Rainforest
Coalition's website,, and there is still more to

Susan Kinsella
Conservatree and
Susan Kinsella & Associates
Novato, CA 94949
Phone/Fax: 415/883-6264