Insight – Forest Certification


Prof. Roberto Zanuttini

This paper discusses a number of aspects that may prove useful in better understanding sustainable forest management, its certification and that of traceability of forest products, briefly illustrating the main applicable schemes and the value of such a choice even for the layman.

Generalities about certification
Certification is a statement issued by a qualified Body, Institution or person for the purpose of supporting the actual existence and truth of a fact, situation or condition. Technically, it is “an attestation that a product, process, or service conforms to predefined standards (e.g., a specification or standard), established by law or voluntarily accepted.”
Various levels of attestation of compliance are possible in this area. For example, that of part one, which consists of self-certification by a company based on criteria that it claims to meet. Second-party certification, on the other hand, corresponds to the attestation of an external but non-independent body, i.e., commercially involved in the activities that the company carries out. From the point of view of reliability and transparency, however, one speaks of certification in the strict sense only for that of a third party, that is, when the intervention of a body independent of the company and accredited is envisaged; in this case, the “control of the controllers” is also carried out by an external party, which is precisely the accreditation body. ISO 9001 certifications on quality systems and ISO 14001 on environmental impacts of manufacturing activities belong to this group.
Certification can also be applied to the production process (in which case it is called “system”), to the product (“of product”) or to individuals (“of competence, etc.”), but the basic concept generally does not change since it almost always involves adopting a set of documented procedures following the rules of the reference standard, keeping the process under review or the performance of the product or service under control, setting improvement goals to be achieved over time, and providing for periodic internal and/or external audits.
In some types of certification, including forestry certification, it is then possible to implement two different approaches that are complementary to each other: the system approach (aimed at implementing a process of continuous improvement) and the approach based on the application of performance-type criteria (i.e., oriented toward meeting predetermined objectives, with minimum thresholds to be exceeded). Both have advantages and disadvantages, but the systems approach often highlights the limitation of not offering common minimum goals, thus making it difficult to compare certified entities.
Some certifications (including forest certification) also allow the use of a mark that serves to highlight compliance with the requirements dictated by the standard and to differentiate the product in the marketplace. The bottom line is that there are several dozen certifications and brands, and the average consumer often cannot detect the differences or understand in detail what is behind them. For example, brands in the wood market attest to different requirements on various aspects, including the origin of materials, the use of recycled wood, formaldehyde emission limits, painting methods, product packaging, and energy consumption.
Implementing certification is then synonymous with greater managerial care, which from the choice of business partners, goes through the organization of individual production processes, to the involvement of each employee through a specific training and educational process. Consequently, this can give rise to a number of benefits that offset the difficulties faced in achieving it.

Origins of forest certification
Interest in forest certification is linked to the process of globalization, which, while it has had positive effects on price dynamics, has led to the emergence of unsustainable and/or illegal exploitation situations for many natural and human resources.
In fact, in many cases, the reckless use of forests is due to real survival needs, in some situations they are seen as wasted space taken away from more profitable land uses, and in still other cases the heavy cutting and export of timber represent immediate revenue for local governments that claim their decision-making autonomy and see such choices as a “price to pay” for achieving general economic growth.
Globally over the past decade, the average forest area lost due to anthropogenic or natural causes has “dropped” to 13 million hectares per year compared to the previous decade’s figure of 16 million: more than 90 percent of this amount, albeit partially offset by the establishment of new plantations, involves tropical forests, particularly those in Brazil, the Congo Basin and Indonesia. To have a term of comparison, it is as if a forested area the size of Greece were destroyed every year.
Illegal logging is an international problem as well as the main cause of deforestation and climate change (since a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are due to the degradation of this ecosystem); it is then often linked to activities involving corruption, violence and money laundering and, not infrequently, its proceeds are used to finance civil wars and the purchase of weapons, especially in Africa.
Unfortunately, some of the timber that is traded and imported comes from uncontrolled sources. In this context, Italy is among the leading importers, in Europe and worldwide. This could also make people think about the importance of increasing local sourcing, because of the resulting positive impacts, both economic (such as providing jobs for firms and laborers or increasing land management and care) and environmental (such as reduced transportation emissions and less impact on tropical areas).
Alarm over the destruction of forests therefore strongly stimulated the demand for forest certification, which came to fruition in the early 1990s thanks to the willingness of a number of environmental organizations (Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF) to promote an international tropical wood monitoring scheme to reward “responsible” production (and trade) of the same. Only later did it become established as a market instrument, with voluntary membership, especially in temperate zones, Europe and North America.
Fundamentally, forest certification thus revolves around the concept of “Sustainable Forest Management,” which was explicitly enshrined in 1993 in the Rio Declaration, following the United Nations World Conference on Environment and Development. The current definition is the one adopted in Helsinki in 1993 by the 2nd Interministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe. It stipulates that proper management must be able to reconcile environmental protection with social equity and economic efficiency, for present and future generations. Sustainably managed forests are those in which rigorous quantifiable and verifiable standards are adopted, based on internationally recognized requirements and criteria, approved with stakeholder consensus, and representing the fundamental principles of sustainability.
Concurrently with the above, greater environmental awareness of public opinion and policy makers has emerged, as well as demand from more developed countries for goods and services that meet precise criteria of ethics and ecological worthiness.
Indeed, a growing number of consumers want economic and production activities to be carried out in environmentally friendly ways, and although wood-based products in themselves have an overall better ecological profile than many competing materials, the motivations driving purchase choices in some market segments require wood industries to use reliable and credible means to demonstrate both the legal and sustainable origin of the raw material used and the environmental compatibility of production.
In addition to the existing obligations of transparency and consumer information, many have therefore begun to demand increasingly accurate labels and to make choices that are attentive not only to the utility and technical characteristics of the product but also to the behaviors assumed by the manufacturer, its business and non-business strategies. The purchase of an artifact is therefore perceived as a manifestation of consent toward all these aspects and values. As a result, the role of “certification” has been strengthened and has acquired the value of a tool for communicating and highlighting that a company implements behaviors consistent with customer and market expectations.

Main forest certification schemes and modes
The various certifications serve different purposes but are often based on common criteria that can be integrated with each other, at least in many documentary aspects. In fact, it is generally a matter of applying a similar conceptual model.
In this regard, forest certification can be considered a specific deepening of environmental certification.
An Italian company in the wood supply chain that is involved in forestry production and/or processing and marketing of wood-based products, for example, a forestry company, a consortium or any other type of organization, has the possibility to choose between different types of certification such as that of its quality system on the basis of ISO 9001, environmental certification according to ISO 14001, etc. However, this choice is not mandatory, as are CE marking, compliance with CITES regulations or phytosanitary certification.
Apart from some differences, in general all certifications require companies:
1. to always comply with current regulations and laws (this is in fact a pre-requisite since certification does not replace them but is a voluntary tool by which the company sets more restrictive goals)
2. to make a public commitment to the community to protect the environment
3. to operate according to a long-term management and planning plan
4. to invest in infrastructure and human resources.
If we get into the issue of guaranteeing the legal and sustainable origin of forest products, the two sector-specific tools currently available in Europe and Italy are the certifications referable to the FSC and PEFC schemes.
The FSC is a nongovernmental, independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1993, promoted and run by environmental groups. The FSC scheme is based on ten principles and criteria that consider the social benefits, economic aspects and environmental impacts associated with sustainable management. FSC’s institutional activities are carried out through the development of national initiatives and local standards referable to the above criteria, the accreditation and supervision of certification bodies, and the commercial management of the label.
PEFC is also an independent association established in Europe in 1998 by a voluntary initiative of forest owners and managers and wood industries, in order to have an instrument better suited both to their needs and to the peculiar situations of the European context. PEFC is an “umbrella” organization that involves mutual recognition of locally developed national forest certification schemes. For them, the main reference is the 6 Pan-European Criteria, complemented by a set of operational guidelines for sustainable management planning and practice, with more than 90 quantitative and qualitative indicators.
Specifically, forest certification involves two different ways: the first is management certification (FM or Forest Management), which means that a forest property is organized according to criteria of environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Timber from such certified forests or plantations can be labeled with a special logo and is commercially recognizable after felling. It must, however, remain traceable at all stages of subsequent processing up to the finished product, which is why the second mode, called Chain of Custody (CoC) certification, is applied.
If the finished product meets the conditions of the chain of custody, it too will be identifiable by the consumer through a specific mark.
Operationally, forest or plantation owners, regardless of size, can achieve management certification by demonstrating adherence to the rigorous requirements of FSC- or PEFC-approved national standards. FM certification can be achieved individually (by a single company or forest owner) or achieved as a region or group, allowing owners to participate in an associated manner, with bureaucratic facilitation and economies of scale.
In Italy, because of the great importance of the wood processing sector with respect to the productive management of the existing forest stock, the most widespread and rapidly expanding mode of certification is that of chain of custody.
In this case, the goal is to activate an information link between the raw material contained in a forest product and its origin, through an identification based on an accounting and monitoring system of its flows from forest to distribution. Through chain of custody, it is possible to prove that each company involved in the production process has developed a system to “track” all the steps from the procurement of timber from a certified forest to the sale of the product, semi-finished or finished, made from that same timber.
In fact, the chain of custody, with associated documentation, highlights to subsequent customers how much wood from certified sources is in the products under consideration. In order for the system to work effectively, each company involved in the various stages of wood processing or transfers of ownership must have a certified chain of custody.
In this area, the management of certified woody material generally takes place:
– through physical separation
– With the “transfer” system
– using a percentage approach (based on reporting of timber/timber raw material flows).
With physical segregation, each consignment of timber from certified sources must be kept segregated from other non-certified raw material at each intermediate step, i.e. from cutting and transportation to storage, processing and sale.
With the transfer system (typical of the FSC scheme), the category of the incoming raw material is transferred to the final product (processed or marketed).
Through the percentage system, the enterprise can label as coming from certified sources the part of production that corresponds to the amount (by volume or weight) of certified raw material used. This must be demonstrated with appropriate records made at each stage of the process.
From the moment the chain of custody is certified, one can apply for a license to use the logo to be applied either directly on the product or outside the product (e.g., on invoices, letterhead, transport documents, etc. ….). In marketing communication, labeling also serves to encourage customers and the general public toward a pro-sustainable forest management choice that is implemented by purchasing logo-marked products.
The customer/consumer of a labeled product can still check the validity of the chain of custody. Indeed, databases are available on the FSC and PEFC websites, the consultation of which makes it possible to find information on each certificate number or logo use license with reference to both schemes.
Forest certification finds application for a variety of types of wood products, including those for fuel use. In addition to wood companies, it affects the paper industry, publishing and some large-scale retail brands in furniture, DIY and food consumer goods (regarding packaging) as well as various non-wood forest products (mushrooms, berries, truffles, chestnuts, cork, balsamic oils, etc.).

Diffusion of forest certification and prospects
To date, the area of certified forests has reached 359 million hectares (ha), around 10 percent of their global extent (forests cover about 4 billion ha).
The most popular forest certification scheme is PEFC with 223 million ha of certified forests (62 percent of the total), followed by FSC with 136 million ha (38 percent).
Forest certification has found easier application in socio-geographical contexts such as Europe and North America where silvicultural management can boast a long tradition (and thus it is easier to meet the requirements of the reference scheme) and forest area is expanding.
In Italy, 811,056 hectares of forest are certified, corresponding to 9.26 percent of the total forest area (8,759,200 hectares), of which 744,538 hectares are certified under the PEFC scheme and 66,518 hectares under the FSC scheme.
The greatest interest in forest certification has been shown by timber-importing countries with very active environmental groups (able to lobby politically and public opinion), such as France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. In fact, the market for certified products is widely believed to be attractive to export-oriented companies and the new policy of “green purchasing,” i.e., Green Public Procurement (GPP), by government agencies,. With forest certification, these have the assurance that the wood products they purchase are of certain origin and made with respect for the environment and civil rights in the countries of origin. Since, in addition, the Guidelines produced by the Ministry of the Environment recognize forest certification as having ethical and environmental value, in many tenders it is considered among the rewarding ecological criteria pursuant to the final score.
Although in a resolution passed in 2006 the European Parliament formalized the statement that the PEFC and FSC schemes are considered equivalent, in reality they remain on conflicting and ideologically different positions that, especially with regard to CoC, often force Italian industry players to make a choice based on the demands of their market or implement it with both schemes.

Sustainable forest management, and the various certification initiatives that are its implementation tool, originate from the need to meet increasing timber harvests and consumption while conserving resources.
For a wood-based product to be truly environmentally friendly, it must be composed of raw material from properly and responsibly managed forests. Currently, certification under the FSC or PFC schemes is the only tool that provides guidance in this regard and on traceability from forest to market.
Forest certification thus serves to promote sustainable forest management while for the companies that achieve it, it is a useful marketing tool and an opportunity to formalize their commitment to the environment.
It is important to point out, moreover, that if the wood product is made from timber and by local businesses, its certification contributes to enhancing the resources and economy of the area.
The recent promulgation by government departments in many countries of purchasing policies that are attentive to products with a high ecological profile provides a further boost to the spread of this tool.
Finally, the activation by the private sector of a voluntary guarantee mechanism can complement the actions taken by governments to combat illegal logging and trade. In this sense, forest certification, in its two aspects of sustainability of management and traceability of certified products, is also a way of paying attention to the quality of life of those who will come after us.

Bibliographical references
FAO-FRA 2010 FAO Forestry Statistics – Rome(
Brunori A. (2010). Sustainability in forestry and wood for certified construction. In: BOISLAB Wood for sustainable architecture. Alinea Publishing: 21-24. (available online at url:

The seminar with
Roberto Zanuttini,
Forest certification
, held on Nov. 18, 2010,
is part of the

cycle of meetings and video screenings
entitled “The Sustainability of Forest Resources,” which thehe Sereno Regis Study Center and the Forest Policies Sector of the Piedmont Region, in collaboration with CinemAmbiente, organized on the topic of forest resource management, in order to publicize the presence, at the Sereno Regis Study Center, of the Forestry and Naturalistic Engineering Library “Liria Pettineo” and to spread its knowledge among specialists in the field, university students and the general population.

Roberto Zanuttini, Agroselviter Department, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Turin. Via L. da Vinci 44 – 10095 Grugliasco (TO); tel: 0116705541; e-mail: