The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Program is in the first stages of a major revision of their standards.  You can read about the process here.  The first public consultation period will be ending on August 6, so  it is important that anyone with suggestions (that includes me) get their inputs to the SFI staff soon.

SFI has taken a lot of heat lately; mostly from environmental campaign groups with a strict “FSC-only” agenda.  Their arguments have been picked up in mainstream press as well, though, and seem to have gotten some traction.  The SFI organization has done a credible job of defending themselves.  You can read their arguments here.  I find the whole debate rather frustrating.  It’s frustrating because it almost always misses the real point.  How are the two programs really different and why?

Our prominent Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) programs can be divided into three, basic components.  Here is a quick and dirty outline of each:

Forest Management (FM) Standards

At their heart and soul, they each have a forest management standard.  This standard sets the rules that are followed by commercial forest land managers:  the folks who actually grow and harvest trees, and send logs to market.  A great deal of careful work has been done comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the FSC and SFI FM standard (in my view this one is the best).  The conclusion?  They really aren’t all that different.  Yes, the FSC standard pays greater attention to social criteria; and the SFI standard includes requirements for continuous improvement.  But the inescapable truth is that the on-the-ground results aren’t worth arguing about.

Chain of Custody (CoC) Standards

Because our SFM programs are market-based initiatives, they have standards which define the requirements for traceability within a supply chain.  This is the basic system that allows a certified tree to be linked to labeled product that you might find on a store shelf in your local mega-mart.  I’ve written a lot about the CoC standards in the MixedWood blog because it’s a bit part of my business.  The vast majority of FSC and SFI program certificates are CoC because that’s where most of the business is.  My opinion is that CoC should be simple and boring.  Sadly, it has been allowed to become complex and expensive.  SFI has managed to keep its approach to CoC a bit simpler than FSC, but the difference really isn’t worth sneezing at.

Certified Sourcing and Controlled Wood

If the SFM world were simply a matter of a) setting rules for people who grow trees, and b) tracing the certified trees in the marketplace, life would be very simple.  Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.  That is because there is all the “other” wood to consider.  Both FSC and SFI have their own approach to dealing with wood and wood-products which are not grown in certified forests but are, nonetheless, “acceptable” in the marketplace.  Interestingly, this is where the two program’s differences really become apparent.

FSC approaches this problem with a program known as “Controlled Wood”.  At it’s essence, FSC Controlled Wood is a risk-based, due diligence system.  It generally involves a geographically-based risk assessment in combination with some sort of source-verification process.  In principal it makes good sense.  In practice it’s an embarrassing mess.

SFI takes an entirely different approach.  They call their program “Certified Sourcing”.  It starts with a very detailed set of requirements which include proactive outreach to suppliers, monitoring of environmental impacts, promotion of conservation, and active engagement in regional networks.  These unique and impressive requirements, however, only apply to companies who are classified as “primary producers”; i.e. sourcing their raw materials directly from the forest.  Other companies (“secondary producers”) access the Certified Sourcing system through a process which functions like a watered-down version of Chain of Custody.  At the end of the day, Certified Sourcing products include a mixture of practically any wood-based material that was sourced or manufactured in North America.  Like FSC Controlled Wood, the best of intentions have lead to a bit of an embarrassing mess.

 Let’s be constructive.

I hope that SFI will approach its standard revision process with an open mind and a firm intention to make the program better.  In particular, this should include tackling the weaknesses in the Certified Sourcing program.  This will require shifting from the defensive mindset that has creeped into the community in recent years.

I hope that SFI’s critics can find a way to be constructive.  This might mean acknowledging that FSC is far from perfect and accepting that we can all benefit by making both programs stronger.