How Forest Certification Works

18 March 2016 - // Features
Xavier Noyon
Secretary General, European Biodiesel Board (EBB)

If forests are to continue to deliver the full range of benefits that people and nature depend on, they need to be preserved and managed sustainably. Forest certification allows forest managers to demonstrate that their practices are sustainable and that their forests meet both our needs and those of future generations.


Forest certification is crucial in providing evidence of sustainable forest management. Increasingly, this proof is a prerequisite for doing business and certified forest materials are requested more and more in procurement policies around the world. In turn, forest certification has a direct economic and social impact on the communities that depend on these forests for their livelihoods.

Forest certification arose in response to concerns about the preservation of the world’s forests. It developed as a result of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil, which defined ‘sustainable development’ as a common goal of human development. The preamble of the ‘Forest Principles’ – one of the five outcome documents – stated that “forests are essential to economic development and the maintenance of all forms of life.” But governments were unable to agree on the specifics of sustainable forest management at the UN level, and so forest certification arose as a process and a mechanism to bring people together to define it. Today, forest certification is seen as a tried and tested mechanism to provide evidence for sustainable forest management, and assists producers in bringing product assurances to the market.

Certification in Forests and Companies

Sustainable forest management is promoted through the certification of forests and the products that come from them. This is done through two separate but linked processes:

  • Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) certification assures that forests are managed in line with challenging environmental, social, and economic requirements.
  • Chain of Custody certification tracks wood from sustainable sources to the final product. It demonstrates that each step of the supply chain is closely monitored through independent auditing to ensure that unsustainable sources are excluded.

Sustainable Forest Management Certification

Forests are highly diverse, from evergreen eucalyptus forests in Tasmania to tropical rainforests in South America and the Congo Basin and boreal forests in Canada. Similarly, their management differs greatly, along with local traditions, cultural and spiritual expectations, average property sizes and support structures such as forest owner associations.

As framework conditions may vary vastly from country to country, we must address this diversity when defining sustainable forest management requirements in forest certification standards. We must ensure that these requirements are tailored to the needs of the specific forest ecosystems, the legal and administrative framework, the socio-cultural context and other locally relevant factors.

Sustainable forest management creates outcomes that are economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just. These three pillars of sustainability cannot be separated, compartmentalized or addressed individually. Without all three, forests will not be protected, forest dependent communities and rural economies cannot thrive, illegal logging will not be abated, and development opportunities will not be captured.

Chain of Custody

Chain of Custody. Source: REVOLVE

Forest certification, while crucial in maintaining the valuable services forests provide, does not in itself establish the link from the forest to the market. This link is established through Chain of Custody certification, which tracks forest-based products from sustainable sources to the final product. It closely monitors each step of the supply chain through independent auditing to ensure that certified, sustainable material reaches the consumer while unsustainable sources are excluded.

Chain of Custody certification provides evidence that wood contained in a product originates from certified forests, and requires all companies along the supply chain to be Chain of Custody certified. As long as this is the case, products are considered certified and can use the certification label.

In addition to enabling companies to sell and label sustainably sourced, certified wood, Chain of Custody certification also offers an efficient mechanism for companies to demonstrate alignment with the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR).

The PEFC System

The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is an international non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management through independent third-party certification. It works throughout the forest supply chain to promote good practice in the forest and to ensure that timber and non-timber forest products are sourced with respect for the highest ecological, social and ethical standards.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, PEFC is a member organization which comprises more than 60 institutions including national certification systems, NGOs, labor unions, businesses, trade associations and forest owner organizations committed to promoting sustainable forest management through forest certification.

The organization is well placed to expand forest certification globally through its unique bottom-up approach to certification, developed by and for smallholders, and nowadays providing evidence for responsible management of forests of all sizes.

PEFC is an umbrella organization that endorses national forest certification systems developed collaboratively by all interested stakeholders and tailored to local priorities and conditions. It recognizes that while the concept of sustainable forest management is global in nature, its implementation is local. This is why we work with local organizations to advance responsible forestry and endorse national forest certification systems that have demonstrated compliance with our globally recognized Sustainability Benchmarks. National forest management standards must be tailored to country-specific priorities and conditions and developed through multi-stakeholder, consensus-driven processes.

Each national forest certification system undergoes rigorous third party assessment against PEFC’s unique Sustainability Benchmarks. These Benchmarks are based on broad consensus by society, expressed in globally respected international and intergovernmental processes and guidelines for the promotion of sustainable forest management. The Benchmark criteria are regularly revised through multi-stakeholder processes to include new scientific knowledge, societal change, evolving expectations and the latest best practices. Today, PEFC has recognized certification systems in over 40 countries that account for over 267 million hectares of certified forest (2/3 of all certified forest area worldwide), making it the world’s largest forest certification system.

Each national forest certification system must demonstrate compliance with PEFC’s unique Sustainability Benchmarks in independent assessments.

Sustainable Forest Management Requirements

PEFC’s requirements build and expand upon the most widely accepted principles, criteria and guidelines defining sustainable forest management, developed by international and intergovernmental bodies such as Forest Europe, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the African Timber Organization (ATO). During the standard setting processes, these references have been further evolved, adapted and strengthened to take account of the latest scientific knowledge, experiences on the ground, and changing societal expectations.

PEFC was the first global forest certification standard to require compliance with all fundamental International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions and to include references to the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Today, PEFC is the only global forest certification system requiring all standards to be set with the open participation of all interested parties at national level in a consensus-driven decision-making process.

Sustainable Forest Management Requirements

Healthy Forests

  • Maintain and increase the health and vitality of forest ecosystems biodiversity
  • Protect ecologically important forest areas, wildlife, waterways, and soil
  • Prohibit genetically modified trees and chemicals
  • Prevent unauthorized activities such as illegal logging

Healthy Work

  • Comply with all fundamental  ILO conventions, plus safe working conditions
  • Consideration of new opportunities for employment

Healthy Communities

  • Promote the long-term health and well-being of forest communities
  • Respect forests’ multiple functions, give due regard to the role of forestry in rural development
  • Involve forest communities, forest-dependent people in forest management
  • Recognize indigenous people’s rights, including free, prior and informed consent
  • Protect sites with recognized specific historical, cultural or spiritual significance
  • Safeguard areas fundamental to meeting the basic needs of local communities
PEFC Facts and Figures. Source: REVOLVE
Xavier Noyon
Secretary General, European Biodiesel Board (EBB)

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