Certification 101 – Part 2: Sustainable Fiber Sourcing Standards

You may be familiar with forest management certification, the voluntary process in which an independent, accredited third-party auditor conducts an onsite assessment of forestland to determine the quality of forest management against established standards such as those developed by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®), Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™ (PEFC™). Perhaps less familiar, but far more prevalent, is fiber sourcing certification.

Around 90% of all forestland globally is not certified. For North American paper manufacturers who do not own their own forestland, this means they need a way to document that the wood they buy from non-certified forests is sourced responsibly. Certifying their wood and fiber procurement operations to a sustainable sourcing standard provides strong, proven mechanisms that enable responsible sourcing.

The American Forest and Paper Association reports that of the total wood fiber from forests used for products, its members procure more than 99% through a certified fiber sourcing program.

SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard

The SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard is among the most rigorous of these standards. It holds individual mills and manufacturers, who bear all the costs to certify, accountable for promoting responsible forestry, which reduces the financial burden on small family forest owners. SFI‑certified organizations must show that the raw material in their supply chain comes from legal and responsible sources, whether the forests are certified or not.

But the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard requires certified paper manufacturers to go far beyond simply avoiding the purchase of wood or fiber from illegal or otherwise “controversial” sources. The performance-based standard requires manufacturers to take proactive steps with their third-party suppliers, including forestland owners and loggers from whom they source wood, to help ensure environmentally sound harvesting. The standard sets mandatory forestry best management practices (BMPs) for the responsible procurement of all fiber sourced directly from the forest. Among others, these BMPs include requirements to advance the protection of water and soil quality, conserve biodiversity and forests with exceptional conservation value, and protect at-risk species.

In addition, certified manufacturers are required to invest in forestry research and technology, and to develop monitoring systems to evaluate and verify the use of BMPs in their supply chains. Demonstrating the impact of the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard on BMP implementation, a 2018 report titled “Implementation of Forestry Best Management Practices” by the Southern Group of State Foresters1 put the BMP implementation rate in the region at nearly 94%, up from 87% in 2008.

Certified manufacturers must also participate in the development and implementation of professional logger training programs, and require that loggers supplying wood to them be trained. A very strong system of logger training programs exists today across U.S. states and Canadian provinces, and this is a direct result of implementation of the SFI Fiber Sourcing standard. Through these programs, more than 221,000 professional loggers have been trained since 1995 to ensure understanding of biodiversity, water and soil quality and other sustainable forestry requirements.

Much of the wood used by U.S. and Canadian paper manufacturers comes from small, family forests that are not certified to a forest management standard. Another critical element of the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard requires certified manufacturers to develop and provide outreach to these small family forest owners. This includes information and educational materials that encourage, among other things, reforestation after harvesting and forest productivity measures that protect against damage from wildfire, pests, disease and invasive species.

In order for a paper manufacturer to be certified, all SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard requirements must be independently audited by a competent and accredited third-party certification body. And, just as there are on-product labels to convey that fiber is sourced from certified forestland, SFI has a distinct label to denote fiber that is sourced responsibly under its Fiber Sourcing Standard. The SFI Certified Sourcing label tells consumers that fiber comes from a company that is certified to the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard, from recycled content, or from a certified forest.

The SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard applies to manufacturers in the United States and Canada that procure wood domestically or globally. When SFI-certified organizations source fiber from jurisdictions outside North America that may lack effective laws, they must complete a risk assessment to assure their fiber sourcing programs support principles of sustainable forestry, promote conservation of biodiversity, thwart illegal logging, avoid controversial sources and encourage socially sound practices. Despite the very low risk of illegal logging in the United States and Canada, the marketplace has increasingly demanded risk assessments across the entire supply chain. The SFI 2022 Fiber Sourcing Standard requires certified organizations to assess the risk of illegal logging regardless of the country or region of origin.

For more detailed information about the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard, click here.

FSC Controlled Wood Standard

The Forest Stewardship Council allows paper manufacturers to mix FSC-certified fiber with non-certified fiber in FSC-labeled products under controlled conditions. The non-certified material subject to these controlled conditions is referred to as “controlled wood.”

The FSC Controlled Wood Standard requires certificate holders that use controlled wood to mitigate the risk of using wood products from undesirable sources in FSC-labeled products. Mitigation must be implemented when the risk of sourcing from the following types of forests is greater than “low” as determined by an FSC risk assessment:

  • Illegally harvested forests;
  • Forests that were harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights;
  • Forests where High Conservation Values are threatened by management activities;
  • Natural forests that were converted to non-forest uses; and
  • Forests with genetically modified trees.

The FSC US National Risk Assessment (US NRA) must be used by all companies that wish to control uncertified forest materials from the conterminous United States so that the materials may be mixed with FSC-certified materials and used in products that carry the FSC Mix label.  Similarly, the FSC Canadian National Risk Assessment (FSC-NRA-CA) must be used by companies that wish to control uncertified forest materials from Canada.

For more information on the FSC Controlled Wood Standard, click here.


1   AL, AR, KY, LA, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, FL, GA and VA.