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.

Forest Certification 101

Paper products often carry a label showing that they are certified.  But what does that really mean?  

By Kathi Rowzie, President, Two Sides North America

Simply put, certification labels are a quick and easy way to tell consumers that the wood fiber in the paper products they buy and use comes from sustainably managed forests. The certification systems behind those labels provide the proof that’s true.

Certification is a voluntary, market-based incentive system that’s implemented through two separate but linked processes: sustainable forest management certification and chain of custody certification.

Forest Management Certification

The United Nations describes sustainable forest management as a “dynamic and evolving concept that aims to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental value of forests for the benefit of present and future generations.” Forest certification, which covers the certification of actual forestland, assures that forests are responsibly managed in line with challenging environmental, social and economic requirements.

This certification involves a voluntary process in which an independent, accredited third-party auditor conducts an onsite assessment to determine the quality of forest management against these requirements, typically referred to as forest management standards. These forest management standards are developed in an open, transparent process by a public or private certification organization and are adapted to local context to reflect different forest types and cultural considerations in different regions of the world.

Forest management certification is issued to a forest owner or manager who is assessed to be managing forests according to the standards. Often times, auditors request that land owners make changes in their management practices to better conform to the certification standard before certification is awarded. Landowners and land managers who have completed a successful audit can then make claims their forests are certified to these standards, and sell wood fiber off their land as certified.  A summary of certification audit findings is made publicly available in support of these claims.

Forest certification increases the value of forests by building consumer trust, which in turn creates additional demand for forest products like paper and paper-based packaging. Creating additional value and demand for these products is one of the best ways to keep forests standing because it prevents them from being permanently cleared for alternative land uses like urban development.

Chain of Custody Certification

Chain of custody (CoC) certification tracks forest-based products from sustainable forests to the final product. It demonstrates that each step of the supply chain is closely monitored through independent auditing to ensure that unsustainable fiber sources are excluded. Chain of custody certification is available to those who process or trade certified wood products, such as manufacturers, mills, paper merchants, converters, printers, wood dealers, wood yards, wholesalers and brokers.

A CoC system, coupled with a product label identifying the certification system, helps consumers make informed choices by verifying that any paper or paper-based packaging labeled “certified” was produced with wood from a sustainably managed forest.

Forest Certification Standards

While there are dozens of different forest certification standards in use around the world, they share many of the same basic objectives. All demonstrate an additional measure of commitment to sustainable forestry and are effective mechanisms for encouraging and expanding a responsible marketplace for print, paper and paper-based packaging.

The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™ (PEFC™) standards account for the vast majority of certified forests and chain-of-custody certificates around the world.

Forest certification programs operate at a national or regional level. An important mission of PEFC™ is to evaluate and endorse national and regional standards, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) standard available in the United States and Canada, and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standard.

Over 770 million acres (312 million hectares) are managed in compliance with PEFC’s™ internationally accepted sustainability benchmarks. Three quarters of all certified forests globally are certified to PEFC™ standards. PEFC™ has 55 national members and 50 endorsed national certification systems around the world. 750,000 forest owners are PEFC™ certified globally. Approximately 13,000 PEFC™ chain-of-custody certificates have been issued globally, with 253 in the United States and 176 in Canada.

In North America, the growth of SFI® forest management certification leads all other standards with more than 375 million acres (150 million hectares) certified. Among the SFI® Forest Management Standard’s requirements are measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, the rights of indigenous peoples, workers’ rights (including gender equity), and forests with exceptional conservation value. SFI® accounts for nearly 35% of global certified forests and 46% of PEFC™ certifications worldwide.

FSC® forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers while ensuring it sustains economic viability. Approximately 533 million acres (216 million hectares) globally are certified to the FSC® standard, with 37 million acres (15 million hectares) certified in the United States and 121 million acres (49 million hectares) certified in Canada. Approximately 52,000 FSC® chain of custody certificates have been issued globally, with 2,143 issued in the United States and 508 in Canada.

Global Certification Status

According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment (2020), approximately 11% of the world’s forestland – about 1 billion acres (426 million hectares) – is certified, with the majority of certified forestland in North America and Europe. This is net certified area, owing to the fact that some forests are certified to more than one standard. Canada has by far the most with 413 million acres (167 million hectares) certified, followed by Russia with 133 million acres (54.1 million hectares) and the United States with 94 million acres (38 million hectares). These three countries together account for more than 60% of the world’s certified forest area.

New SFI 2022 Standards Are Now Active

The SFI 2022 Standards and Rules are now in effect on more than 350 million acres/140 million hectares certified to the SFI Forest Management Standard, and tens of millions more certified to the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard. Announced on Earth Day 2021, the standards support SFI’s leadership in offering solutions to some of the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges. Of particular note:

  • Requirements for a new SFI Climate Smart Forestry Objective are one of the highlights of the new standards. Forests play a central role in the carbon cycle and with proper management, can be one of the most effective nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. SFI-certified organizations will now be required to ensure forest management activities address climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
  • SFI is elevating its role in addressing fire by introducing a new SFI Fire Resilience and Awareness Objective. Forest fires have long played a role in the evolution and function of natural ecosystems, but we are now seeing an increase in catastrophic fires that have dire consequences for our forests, wildlife, and communities. SFI-certified organizations are now required to limit susceptibility of forests to undesirable impacts of wildfire and to raise community awareness of fire benefits, risks, and minimization measures.
  • An important component of the SFI standards is Objective 8, Recognize and Respect Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. The SFI standards promote respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights, representative institutions, and traditional knowledge, and are aligned with the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specific measures require that SFI-certified organizations are aware of traditional forest-related knowledge, such as known cultural heritage sites, the use of wood in traditional buildings and crafts, and flora that may be used in cultural practices for food, ceremonies, or medicine.

SFI revises and updates the SFI standards to incorporate the latest scientific information, respond to emerging issues, and ensure continual improvement. The process to develop these standards included engagement with the conservation community, Indigenous communities, the forest products sector, brand owners, private forest landowners and public forest managers, government agencies, trade associations, landowner associations, academia, and the public.

SFI is governed by an 18-member Board of Director, which sets SFI’s strategic direction and represents the environmental, social and economic sectors. SFI Board members include executive-level representatives of conservation organizations, academic institutions, aboriginal/tribal entities, family forest owners, public officials, labor and the forest products industry. The SFI External Review Panel also provides ongoing, independent review of SFI and its work. This volunteer panel is made up of external experts representing conservation, environmental, forestry, Indigenous, academic, social, and government organizations. The panel helps monitor the SFI standard revision process and reviews every public comment submitted to ensure that the revision process is transparent and objective.

To learn more about forest certification, download our Two Sides Fact Sheet here.