Submitted: The Two Sides Team November 21, 2012
The free market has long been recognized as one of the best methods for consumers to get a wide variety of choices, while at the same time the competition for the consumer dollar incentivizes producers and sellers to offer the best possible value for the price.
November 13 2012
by Ken Boehm, National Legal and Policy Center
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions and not by their results.” Dr. Milton Friedman
The free market has long been recognized as one of the best methods
for consumers to get a wide variety of choices, while at the same time
the competition for the consumer dollar incentivizes producers and
sellers to offer the best possible value for the price.
Free market advocates have demonstrated that, all too often,
interventions in the market such as tariffs, regulations, taxes, and so
forth – imposed with the best of intentions – not only rob the consumer
of choice but increase the ultimate cost of goods and services.
As Milton Friedman liked to point out, such interventions frequently
resulted in outcomes exactly the opposite of what was intended by those
advocating the interventions. In short, the law of unintended
consequences operates to frustrate those who seek to impose their own
subjective values on the free market.
This is becoming the case in the huge market for forest products from paper to furniture to building supplies.
The battle lines are forming over competing forest certification
standards. Such certifications are evidence to consumers that the
forest product they may be purchasing has been certified to meet certain
environmental standards. The well-intended purpose is to help stop a
variety of abusive forestry practices. Products that met the standards
were stamped with the forest certification logo of whichever group’s
standards were met. As an added measure, the standards were to be
ensured by third-party inspectors.
As the practice started out to be entirely voluntary and the groups
tended to be non-profit organizations, nothing in the arrangement
violated the principles of free market enterprise. Consumers who
preferred one system over another or no system at all were all free to
use such certifications as a useful way to make informed decisions.
Approximately 90% of the world’s forests have no certification of any
kind. Internationally, more than 30 different such certification
systems exist. In North America, there are four forest certification
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative Program (SFI)
This is the most widely used certification standard in the U.S. with 196 million acres certified as of the end of 2011.
The American Tree Farm System (ATFS)
ATFS is the system used by some 83,000 small family forest landowners
who have about 26 million acres of certified forests. SFI recognizes
the ATFS standard and forest products are tracked using the SFI chain of
The Canadian Standards Association (CSA)
This standard is used in Canada. Forest products are tracked using the SFI chain of custody standard.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
This standard is international with a mixture of some 28 regional and
national standards. The FSC is based in Germany and about 90% of its
certifications are outside the U.S.
The various competing standards are remarkably similar with each one
emphasizing its own best qualities in order to persuade the marketplace
to become loyal to their particular brand. Those organizations which
closely follow the issue have made this observation. For example, the
National Association of State Foresters passed a forest certification
statement resolution in 2008 stating:
While in different manners, the ATFS (American Tree Farm System),
FSC(Forest Stewardship Council), and SFI systems include the
fundamental elements of credibility and make positive contributions to
forest sustainability…No certification program can credibly claim to
be ‘best’, and no certification program that promotes itself as the only
certification option can maintain credibility.
The collegiality of the certification programs should have been
further improved by their shared views on sustainability and sound
forestry practices and also by the fact that 90% of the world’s forests
were not certified at all.
This was not to be.
Advocates of FSC soon found ways to gain advantages over their competition.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a private environmental
group, developed a system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design (LEED) in 2000.
LEED uses a point-based rating system for buildings that only
recognizes forests certified by FSC. In practice, this bias means that
most of North America’s certified forests are severely disadvantaged
since FSC certifies only about one-quarter of North America’s certified
forests. The other three-quarters of certified forests – certified by
SFI, CSA, and ATFS – are shut out of the competition, despite standards
which are quite similar to those of FSC, and in some cases significantly
better than the FSC standards.
To make the anti-competitive nature of the LEED system worse,
advocates of the FSC standard have sought to get government involved in
promoting the LEED standard using taxpayer dollars to favor one private
program over another.
A textbook example of this is the U.S. General Services
Administration, which is one of the largest building owners and managers
in the nation. As cited in the GSA LEED Cost Study Final Report:
GSA requires all new construction, and major renovation and
modernization projects to be certified through the LEED program, with
project teams strongly encouraged to achieve LEED ‘Silver’
The Essence of Hypocrisy: Hardline
Activists Who Demand That FSC Be the Only Allowable Certification System
Ignore FSC’s Major Flaws
hy·poc·ri·sy n. 1: a feigning to be what one is not
Those who advocate that no other forest certification system than FSC
should be allowed have one thing in common: they roundly condemn
alternate certification systems while ignoring the voluminous evidence
that FSC’s flaws are often far worse.
That is the essence of hypocrisy.
Among the facts usually overlooked by those pushing for FSC to be the monopoly forest certification system:
(1) Most FSC certified wood products come from outside the U.S.
meaning there are more transportation costs – not exactly a selling
point for environmentalists.
(2) There is no one FSC standard since the standards vary greatly
depending on the place of origin, thus undercutting any certainty to the
consumer of exactly what standards apply to the product being
(3) Many of the perceived “abuses” – such as clearcutting and
harvesting of old growth trees – can occur even if a wood product is FSC
Whenever the more strident activists are campaigning against
alternate certification systems to FSC, their trump card is the claim
that FSC is the superior system for those who value the environment.
This line of argument all too often is associated with efforts to either
denigrate corporations which chose these alternate systems or to
promote anti-competitive arrangements like the LEED system.
The net result of a monopoly FSC certification system is higher
economic costs on the wood products industry which means higher prices
Ironically, this anti-consumer effort would not be possible without a
textbook example of hypocrisy: misrepresenting a very flawed forest
certification system to be a reliable environmental standard when the
facts show clearly that it is not.
If the Webster’s definition of “hypocrisy” is feigning to be what one is not, the marketing of FSC certification as the only allowable environmental standard is based substantially on hypocrisy.
And the Law of Unintended Consequences Kicks In: Energy Costs to Transport FSC Certified Products
Since 90% of FSC certifications are from outside the U.S. and about
75% of the certified forests in the U.S. in North America are certified
using certifications other than FSC, that means that the non-recognition
of the other systems by LEED and therefore GSA, the U.S. government is
paying a much larger amount in transportation costs when it has to
import a product from overseas when a similar product is readily
Since the environmental movement is largely opposed to the use of
fossil fuels generally, while favoring strict conservation, one has to
wonder how they believe these FSC forest products are transported to the
Even FSC knows that the limitation on FSC certified products often
results in having to transport forest products from a foreign country.
FSC’s 2010 Business Value and Growth market survey stated:
Nearly half of respondents have sought out an alternative
supplier in another country when FSC certified timber or products were
not available in their own country.
In a May 21, 2012 letter to the U.S. Green Building Council, a
bi-partisan group of Congressmen protested that organization’s
discrimination against the use of most certified forest products from
the U.S. in their LEED system:
…FSC certified products from Brazil, China, or Russia can earn
this credit, yet domestic products from forests certified to SFI and
ATFS cannot earn these same credits. There are over 86 million acres
certified to SFI and ATFS across the United States. These forests are
responsibly managed, protect biodiversity and water quality and generate
products that would be excellent components of what is categorized as a
From the beginning, the economic thinking behind forest certification
was that consumers would pay more for certified forest products because
they endorse the accountability represented by the certification
process. To some degree that is true when the premium costs are not too
high and when real competition between competing certification systems
keeps those added costs modest.
As any student of monopolies knows, the attraction of a monopoly to
the monopolist is to gouge the consumer on prices when the consumer has
no alternative in the marketplace. That explains why the FSC advocates,
who are trying to shut out competing certification systems, are
ultimately hurting the consumer.
While cost comparisons in a marketplace as huge and diverse as that
for forest products can sometimes be difficult, abundant evidence
suggests that the FSC certification does not compete as well on price.
Aside from the cost of transportation already noted, those who are most
involved in the forest products marketplace have noted the increased
The GSA LEED Cost Study Final Report already cited found a cost
premium to build according to the LEED system which accepts only the FSC
certification on wood products.
A Washington Post article, “Why green-certified products may not always be the best choice” by Katherine Salant on April 30, 2012 cites a good example of when the FSC certification adds nothing but a significant cost increase:
Several architects said that some certifications add to a
product’s cost and the certification can be unnecessary. For example,
Tom Shiner, an architect and furniture maker based in Bethesda, said
using wood with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stamp to make his
furniture adds a significant cost. Shiner acknowledged that the FSC
stamp is important if you don’t know where the wood is from because it
indicates that the wood was harvested using sustainable practices, but
in his case he uses locally harvested poplar and oak, and he knows the
person who cut the trees.
When is a Standard not a Standard?
For a brand or even a brand’s logo to mean anything at all, it
implies that the product or service of that brand meets certain uniform
The strong implication is that the FSC certification means certain uniform standards of forestry practices have been met.
But that is not the case with FSC.
In reality the FSC certification can mean all sorts of different
standards – and there is virtually no way to know by looking at the
The reason for this is that the FSC certification is actually a
hodgepodge of different standards since they vary from country to
country and region to region.
The issues raised regarding this odd mixture of different standards
all covered by one FSC label were described nicely in a 2009 letter by
Steptoe & Johnson attorney Tom Collier to the Federal Trade
Commission in which he also addressed anti-competiveness in the area of
The variance of national and regional standards promulgated by FSC, coupled with the fact that FSC labels do not
disclose under which FSC standard a wood product may have been
certified, makes it extremely difficult to substantiate any meaningful
FSC-related product claims. FSC operates under a system of dozens of
varying regional and national standards across the United States and
around the world. In North America alone, there are 13 regional
standards with nine of those in the United States.
Mr. Collier went on to show wide disparities, such as a land set
aside of 5% in Sweden as compared to 15% in the United Kingdom. In one
place the standards are strict, while elsewhere lenient.
Even more incredible, Mr. Collier documented how in countries without
an accepted national standard, the FSC permits certification bodies to
certify according to their own “interim” standards, which do not meet
either International Organization of Standardization (ISO) or
International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling
(ISEAL) Alliance requirements.
As Mr. Collier summed up, “The result is that while consumers are
informed that a product bearing a FSC label is FSC-certified, consumers
have no way of knowing under what conditions the wood may have been
grown or harvested.”
What’s Wrong with a Monopoly Forest Certification Program?
Another major unintended consequence of the more strident
environmental groups trying to make FSC the only government-approved
forest certification is that monopolies traditionally are insensitive to
the wishes of those who have no choice but to use them. In the case of
forest certification there has been an increasing outcry from
environmentalists about how FSC is less than true to its mission.
One of the Founder Members of FSC, Simon Counsell, has set up a web site to monitor FSC: www.fsc-watch.org
FSC-Watch’s motto is “because transparency matters.” The web site
appears to be regularly updated with well-researched news of problems
regarding FSC operations:
It’s official: the FSC is now setting out to use its grotesque
Controlled (sic) Wood Policy in order to ‘launder’ wood from areas
experiencing recent deforestation into the FSC certified wood supply
chain.” (May 25, 2012)
The myth of sustainable FSC certified logging in Sweden is
explored in a new article, ‘Sweden’s Green Veneer Hides Unsustainable
Logging Practices’… The article describes the growing consensus that
the “Swedish model’ of forestry is failing to protect biodiversity, and
old growth forests continue to be clear-cut, including those with FSC
certification.” (December 2, 2011)
One doesn’t have to be a total cynic to ask: if the FSC certification
can be stamped on wood products obtained by clear-cutting old growth
forests and destroying biodiversity, then what exactly does FSC’s brand
of forest certification mean?
For those who are interested in the account of FSC certified forest
operations in Sweden clear-cutting old growth forest, German
investigative journalism video is on YouTube under the title “FSC
Certified Clearcuts in Sweden.” The six-and-a-half-minute video shows a
machine capable of taking down 900 trees a day, including centuries-old
trees, in an FSC certified forestry operation. The video is shown to a
forest ecology professor, who roundly condemns the actions. The video of
the abusive practices is then used to confront an FSC official who does
his best not to be embarrassed by the video and the reporter’s
The sharp contrast between the FSC’s public relations spin and the
reality of the practices it allows should give pause to any activist who
wants to force the FSC standard on the government, corporations and on
Despite the many demonstrated environmental and economic issues
undercutting the FSC claims, it has attracted the support of some of the
more radical environmental activists. One activist group,
ForestEthics, makes no bones about its sometimes confrontational tactics
against companies which do not get on the FSC bandwagon. As its web
Sometimes companies need a little encouragement. When companies
refuse to change their harmful practices, ForestEthics holds them
publicly accountable. We get creative with online and offline actions,
including protests, websites, email campaigns, and national
advertisements. No corporation can afford to have its brand be
synonymous with environmental destruction.
That implicit threat to denigrate the brand of companies who do not
toe the ForestEthics line on forest certification speaks volumes as to
how this group operates.
While the group uses its pressure tactics to criticize the
Sustainable Forestry Initiative, what about the voluminous evidence of
abusive forestry practices associated with the Forest Stewardship
Council? The clear-cutting of old growth forests in Sweden? The
destruction of biodiversity by FSC-approved operations? Or even the
many criticisms of FSC as carefully documented by fsc-watch?
Lots of luck finding anything critical of FSC – or anything balanced about SFI, ATFS, or CSA.
Unlike many of the people and organizations with expertise in
forestry issues who have put forth balanced and careful statements about
the pros and cons of the various certification methods, the approach of
ForestEthics and some other activist groups is starkly one-sided. You
are either with them – or maybe they need to make your “brand be
synonymous with environmental destruction.”
When it comes to granting monopoly status to the FSC forest
certification policy, Milton Friedman’s observation that policies should
be judged by their results and not their intentions is a compelling
reason to reject those who would force a deeply flawed policy on the