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A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification

Over the past few years, awareness has grown about FSC-certified papers and printing.  FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, a group that works to ensure that the materials used are sourced responsibly.  Each step in the chain (i.e. from forest to printer) must be traceable.  The intent of the FSC system is to eliminate habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples and violence against people and wildlife that can accompany logging.

Although I believe this is a meaningful cause, I believe that FSC certification in the commercial printing and marketing communications industry has hit a negative tipping point.  By this, I mean that the future of FSC certification in these fields is murky at best.

I base my assertion on a lot of anecdotal evidence I have seen in the field, both from printers, and especially from marketing professionals and print buyers.  Back when I started conducting green marketing seminars  in 2007, there was growing interest in FSC, and a sense that it would become the industry standard, on the level of recycled paper.  It was on its way there, but I believe it was hurt in three major ways:

  1. Lack of awareness of what FSC means. As I mentioned before, FSC is a system designed to ensure the chain of custody of paper, from when it was a tree to its final printed form.  The fact is, many people in our industry do not know what FSC is, and therefore do not sell it.  More importantly, I have seen many research studies that show that most consumers do not know what it means and are therefore not interested in it.
  2. Lack of tangible environmental benefit versus other green attributes. When people use recycled paper, they know they are consuming less natural resources than they would if they chose virgin fibers.  Vegetable-based inks sound like they make a positive difference, as they cut down on the use of oil, and are renewable.  Papers made with renewable energy send a message that an organization wants to reduce its carbon footprint and support a green economy.  Those terms, recycled, vegetable-based, and renewable energy, all are easy to understand and therefore end consumers of print and marketing collateral feel comfortable around these terms.  If they feel comfortable around these terms and believe they know what makes them green, they will continue to ask for papers and printers that meet these standards.  FSC, on the other hand, is difficult to understand, and the green attributes may not be immediately obvious.
  3. The combination of the difficult economy and the perceived greed of the Forest Stewardship Council. It is not surprising that FSC grew dramatically in 2007 and 2008, when the broader economy was stronger, and the environmental movement was top of mind.  However, as printers fell on tough times, FSC continued to charge large annual fees from printers to allow them to maintain their individual plant certifications.  One printer told me the following: “Look, I’m a small company – we do $3-$4 million in sales per year, and when I had to sign up for FSC certification in 2008, and spend $10,000-$15,000 to make this happen, with ongoing overhead expenses, I did it.  I thought it would be a cost of doing business, and that I would lose business from eco-minded clients if I wasn’t FSC certified.  When sales fell in 2009 and 2010, I appealed to FSC to get a reduction in my fees, as I was facing the choice between paying my FSC bill or my payroll.  FSC wouldn’t budge, so I didn’t renew, as I was more interested in protecting my employees than I was in paying what I saw as an FSC tax.  I haven’t noticed a sales drop off due to this decision.”  After hearing this, I spoke to several other printers, many of whom no longer maintain their FSC certification, as they said the costs outweighed the benefits.  Some questioned the mission of FSC, with one saying it seemed to be an “overhead-heavy organization” that “charged small printers large fees to pay for their bloated staff.”  I found this large organizational chart on their website which did not contradict this assertion.

In some sense, printers have been FSC’s sales force.  Once printers became certified, they sold FSC as an incredibly valuable brand, and one that all companies that wanted to send a green message should strive to put on their printed pieces.  Now that many of these smaller printers have declined to renew, FSC has lost a powerful constituency that will not continue to spread the word about FSC.

One other constituency FSC has partially alienated is designers, due to their strict rules around usage of the term “FSC.”  Several years ago, if an organization wanted to explain their green choices with words instead of symbols, they were allowed to do so.  As an example, if they printed a brochure on Neenah Environment PC 100, one of my favorite green papers made from 100% post-consumer recycled content, at an FSC-certified printer, they could use a simple sentence like “Printed using FSC-certified 100% post consumer recycled content.”  Now FSC no longer allows this, and insists that the term “FSC” only be used along with its official logo.  FSC is clearly trying to build awareness of its brand, but this shouldn’t be the responsibility of the end user.  I have seen this rule cause designers to sacrifice the use of the “FSC” term.

FSC is a worthwhile organization, and serves a good cause.  However, I believe its lack of obvious green benefits relative to other green elements like recycled paper is hurting adoption.  More than that, however, are the large fees charged to FSC’s sales army (printers) during this recession.  Those, coupled with strict rules around design, are a sign that FSC may have overplayed its hand in the marketing communications industry, and its best days are behind it.

Ben Grossman serves as a co-president in his family’s fourth-generation marketing services concern, Grossman Marketing Group. The firm is headquartered in Massachusetts and has offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, New York, and Washington, D.C. The 101-year-old company has a longstanding commitment to the communities in which it does business. In addition, it is has a sincere focus to do business in a sustainable way. Ben launched the Green Marketing Solutions division in late 2006, and the firm has already worked with over 50 clients to help make their communications campaigns more environmentally friendly without sacrificing their effectiveness.

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15 thoughts on “A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification

  1. Unfortunately, FSC is still the best certifying body out there. It has its problems, and some of its decisions have been purportedly corrupt within the last few years as the forest industry and governments bearing down on the certifying body (see the Latvia story here http://t.co/J5fNtJu).

    If we do not find a way to support FSC or an even better alternative, then our forests will immensely suffer — and that would be a true tragedy that cannot reverse itself.

    So, I wish your article would focus on why we still need forest certification and how to improve the situation instead of tearing it down. Either you have no idea re: solutions, or you support the forest industry (which you should disclose). Which is it?

  2. Very interesting article, Ben! I have used the proliferation of FSC labels as an example of how customers/consumers can become confused. SFI has its share of issues, as well. When it comes to sustainable forestry, tree hugging sure isn’t easy!

  3. Seems like there is strong growth in the field of consultants trying to get noticed by bashing environmental solutions as “too hard” and appealing to the biases and laziness of potential clients. I’m not sure I’d want one for my environmental matters that found it “difficult to understand” the benefits from buying paper from well-managed forests versus paper sourcing that results in degraded forests.

    Quote: “FSC, on the other hand, is difficult to understand, and the green attributes may not be immediately obvious.”

    Statistics on the paper industry actually show the opposite, that there is stronger growth in FSC certified paper products than there is in recycled paper right now, in large part because of the confusing haze of misinformation on the benefits of recycled paper that continues to be perpetuated by those with an inflexible investment in paper from virgin trees.

  4. I have had a similar run in with PEFC, specifically relating to the wording they allowed us to use on our printed materials. I wholeheartedly agree that a symbol on its own, isn’t much use, as it is meaningless to most people. A logo, along with a short explanation, however, greatly increases brand awareness. The whole argument was because we, as an end user (i.e. the people paying for the final product) wanted to add the wording, next to the FSC and PEFC logos, “We are committed to acting responsibly and choose to source our paper from sustainably managed forests”. I was stunned when they tried to stop us. Having said that, once I explained that I’d simply stop using it, they did change their tune and we’ve been using the wording now for about 3 years.

    On the topic of recycled paper, I do have a comment to make. Paper cannot be recycled, it can only be down-cycled, a very different thing. It is also an energy intensive process and can, in some cases, involve bleaches and other chemicals to get the paper white again. From a New Zealand perspective, paper is sent to Australia for down-cycling. Australia has a huge reliance on coal fired power plants, further increasing the negative impact of recycling. In fact, a study from RMIT showed that, on average, it cost 8 barrels worth of oil in Australia to recycle 6 barrels worth of oil – a net loss. If the intent of recycling is to minimise the loss of forested areas, then we are best to move to FSC or PEFC certified paper stocks and avoid down-cycled paper altogether – the impact of which is far lower. As a by-product of the increase in FSC or PEFC paper use, we are also encouraging more forestry owners to move to sustainably managed forestry, further reducing the net impact of paper usage.

    There are also alternatives to using paper altogether, such as Canefields paper, which is made from waste product from sugar-cane, so I do agree that FSC and PEFC need to get a much better understanding of their market and recognise that the very people they are deriving their fees from are the same people who can help grow their brand, as we do have other options that deliver equal if not greater environmental benefits.

  5. Ben, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments.
    As a small online retailer of only 100% post consumer recycled printing papers that are certified not only for their responsible origins, but also for the elimination of chlorine in their whitening and energy used in manufacturing them, we have found the FSC-certification to be the least recognized, and, therefore, least accepted by our environmentally-conscious customers. Thank you for broaching this important subject.

  6. No one disputes the value of sustainable forestry and related certification systems, but it is ironic that companies and printers who choose to do the right thing by using certified paper must then pay an added premium for using the logos. I was not aware that the text-only FSC attribution statement (the free work-around) was no longer an option. That’s a shame.

    By making environmental options unnecessarily costly, the paper industry creates disincentives for “green” paper adoption. This does everyone a disservice. In publication-grade papers, a few high-recycled content products have become completely competitive with most non-recycled products in terms of cost, performance and quality. FutureMark Paper of Chicago is one producer who has invested in the technologies and processes to make recycled paper that performs comparably to virgin alternatives — without the added green price penalty. FutureMark’s technology investments and process innovations have enabled it to operate so efficiently that it can sell recycled paper on a cost-competitive basis. By eliminating the price premium for greener paper, the environmental benefits of FutureMark’s recycled sheet became a powerful tie-breaker in product selection.

    FutureMark’s experience has been that corporate paper buyers *want* to do the environmentally responsible thing, but it’s a tough economy, and you can’t blame them for letting price be a barrier. FutureMark’s 90+ percent recycled coated mechanical paper, which is sold on a cost-competitive basis with non-environmental alternatives, has proven that that customers gravitate toward greener paper, if you take away the green price premium. That’s a model all environmental papers should work toward.

  7. I would like to understand the values we are talking about here. In my point of view, a company that makes $2 to $3 million/year and spends $10 to $15 thousand in order to get a FSC certification is not willing to pay the costs of responsible consumption. Besides, these prices are not exactly related to FSC fees, which is might be around $400/year, in this case. Perhaps the cost of auditing, charged by the certification body is high. At the same time, it is necessary to evaluate the gain on sales due to FSC trademark use. One point I would like to highlight: is this a high price to pay to get responsible consumption? It does not even represent 0, 5% of 2008 sales. Thus, I would like to encourage all of us to think deeply about the real costs of certification and all responsible work that is behind it.

  8. Given who is behind FSC, and what they are about (including financial supporters), they need a lesson in terms of learning exactly what their customers (the major printers) want. It seems to me to be a simple case of the FSC dictating what they want and not looking any further past their noses. In the position of authority, it is easy to make demands. But in our commercial marketplace, there are now choices. Consider the CSA and UL comparison. Both are authoritative on safety standards but compete for customers. FSC needs to take a lesson from this and learn.

  9. This is a ridiculous article. Your argument is basically people are confused and its rough economic times, so therefore – fuck it. Marketing is business nomenclature for strategic lying. I am further amazed that environmental leader would publish tripe like this. Thanks for the greenwash Ben! Looks like you had to work real hard to get that nice position of yours

  10. Well written and thought through, young Mr. Grossman. FSC wants to control who uses their claim in the marketplace and considers retailers exempt from the fee because they feel people who buy lumber won’t want to make that claim when they use that product. The real reason is that retailers won’t pay it. Neither should you. Let the paper makers pay it and negotiate with their clout. Just say no. They’ll get the message.

  11. Wouldn’t it be more powerful PR to say in your marketing…”We do not print a damn thing. Our office is paperless. We encourage you to find ways to make your office paperless too.”

    The only time you really need to print anything is for use in a court of law. Everything else can now be stored and transported, transmitted and presented on one piece of equipment. No need for paper.

    Now I’m a copywriter and I know direct snail mail produces far better results today than it ever did so paper still serves it’s purpose. So I understand that people need to buy paper from time to time. But I don’t see the need to winge and bitch about the people who are trying to keep accountability in forestry when what we need to do is stop using paper when it’s simply not necessary.

    I worked for an eco-labeling company. Third party verification of business practices is hard and costly. FSC could bring the price of their service down. But then the ability for them to hold anyone accountable diminishes.

    You do not need brochures. Your website serves that purpose and gives you measure-ability and track-ability where brochures do not. What you need is to get the details of highly targeted prospects and use technology and damn good selling in a way that reduces your paper use. Then you can make some great big claims about how many trees you spared from clearing and how much oil you left in the ground and how much chemicals you didn’t need to produce. LEAD BY EXAMPLE. And if you don’t know how to do it, ask someone who does.

  12. Joshua Martin, great points and I concur. There are some great 100% PCW papers finally being made in the US. FutureMark is doing fabulous work, especially since they are specializing in the magazine and catalog area. There is another issue no one talks about: most of the curbside/recyclable paper in the US gets shipped to Asia. No one seems to have exact stats, but it is probably in the high 90% area. FSC is good, but just a balm for using virgin wood pulp.
    Considering paper has only been made out of trees for 125 — and papermaking is a 2000 yr old technology, I think we can do better. We still need archival, hard copies of important documents and books. There are so many good fibers, like hemp, bagasse, even corn stalks.

  13. FSC is still the most stringent paper & wood certification body. SFI has absolutely no teeth, and was written by the forest industry. Protecting our forests is vital, and marketing of such to the general public on this and many other matters cannot be left to one organization. Instead, solutions will have to revolve/evolve around public policy, messaging and better public education. What happened to all those public service messages I remember from the 1970’s? Why isn’t our largest source of “news” – television – not being put to better use than silly sitcoms? It’s time for us all to focus on 1. education and 2. public policy that charges bad decisions, from buying virgin paper to excess emissions. Until eco choices are CHEAPER because they are free of taxes or fees associated with pollution and depletion of resources, then we are fighting a losing battle. If this sounds at all interesting to you, read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce for more details on SOLUTIONS.

  14. Every certification body, and every industry that has one, wrestles with these issues. Yes, it is expensive to provide meaningful certification–and therefore expensive to obtain it. Yes, 3rd-party certification carries a lot more weight than “certification” by an industry lobby group. But yes, in order to succeed, the “green premium” has to be very affordable, or else customers will simply parrot back the myth that going green is too costly. These were major discussion points at the Sustainable Foods Summit this winter in San Francisco, where I happened to be one of the speakers.

    One of my concerns is that it needs to be easier to distinguish FSC recycled and FSC virgin papers. I find that a bit fuzzy at the moment.

    As for the issue of recycling and bleach, I toured the Marcal paper plant a few months ago. They use peroxide, not chlorine, to create an extremely white 100% recycled household paper (i.e., toilet paper, napkins, and towels–not copy paper). I am no expert, but I would think peroxide would be considerably less toxic and less polluting–anyone want to educate us more on this?
    –Shel Horowitz, primary author, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green

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