Did you know that there are over 300 eco-related certifications and product symbols today?
How can a company trying to make sustainable choices navigate what certifications they need to look for? How can they know if one certification or label is superior than another? How do they know when a label is actually misleading?
Common questions we get are:
“Should I choose recycled packaging or FSC certified packaging?”
“Are you certified?”
Here, we unpack those Q&A's for you, and hopefully, help you better understand when and how to look for FSC and SFI certifications on the products you purchase.
If you don't have time to read this blog post (we get it!), check out our handy infographic for a summary.
EcoEnclose believes the ultimate goal is a world in which all tree-based products are made with only:
- 100% post-consumer waste
- 100% sustainably certified virgin wood, and
- a combination of post-consumer waste, post-industrial waste of sustainably certified wood/wood-products, and FSC certified virgin wood.
Certifications like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) emerged to promote sound management of the world's forests and to ensure that tree-based products we use are grown and harvested in sustainable ways. These organizations are primarily focused on the forests that produce trees for virgin wood, paper and other tree-based materials.
Recently, these organizations have expanded to include recycled content as part of their suite of labeling options. The main purpose of these “recycled” labels is to ensure that manufacturers, retailers, and end consumers are not torn between choosing FSC certified virgin material over recycled material. Additionally, “recycled” labels allow recycled or reclaimed wood products to be an important element of a responsible supply chain, making it possible for manufacturers to produce, sell and promote goods made with a combination of FSC certified virgin wood and reclaimed/recycled content.
At EcoEnclose, we believe companies and consumers should seek out 100% recycled (and as close to 100% post-consumer) paper options first, and to ask their suppliers for information to verify that recycled content claims are, in fact, legitimate. FSC and SFI recycled labeling are two ways of validating these claims.
When 100% recycled content options don’t work for you for any reason, look for goods made with a combination of certified sustainably grown wood and recycled content. When that isn’t an option, and 100% virgin materials are needed, look for goods that are certified sustainable virgin material.
Our paper-based packaging options are all 100% recycled and most are over 90% post-consumer waste. While we do carry a small set of packaging accessories, such as tape, that is made with virgin paper, we do not manufacture any of this virgin paper material ourselves. Because of this, EcoEnclose itself is not FSC or SFI certified, as the core benefits of these certifications are focused on source identifying the sustainability of virgin wood products.
However, we recognize the importance of FSC and SFI certifications in ensuring an overall paper supply chain that is responsible and sustainable.
WHAT ARE FOREST CERTIFICATIONS?
The purpose of certifications like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) is to promote sustainable forest management, so that the trees being harvested for forest products (wood, paper, cork, bamboo, etc) are grown in ecologically and ethically sound ways that benefit local communities.
Why is it important?
You often hear phrases like “X trees were cut down to make Y product.” This notion might be true, but it paints an entirely negative view of tree based products. In reality, if the forests that generated wood for our tree-based products were all managed sustainably, this would not be a problem. In fact, sustainably managed tree forests are a positive contributor to the environment and local communities.
Trees capture carbon, provide habitat for wildlife and other plants, and improve the livability of nearby communities. And in a sustainably managed forest, new trees are planted for every one cut down. Trees are grown without harmful fertilizers and pesticides, and in ways that enrich the soil. Tree forests are owned and operated in ways that benefit local workers. These are all net positives.
Demand for wood-based products sourced from sustainably managed forests can therefore actually be good for the planet and society.
FSC’s mission summarizes this well:
"The Forest Stewardship Council mission is to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests.
Our vision is that we can meet our current needs for forest products without compromising the health of the world’s forests for future generations."
THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF FSC AND SFI CERTIFICATIONS! WHAT GIVES?
There are...but the basics are fairly straightforward. At a high level there are two main types of certification:
Forest Management Certification: FSC’s forest management certification and SFI’s forest management standards certify the forest operations themselves, confirming that they are growing and harvesting trees in ways that uphold eco-friendly, ethical and economic development oriented practices. This is the heart and soul of sustainable forestry certifications.
Chain of Custody: From the forest, however, wood and its derivatives go through many steps before they end up as a final product. Because of this, these organizations have have established “Chain of Custody certifications” that track wood from forest through manufacturing to the end customer. Once a manufacturer of forest-based products obtains a Chain of Custody certification, they can then be able to make claims and add labels to their outputs.
Yes, there are many different product labels that a Chain of Custody certified company can use, but this variety is necessary. Many products simply can’t be made with 100% FSC-certified wood or 100% recycled materials, and those products (and the companies that manufacture them) should still get “credit” for their relevant efforts.
Let’s take a kitchen table as an example:
Perhaps the table top is made from wood that is 100% sourced from a certified FSC managed forest and as such is deemed “FSC 100%”.
The table legs, however, are not. They are made with a combination of wood sourced from FSC managed forests and material from “controlled wood” (i.e. wood that has not been illegally harvested or harvested in violation of human rights, wood that isn’t from High Conservation Values forests, wood that is not from forests being converted into plantations, or wood that isn’t from forests using GMO trees.) These table legs, therefore, are deemed “FSC Mixed.”
If the table manufacturer were FSC Chain of Custody certified, the entire table could then be sold with the claim of being “FSC Mixed” allowing the end customer to know that some FSC certified wood was used, but that the product is not entirely made from certified product.
Now, let’s consider a ream of paper. Let’s say it is manufactured with a combination of 100% FSC certified wood and 100% post consumer paper waste. 50% of the paper is made with the virgin, certified inputs and 50% is made with the post-consumer waste. If the paper manufacturer were FSC Chain of Custody certified, then it could sell the paper as being FSC Mixed 100%.
FSC and SFI have a series of detailed standards, approaches and formulas to help manufacturers and others across the supply chain accurately calculate when and how to utilize this “Mix percentage” in their product label.
If a company is FSC Chain of Custody certified, they can then apply labels on their products according to the following rules (these are summarized at a high level here, but the FSC provides extensive documentation with nuances and details to help Chain of Custody certified companies apply these accurately):
- If all inputs into a product are certified as FSC 100% (i.e. entirely sourced from sustainably managed forests), then the output product could be labeled FSC 100%.
- If all inputs are either certified as FSC 100% or recycled (mostly post-consumer), then the end product can be labeled as FSC Mix 100%.
- If all inputs are recycled (mostly post-consumer), then the end product can be labeled as FSC Recycled 100%.
- If all inputs are certified in some way by FSC, and any inputs are certified as being “mixed” (i.e. mixed recycled, FSC mixed, etc), then the output product can be labeled as FSC Mixed.
SFI has a similar set of standards and labels that can be used.
IS CERTIFICATION IMPORTANT FOR RECYCLED CONTENT?
EcoEnclose strives for a world in which all tree-based products are made with either (1) 100% post-consumer waste, (2) 100% sustainably certified virgin wood, (3) a combination of post-consumer waste, post-industrial waste of sustainably certified wood/wood-products, and FSC certified virgin wood.
The world cannot function on recycled paper alone, so achieving this vision would mean that all paper products (virgin or recycled) ultimately originated from responsibly managed forests.
We also believe that when choosing between two paper/wood options that would be equally functional for your needs, choosing a 100% recycled option made mostly with post-consumer waste is superior to choosing virgin wood that is certified as being responsibly grown.
So, back to the original question...what is the role of FSC or SFI certification for recycled content?
Recycled content certifications emerged late in the lives of these certification organizations, and were a direct response to the confusion customers were facing of whether or not they should choose certified virgin wood or recycled wood. The FSC and SFI recycled certifications were added to ensure that manufacturers, retailers and end-consumers recognize the important role that recycled content (or “reclaimed materials”) play in their goals of sustainability.
The recycled content labeling from FSC and SFI were not necessarily designed for products and companies that deal with 100% recycled or reclaimed wood-based products alone. Instead, they brought in recycled content labeling for a few reasons.
First, it is important in that it allows for a seamless chain of custody and end-consumer label for products made with a mix of reclaimed material and certified FSC 100% material. A paper pulper may deal entirely with 100% reclaimed inputs and decides to become FSC Chain of Custody certified to make it easy for their buyers to determine the appropriate FSC label for their products.
Second, it is a valuable addition for manufacturers that deal with a number of different product lines and source inputs from a variety of different suppliers.
For example, paper manufacturers produces countless different types of paper and source from multiple mills and paper pulpers. If that paper manufacturer is Chain of Custody certified, the “recycled content” certifications incentivize them to place just as much of a priority on sourcing reclaimed or recycled inputs as they would virgin, certified sustainable inputs. This paper manufacturer could sell a combination of 100% recycled, 100% virgin, and virgin/recycled mix paper and still offer a product line that is all FSC certified (recognizing that this certification can mean different things for different products they sell).
Additionally, FSC and SFI certifications require manufacturers to maintain and provide very comprehensive and transparent paperwork that tracks their entire supply chain. Because of this, when a manufacturer is Chain of Custody certified and makes a claim that something they are selling is FSC or SFI Recycled, you can be confident that the product claims are in fact legitimate and are made with recycled or reclaimed materials.
However, there are other ways to validate recycled content claims, including reviewing a company’s suppliers to confirm that they do in fact sell recycled materials as well as other certifications such as the Recycled Paperboard Alliance (which offers an RPA-100% certification for products made with 100% recycled paper).
WHICH IS BETTER, FSC OR SFI CERTIFICATION?
There are actually three organizations worldwide driving sustainable forest management:
- FSC: Forest Stewardship Council. Formed in 1993, when environmentalists concerned about the deforestation of tropical forests in particular worked with local country leaders to set ecological standards for the cutting and milling of timber. The FSC label was then created to showcase and encourage consumers to choose sustainable timber.
- PEFC: Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Formed in 1999 as a result of the fact that FSC was gaining momentum but was not effective for smallholder producers because there was no group certification at the time and because FSC standards at the time were focused on tropical rather than temperate (i.e. European and North American) climates.
- SFI: Sustainable Forest Initiative. Formed in 1994 by the North American forest products industry. In 2007, SFI separated from the American Forest and Paper Association.
FSC and PEFC are fairly similar to each other (and seem to push each other to continually improve their standards and processes). PEFC is more common for European forests and consumers, so for this article, we are focused on SFI and FSC standards.
SFI is the forest products industry standard, and as such balances sustainable forestry with industry interests. On the other hand, FSC is not an industry standard, but is instead a consensus standard, reflecting their members' values (members vary from advocate organizations like Greenpeace and Sierra Club to forest products companies like Stora Enso).
Because of this, when it comes to Forest Management Certification, FSC and PEFC standards are much more stringent and conservation-focused than SFI. For example, in comparing FSC to SFI:
- FSC prohibits the use of genetically-modified organisms; SFI does not
- FSC prohibits persistent and/or bioaccumulative pesticides; SFI encourages "prudent" pesticide
- FSC prohibits the conversion of natural forest to plantations; SFI allows that conversion and the certification of wood from those forests
- FSC prohibits large scale clear cutting, while SFI allows for an average of 120 acres of clear cutting annually
- FSC's audit results are made public and can be appealed; SFI's audit results are private
In addition to setting Forest Management Certification standards, all three program - FSC, PEFC and SFI - also have Chain of Custody certifications to help track and manage wood products from forest to end consumer. All have their labeling options differentiate certified virgin material, mixed material (combination of virgin, recycled and uncertified material), and fully recycled material. All have their own rules for how a manufacturer can calculate and market the percentage mixed or recycled content on their final output.
When it comes to Forest Management certification and the purchase of virgin or mixed virgin/recycled materials, there is no question that we at EcoEnclose would opt for FSC grown wood over SFI whenever possible.
The next question is, if you actually can’t find FSC certified wood for your needs, should SFI be considered? This is a thorny question with no perfect answer. There is a legitimate concern that the proliferation of SFI will get in the way of the progress being made by the stronger certification standards of FSC. On the other hand, it is also true that with only 10% of the world’s tree producing forests certified, isn’t a certification better than none?
We aren’t in a position to definitively answer this question for you. We do know that the most forward thinking companies typically rely on FSC certifications for virgin paper and other wood-based material. That said, organizations such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition typically support the use of certifications in general, and don’t necessarily state a view of one being far superior than the other.
For products made with 100% recycled content - as most of ours are - we see all three claims as fairly similar in that they provide verification that the paper producer is truly sourcing recycled content and high levels of post-consumer waste. Because we recognize FSC sustainable forestry certifications as the higher - and therefore preferred - standards, we would support an FSC Chain of Custody partner over an SFI Chain of Custody partner, all things being equal.
IS ECOENCLOSE CERTIFIED?
EcoEnclose is not SFI, FSC or PEFC Chain of Custody Certified.
The vast majority of EcoEnclose’s paper products are 100% recycled. Most are over 95% post-consumer waste. We don’t manufacture or convert any virgin tree-based products and we don’t sell to other manufacturers (and therefore are not selling to an entity that might be Chain of Custody certified).
Because of this, we have made the decision that investing resources into a Chain of Custody certification process would not measurably improve our sustainability or impact. Instead, we have worked to secure documentation from our supply chain partners to prove that our inputs are in fact 100% recycled, and made with the agreed upon level of post-consumer waste. If we introduce lines of product that are made with virgin tree-based material, we would be inclined to pursue FSC Chain of Custody certification and ensure that our supply chain partners were certified.
That said, we greatly value the importance of FSC and SFI certifications in ensuring a long-term sustainable solution to paper, wood and other tree-based products. In fact, all of the paper being utilized in our boxes and paper-based mailers and shopping bags is produced in mills that are either SFI and/or FSC Chain of Custody certified.