By Chris Taylor, Centre for Design, RMIT University

Forest Certification is gaining currency around the world, and is now emerging in Australia. So how does the system work – and what does it mean in environmental and social terms?

As markets become more aware of environmental problems, the specification of timber is coming under intense scrutiny – in particular, the impact on the forest from which it was sourced.

Forest Certification is being recognised as the tool to assure the market that timber is backed by good environmental and social management practices. Under this certification, a third party gives written assurance that a logging operation conforms to a specific standard. This can then be communicated through a tracking and labelling process called “Chain of Custody”.

Forest Certification schemes are now being used in specification and rating tools, including ecospecifier and the Green Building Council’s Green Star Program.

Forest Certification: a brief history

As the destruction of tropical forests drew international concern in the early 1980s, a number of environment Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) launched aggressive campaigns calling for the boycott of tropical timber.

But the boycotts had little ground-level success. The destruction continued, and exporters responded by making a range of environmental claims to reassure the market – many lacking verification.

As sectors of the market began to look for verification, socially concerned retailers and environmental NGOs decided to develop a standard to assess forest management and promote “well-managed” forests to the market.

Initially, some timber-producing countries aggressively opposed the idea, and conflict surrounding global trade agreements thwarted attempts to launch the scheme at the intergovernmental level.

In the late 1980s, efforts began to develop a standard through a private, voluntary and independent scheme – and in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was born.

With the first forests certified under the FSC in 1994, forest industries around the world began their own alternative certification schemes. The trend spread throughout Europe, and eventually to Australia, where the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS) was adopted.

Today, there are many certification schemes around the world, each with varying definitions of “good forest management”.

Structure of Forest Certification

The Forest Certification Schemes have three key elements: the Standard, which measures forest management; the Certification Process, whereby a recognised third party assesses compliance and awards certification; and Accreditation of Certifiers.

An extra option, Chain of Custody and Labelling, sees the timber from the certified forest tracked to the point of sale, and identified by an approved label.

Two types of standards can be applied to forest management: Performance Standards, whereby the performance level is specified. A product label can then communicate compliance as a ‘guarantee’.

The second type is the Systems Standard: companies set their own performance thresholds, and the standard specifies the basis for meeting them. Since there is no minimum performance level achieved, a product label cannot be used.

As most Forest Certification Schemes are market oriented, and thus require a recognised label, their standards either emphasise performance, or consist of a mix.

An example of Forest Certification - The Forest Stewardship Council

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an example of Forest Certification. It’s a stakeholder-owned system that promotes well-managed forests, and consists of an international assembly of three chambers: Environmental, Social and Economic. Voting is consensus based.

The FSC system refers to 10 Principles and 56 Criteria, which are intended to cover the wide range of forest values.

Working Groups in individual countries develop national initiatives to implement the FSC on the ground. The National FSC Standards are based on the Principles and Criteria and are developed to suit the regional context.

An independent third party auditor refers to the standard when performing the certification in the forest. Throughout the process, a broad array of stakeholders must be consulted, including forest management experts, interest groups and people affected by the operation.

Under the FSC’s Chain of Custody tracking system, every link in the timber supply chain – from forest to point of sale – must be certified for the product to carry the FSC label. The labelling can consist of a 100 per cent FSC certified content, mixed or 100 per cent post consumer recycled.

Internationally, the FSC generally enjoys broad stakeholder support. However, it has struck difficulty in Australia. Given the high conflict levels over the management of Australia’s native forests, the FSC was first perceived as a threat by a number of environmental NGOs. Initial agreement on an interim standard allowed the FSC certification of plantations, with the first certificates awarded in 2004.

Access to the FSC market has been extremely limited for architects and designers. However, many environmental NGOs, and several industry and social interest stakeholders, now support an Australian FSC initiative, and a growing number of retail chains now supply FSC-certified timber and paper.

Other Forest Certification Schemes

A full overview is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is important to note that Australia’s other major certification scheme in Australia is the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS), initiated by the Australian Government and industry. Some of the largest forestry companies and departments in Australia have been awarded certification.

However, the AFS has been criticised by a number of stakeholders, especially from within the environmental NGO sector. This is a common problem for government and industry-initiated certification schemes throughout the world, as stakeholders claim that their concerns are not adequately addressed by these schemes.

What does this mean for specifiers?

Specifiers are targeted with environmental claims about timber products. Some are direct; others can be ambiguous. Forest Certification is a bid to break through the rhetoric and give the consumer verifiable assurance of “good forest management”. Specifiers can now seek a verifiable guarantee of a level of forest management achieved in the procurement of a wood based product.

Forests are complex ecosystems, upon where logging them is embroiled within intense conflict. Broad agreement on what constitutes ‘good forest management’ is a necessary goal, but is difficult to achieve. Forest Certification has made a bid to assure the consumer. The assurances of some schemes are contested more than others.

Today, the FSC is the only certification scheme enjoying broad stakeholder support. However, the context of forest certification is rapidly evolving. New knowledge on forests is changing how we see them. It is hoped that Forest Certification can become the incentive for ‘good forest management’ around the world. It is a space that specifiers should watch out for.

Where can I get timber from a certified forest?

Below are tables of Certified Forest Areas and Chain of Custody Certificate holders in Australia, including paper distributors and printers.

FSC Certified Forests in Australia


FSC Chain of Custody Certification in Australia


AFS Certified Forests


AFS Chain of Custody Certification


Chris Taylor is a post-graduate researcher undertaking a PhD on Forest Certification with the Centre for Design at RMIT University. He has worked within the Architectural Profession since 1997.