Photo: Earthsight

FSC digs heels in as pressure builds for it to act on Ikea illegal timber scandal

22.07.2020

A passive response to Earthsight’s Ikea investigation reflects deep-rooted inertia within Forest Stewardship Council

One month ago, Earthsight released the findings of an 18-month long investigation into the illegal timber being used in Ikea products. The report rocked the industry and made headlines. But while Ikea and the Ukrainian government have promised to act, FSC, the green label whose failure lies at the heart of the scandal, has its head still firmly buried in the sand.

Flatpacked Forests: Ikea’s illegal timber problem and the flawed green label behind it received international media coverage, including in the New York Times, The Times, Le Figaro, Channel 4 News, Ukrainian Pravda and Die Zeit. The investigation revealed that illegal wood from the precious Ukrainian Carpathian forests, home to rare bears and lynx, was being used to make tens of thousands of popular Ikea chairs. The wood had been rubber-stamped by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the world’s leading green wood label, which is supposed to guarantee timber is ethically sourced. Earthsight cited numerous previous scandals regarding FSC from around the world and argued that its failure to address fundamental flaws in its systems is undermining efforts to address climate breakdown.

In the wake of the report, the Ukrainian Prime Minister ordered a widespread crackdown on illegality in the forest sector. The head of Ukraine’s forest service has also been sacked. Ikea has said it takes the information extremely seriously and launched multiple urgent investigations into Earthsight’s findings. But FSC has done nothing but issue denials and put up smokescreens.

FSC’s published response does not welcome the findings or promise to investigate them. It does not recognise their seriousness. Instead, the 19-page document, which takes the form of an ‘FAQ’, is deeply misleading and in some cases factually incorrect. Earthsight has now published a point-by-point response. Highlights include:

  • FSC claims that a key Ukrainian law was simply ‘interpreted’ differently by certifying bodies but fails to mention that this ‘interpretation’ contradicts that of the Ukrainian State Environmental Inspectorate and FSC Ukraine. FSC makes no apology for the fact that its certifiers chose to ‘interpret’ Ukrainian law in a way which is beneficial to logging companies and contradicts the interpretation of a Ukrainian government agency.
  • FSC repeatedly cites examples of action being taken against wrongdoers as proof that its compliance systems are working, when they actually prove the opposite. Earthsight’s analysis of the numbers it provides reveals that almost all the cases it cites were exposed by journalists and activists. They were not picked up by FSC’s own procedures. Rather than proving that those procedures are working, they actually prove that they are not.
  • In its response, FSC reveals that it has no idea how many of 40,000 certificates which no longer exist were terminated for poor performance (as opposed to simply expiring, as appears to be what happened in nearly all cases). This speaks volumes about FSC’s true level of interest in understanding the levels of compliance in its systems.
  • FSC fails to even address some of the most fundamental criticisms made in the report, including that it encourages timber firms to claim undue credit for meaningless ‘chain of custody’ certificates. Instead it falsely claims that Earthsight described this as fraud, when we said nothing of the sort.
  • FSC contradicts itself, denying that it has lobbied the Ukrainian government to water down environmental controls on logging, while at the same time admitting to ‘helping optimize the requirements’ of such laws. FSC appears to be ignorant of what its own office has been doing, since such demands are a matter of public record.
  • FSC claims that it didn’t take action against an FSC-certified Chinese company involved in a multi-million dollar US Department of Justice illegal timber case because it wasn’t ‘reported’ to it, though it was widely covered in the media.  Even now that FSC has been alerted to the issue by Earthsight’s report, they have not committed to investigate or thanked us for alerting them to it.
  • In a particularly desperate response regarding the recent dropping of a new traceability tool, FSC now claims that it was never a ‘tool’ at all, apparently forgetting that it had in fact specifically advertised it as such. Its response on the issue of traceability misleadingly refers to ‘transaction verification’ as if it were standard practice, when it is nothing of the sort.
  • FSC implies that the organisation has taken meaningful action to protect virgin forests (‘intact forest landscapes’) when it has not. It also claims that ‘the most important environmental values’ in such forests are maintained when they are logged, something which plentiful peer-reviewed research shows to be impossible. Earthsight re-iterates its belief that consumers buying products displaying an FSC logo would be shocked and appalled to discover that the wood concerned could have come from trees cut down in virgin rainforest.
  • As evidence that its expansion in countries like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine has not been driven by Ikea, FSC names a number of other large European wood firms expanding their demand from these countries. It neglects to mention that many of the named firms were also previously exposed by Earthsight for using illegal Ukrainian wood, or that some are also Ikea suppliers.
  • FSC states that Earthsight’s claims about the statements made by one of its board members are ‘complete slander without any basis in fact’, seemingly unaware that those statements are a matter of public record, directly quoted in a reputable media outlet, and were never the subject of complaint or retraction.

Ukraine timber used by Ikea was linked to illegal logging in Earthsight's Flatpacked Forests report published in June 2020. Photo: Jeremy Bristow

There are many individual actions which FSC needs to take, most of which environmental groups have been demanding for years.

It must ban the use of its name and logo in relation to the ‘chain-of-custody’ certificates it issues. It must impose a mandatory traceability system to ensure non-FSC wood cannot continue to be so easily laundered into FSC supply chains. It must make the resultant data public, enabling outsiders to check it for themselves. It must address the self-defeating system where certifiers compete for business from those they are meant to assess, by reforming its structure so that entities seeking FSC certificates no longer pay certification bodies directly.

It must improve transparency, including requiring the publication of information on audits of chain-of-custody holders, as well as how its members voted when proposals are made for change. It must adopt a much more precautionary approach to risk in relation to the most egregious behaviour, shifting the burden of proof on to the loggers and timber firms, especially in high-risk countries. It should pro-actively look for evidence of breaches of its policy of association, not rely on NGOs to find it.

It must recognise its limitations and be willing to call a halt to certification in the most lawless, high-risk environments. It must publicly recognise that pushing for ever growing and new sources of timber is fundamentally incompatible with its own original goals, as well as with any idea of sustainable growth in an era of climate emergency.

Many stakeholders and consumers have contacted Earthsight following our report’s release, expressing shock and concern at what it reveals about FSC, a label many had previously trusted. Civil society groups in Ukraine and around the world have begun mobilising, and petitions are taking off.

Meanwhile, the last month has seen yet more scandal emerge regarding FSC-certified logging companies. Yet in the face of its rapidly disappearing credibility, FSC seems intent on burying its head in the sand. Its largest supporter, leading global conservation group WWF, has meanwhile remained silent.

FSC’s tepid response has shocked even its most hardened critics. Simon Counsell, an FSC co-founder who for 26 years led the Rainforest Foundation UK, told Earthsight: “Because of FSC’s failings, illegal wood has been able to enter the supply chain of the world’s largest furniture firm. The manner in which the FSC has responded is frankly deplorable”.

Sam Lawson, Earthsight’s director, called on FSC’s largest funders and supporters to demand more from it. “This response proves yet again that FSC isn’t just dysfunctional - it is becoming an embarrassment. By continuing to publicly promote and associate with it, Ikea and WWF are risking their own reputations, as are its other remaining supporters. If it keeps up this attitude of blind denial, its future is bleak.”

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