In Depth

Introduction to Certification

Growing environmental awareness and consumer demand for more socially responsible businesses helped third-party forest certification emerge in the 1990s as a credible tool for communicating the environmental and social performance of forest operations.

There are many potential users of certification, including: forest managers, investors, environmental advocates, business consumers of wood and paper, and individuals.

How Forest Certification Works

Forest certification starts when an independent organization develops standards of responsible forest management. Certification is issued to forest management operations that comply with those standards. This certification verifies that forests are responsibly managed—as defined by a particular standard—and ensures that certain wood and paper products come from those forests.

The certification organization is governed by a diverse set of interests and works with a broad array of stakeholders to establish a set of standards for the management of forests and the tracking of raw material throughout the supply chain. The coordinating organization is typically modeled after a number of principles put forth by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These principles provide guidance on governance, standards development, assessing the qualifications of certifiers, and the procedures for verifying that practices meet the certification standard.

An auditor/certifying body is the organization, independent of the certification organization, that has the technical expertise for verifying that on-the-ground practices conform to the certification standard. Certification systems rely on accredited auditors to carry out these verifications. Auditors are evaluated to ensure they have the technical capacity to objectively evaluate forestry operations.

The forest products company is responsible for understanding and carrying out forest management practices in a manner that meets or exceeds the standards of the certification system. Many certification systems also have mechanisms for tracking forest products through the supply chain. Therefore, companies such as furniture, window and door manufacturers that purchase and sell forest products can verify that their products use raw material derived from certified forests.

Forest certification systems

Over the years, numerous programs and national initiatives have come into existence. Two internationally operating programs have emerged as the most widely-used (based on certified forest area): the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) headquartered in Bonn, Germany and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

The FSC serves as the standard-setting and accreditation body for FSC national initiatives in over fifty countries including the U.S. and Canada. Currently more than 134 million hectares of forest distributed over 101 countries are certified to FSC standards. FSC products are labeled under uniform guidelines established by FSC and applied to all national initiatives.

PEFC is a global umbrella organization that recognizes, to date, 28 independent national forest certification programs including the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in Canada, and in the U.S., the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and The American Tree Farm System (ATFS). The 28 PEFC-recognized programs certify a forest area over 223 million hectares. Products certified under PEFC may be marketed using the PEFC label or the label of a recognized national program. For example, the SFI program is marketing its products using the SFI label.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) offers internationally accepted guidance for establishing and maintaining a certification system. The ISO profile offers insight into the aspects forest certification systems must address for developing a viable system.

There are several certification systems relevant to the North American marketplace:

Additionally, there are several emerging forest certification systems in Asia, Australia and South America.

Certification To Date

While certification is intended as a tool to enhance forest management practices throughout the world, to date most certified forestry operations are located in Europe and North America. A significant barrier for many forest managers in developing countries is that they lack the capacity to undergo a certification audit and maintain operations to a certification standard.

Source: FAO 2009, FSC 2010 and PEFC 2010


Source: FCRC1

The world’s certified forest area Forest certification originated in the 1990’s with the intent of encouraging sustainable forest management in the heavily exploited tropics. However, only 10% of the forests that were certified in 2008 are located in tropic regions and the rest were certified in Europe and North America. In fact, 42% of the world’s forests are tropical but less than 1 percent of tropical forests are certified.

Source: FCRC1

Recognizing this situation, the step-wise approach to certification was developed to help forest management companies in developing countries work toward certifying their operations.


Forest certification is a worldwide phenomenon that is relevant to a growing group of stakeholders.  Visit the sites below and see who is saying what about forest certification.

World Wildlife Fund

Province of British Columbia, Canada

Natural Resources Defense Council

State of Maine

International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO)