If you oversee or are part of sustainable sourcing at a large marketplace brand or retailer, you have a challenging job. Many people think that paper packaging and products are made by cutting down trees that should be preserved and saved at all costs. Few customers understand how timber cultivation works and how the everyday products they rely on, from their kitchen table to the packaging they receive in the mail, is produced.
The absence of a balance between these two competing demands–needing to source products from forests, and having consumers that do not understand the nature of forestry–requires a way to bridge that gap and better means for sustainability professionals to feel confident in the sourcing of wood-based products without it counting against their sustainability agendas and that consumers can buy those products in good conscious.
So, what on earth is a sustainability professional to do?
For at least twenty years, the answer has been to demonstrate your brand’s commitment to sustainably managed forest products by relying on forest certification. The thinking is, if we can prove that our products come from the right kind of forests, our consumers and stakeholders will feel more comfortable relying on our products. And under this theory a number of certification systems have proliferated and certified huge acreages. This is undoubtedly a good thing.
But there are a few challenges: first, America’s family forest owners, who own almost 40% of the forest resource and supply more than half of the fiber that flows into forest products – remain largely uncertified. This is due to a number of reasons, largely centered around the fact that family forest owners have diverse interests in owning forests beyond commercial use and do not always find marketplace-based tools like certification appealing.
Second, as expectations around transparency evolve, the stamp of forest certification is often unable to answer all the questions sustainability professionals have about forest products. There are increasing expectations for information at a landscape scale that offers sustainability analysis and visibility into issues that brands care most about such as high conservation value forests, the use of GMOs, or the vitality of local communities..
Responding to this challenge, forward-thinking brands like Mars, Staples and McDonald’s (to name just a few) have begun to develop more robust forest product policies, polices which rely on more than just certification. Many of these policies talk about three pillars: the use of recycled content, the use of certified content, and, finally, the use of content that is verified to be from sustainable sources.
The third pillar, “verified,” represents both an enormous challenge and an enormous opportunity. There is a finite amount of certified and recycled content. Only 10% of the world’s forests are certified (20% in the U.S.), and in 2017 about 72 million tons of paper and paperboard was recovered. Even with 100% recovery we would still need a constant and reliable flow of virgin fiber to meet demand. Given the limited amount of certified and recycled available, that leaves a big gap to fill with verified sustainable sources.
That’s where Forests in Focus – a collaboration between GreenBlue, the U.S. Forest Service, and the American Forest Foundation – comes in. Forests in Focus is a tool that will provide brands and others with the information they need to make their own judgments about whether their supplies can be verified as sustainable.
How will it work?
The Forests in Focus tool aggregates and analyzes data from the U.S. Forest Service (and other expert sources) about the health of our nation’s forests and displays this information in a dynamic and accessible way through an interactive online dashboard. Forests in Focus connects brand owners with their suppliers to provide information on 10 specific sustainability indicators relative to the mills and the woodbaskets they source from. For example, land use change, carbon storage, water quality, biodiversity, and others. By providing this level of detail and transparency, a sustainability or procurement professional can more directly engage their suppliers on sustainability goals. Thus, the collective outcome is a more transparent approach to the production of more sustainable forest products and better engagement between the brand and the supplier, all of which can then be communicated direct to the consumer.
Forests in Focus helps sustainability professionals answer key questions:
- How can we better understand and communicate about sustainability work and progress as related to forest products?
- How can we provide the right information to enable greater forest health and conservation outcomes?
- And finally, how can we create new approaches to verification that understand, embrace, and operate within the highly complex, dynamic systems that forests—and their stewardship–require?
If these are also questions for you, let’s talk about how we can work together to resolve these challenges. We welcome all stakeholders across the forest products supply chain – from global brands to ENGOs – to join us in developing Forests in Focus for a more complete assessment of sustainable sourcing.
Email NTruitt@forestfoundation.org to participate in the development of the Forests in Focus platform.