Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

The Forest Stewardship Council, which lends its ethical label to household products worldwide, said on Thursday it would ramp operations back up by September after the coronavirus pandemic sparked deforestation concerns among environmentalists.

The FSC - the main global scheme for certifying sustainable wood-based products including toilet roll and books - put some investigations on hold and decreased the number of complaints it processed in recent weeks, as it reduced staffing.

Amazon cattle burnt trees

Cattle are seen near burnt trees in Jamanxim National Forest, in the Amazon near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil, on 10th September, 2019. PICTURE: Reuters/Amanda Perobelli/File photo.

While the Bonn-based FSC's standards are seen as strong by many green groups, even before the coronavirus crisis some had criticised its pace in dealing with complaints and disputes.

Last year, for example, the FSC found Indonesian member firm Korindo Group had breached rules on clearing forests to grow oil palm but would not be expelled after a two-year probe.

Since early May, the FSC has temporarily cut staff time - including those working on disputes - to about 50 per cent of normal levels as the pandemic forced it to manage its budget carefully, said FSC Director General Kim Carstensen.

"It now turns out that the situation is not as grave as we feared it could become, and we expect to be back to running as normal by September," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Consumers are demanding more information on the origin of the products they buy and expect brands to demonstrate that they are having a positive environmental and social impact.

Despite this, last year tropical rainforests disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds, according to data from the Global Forest Watch tracking service, with experts warning the pandemic could weaken enforcement of forest laws.

All delayed investigations and complaints to the FSC will be rescheduled, said Carstensen.

The audits FSC certificate holders must submit each year to prove they comply with standards were largely conducted face-to-face before the coronavirus crisis hit, he added.

But with lockdowns, restrictions on travel and employees working from home, the FSC has developed a new remote audit system using virtual meetings, interviews and document signing.

"It might in the future make face-to-face audits redundant in some settings," Carstensen said.

Established about 25 years ago, the FSC has roughly 45,000 certificate holders, including forest managers and companies, which follow its standards on workers' and indigenous peoples' rights and forest protection.

Carstensen said initial concerns the pandemic might lead companies to cut ties with the FSC to save costs were unlikely to play out.

"I'm not worried for the future of certification or the long-term prospects for the services we provide for businesses in the forest sector," he said.

Fit for purpose?
Yet some conservationists have said FSC investigations and rulings on complaints are slow and lack transparency.

Phil Aikman, Southeast Asia campaign director at Mighty Earth, which filed the complaint against Korindo Group in 2017, said FSC certification could help prevent deforestation, improve forest management and protect indigenous rights, when implemented effectively.

But, he added, the FSC's complaints procedure "is not fit for purpose" because green groups often have to file complaints before the FSC moves to enforce its own policies and pushes companies to compensate for violating its standards.

Timer Manurung, executive director of Jakarta-based environmental group Auriga Nusantara, which filed a deforestation complaint in December against a certified Indonesian paper company, said the FSC "should find a way to ensure that complaints are dealt with quicker".

In the Korindo case, it was unclear how the FSC reached its decision, nor how it would monitor the conditions it set the company, he added.

To date, the FSC has withdrawn certification from nine firms for breaching its forest management policies, Carstensen said.

Investigations usually take between one and two years to complete, he noted, although the FSC is looking at ways to streamline and improve the process, with suggestions to be presented to the board within 12 months.

A revision of FSC standards is also due to be finalised before the end of the year, he added.