Questions surrounding processing and production methods, or PPM's as they are known to trade law aficionados, present major challenges in the debate over the links between trade and environment policy. With fears of misuse potentially leading to either "green protectionism" or "environmental subsidies", it is not surprising that it has been difficult to develop a model for an eco-labelling system that will ensure the internalisation of environmental costs and ensure a transparent, non-discriminatory trading system.
That such a model has been successfully developed for the controversial timber trade is no small achievement. Timber is a renewable, functional and aesthetically pleasing resource. When facing a choice of materials, people with concern for the environment would choose timber over metals or plastics.
The dilemma comes when a purchaser cannot tell if the timber they want comes from a well-managed forest or if it was logged in an old growth forest or wilderness area. The same predicament afflicts plantation-grown timber: does the plantation use toxic pesticides, or was an endangered grassland destroyed to plant the trees?
The inability of consumers to tell "good wood" from bad has been a major concern. There is a crying need for a system that rigorously assesses the forest sources and the methods used in extraction so that consumers of timber can be sure their purchases contribute to better forest management, rather than destruction.
The task of labelling "good wood" has been given to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international body established by a diverse group of environmental organisations, indigenous peoples' organisations, timber traders, community forest associations, and forest product certification institutions. WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are among the FSC's members, as are large timber retailers like B&Q, the largest hardware chain in Europe.
The FSC's task is to provide an independent assessment of forest management against a set of performance standards agreed between the major stakeholders in the forests debate.
The FSC has negotiated a consensus on criteria for forest management from its diverse membership. These criteria are both consistent and flexible, allowing for their adaptation to different forest types on a national or regional basis. Issues covered by the FSC's criteria include maintenance of natural forests, environmental impacts, community relations, workers' rights, indigenous peoples' rights, and monitoring and assessment.
The strength of the FSC system is a requirement for independent auditing. Auditors accredited by the FSC will use national standards for the assessment of individual company forest operations. These standards will be compatible with the FSC's criteria but developed locally in consultation with all stakeholders.
A large Australian market exists for certified timber. Recent public opinion-polling by the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) reveals that nearly 9 out of 10 consumers want the option of buying credibly labelled timber from well-managed forest. Only the FSC system can provide the credibility consumers demand as nobody trusts forest industry self-assessed claims.
WWF is seeking to have the FSC system applied in Australia and is discussing the proposal with environment organisations, the timber trade, unions and government agencies.
1. Michael Rae is the ESD Program Manager for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF Australia), and the coordinator of the Australian Certified Timber Buyers Group.