05 February 2018 xPaper

The complication of certification when it comes to FSC

Is FSC as important as it once was? With EUTR guaranteeing legality, the burden of auditing and FSC adopting new policies, printers may no longer benefit from membership.

Five years after the European Union Timber Regulation came into force, forestry standards bodies PEFC and FSC show no sign of disappearing. These emerged at the end of the last century as a means of certifying that timber and pulp was being produced from properly managed and sustainable resources.

At the time forests, particularly in the emerging countries might be clear cut, mountains stripped of tree cover and peat bogs drained with no thought of managing the resources for future generations.

The Forestry Stewardship Council became the force to change this by recognising those forests which were managed with proper consideration for the environment. It would freeze further damage to the rain forests in particular by refusing to endorse any further development for commercial exploitation, either as trees for timber or for fibre to be used in pulp, biofuels, fabrics or other purpose.

FSC gained its first major victory when JK Rowling insisted that FSC paper be used for the Harry Potter books, followed by Ikea’s declaration that its catalogues would use FSC certified paper.

Other clamoured to join in, demanding more pulp than was available at the time. It led to an odd situation where a mill might source 50% of its pulp from certified sources and 50% from unregulated pulp. It meant that 50% of output could carry the FSC logo and 50%, even though exactly the same paper produced at the same time, could not. The FSC material would go to markets which demanded the accreditation, the UK being prime territory.

However, the arrival in 2013 of the EUTR has changed things. It is illegal to handle or import forest products in the EU that have not come from legally recognised sources. End users can be reassured that the furniture, timber or paper is not the result of illegal forest clearances or rain forest destruction.

Compared to the rigours of audits, administration and records that are an essential part of chain of custody schemes, the EUTR is simplicity for printers. However, there is almost no awareness of EUTR outside the relevant industries and there is no logo or marketing to change this.
Instead the FSC logo, while not necessarily understood, is recognised by the general public as having something to do with the environment.

And FSC goes beyond EUTR in having clauses that include a social aspect to good forestry management. This can mean not displacing indigenous peoples, destroying high conservation value forest, education and so on. For end customers that declare CSR policies that involve, for example, strategic statements opposing modern slavery, FSC remains important.

However, one of the key tenets of FSC's protection of forests was apparently weakened at the FSC general assembly in Vancouver last October. The meeting voted to change the 1994 cut off date for plantations to be eligible for FSC certification. After that date, FSC could not certify any new plantation, however well managed.

The ruling was designed to stop forests being cleared for plantations and then applying for FSC certification, and thereby seeming to reward companies that have been doing this. Now it seems, companies that have been involved in questionable practices in the past can apply and receive FSC endorsement, though no rulings have been made to date. For some NGOs a bridge has been crossed.

The question is whether this social aspect is enough to persuade printers to continue to pay for the FSC certification, the audits and the bureaucracy that surrounds chain of custody.

And this is happening. At one time the FSC registry was dominated by printers and the certification was more popular in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. This remains the case, but in the last couple of years two dozen companies have dropped out of the system, admittedly not all for voluntary reasons. Printers are happy to supply FSC paper from merchants and the majority of their customers are happy with this. Few need to apply the FSC logo and registration number to their print.

FSC says a lot about forestry management, but nothing about the manufacturing process, energy or water used and how the mills operate, nor the carbon footprint of the paper. Carbon balanced paper can provide a stronger environmental statement than FSC. Denmaur Independent Papers has teamed up with the CarbonCo to offer carbon balancing with the World Land Trust.

Marketing and environment director Danny Doogan says that this has been to offset the carbon from 10,000 tonnes of paper. “Carbon balancing is catching on, catching on with end users and shows that the company is going the extra mile. There is a measurable impact and with the support for the charity, something that customers can point to, particularly if there is a carbon reduction programme in place.”

NB Colour Print was an early adopter of FSC chain of custody, but dropped it five years ago. It has adopted carbon balancing instead and offset more than 180 tonnes of carbon in a year. “With EUTR, there’s really not much point to FSC,” says a spokesman. “EUTR covers it and carbon balancing offers better value to us and our customers.”

Premier Paper has long worked with the Woodland Trust to offset carbon through tree planting in the UK. Its annual planting day in November is increasing in popularity showing the increasing strength of the scheme. This is also attracting participation from the customers’ customers. It is perhaps more real than an unknown far away forest.

The cost of maintaining chain of custody, with the audits, paperwork, can be considered high when margins are under pressure and FSC is no longer a great differentiator. Almost all paper sold through merchants in the UK will comply with FSC or PEFC.

The same applies elsewhere. In Germany one of the largest sheetfed printers Aumüller Druck Regensburg has questioned the relevance of the PEFC and FSC certifications to the printing industry. Speaking to Deutscher Drucker, managing director Christian Aumuller, says that its suitability for print can be questioned. “One reason for this is that these certifications come from the timber industry and only focus on the sustainable management of the raw material wood.

“However, what happens when the pulp is produced, in paper production or in the printers themselves is no longer relevant. The logos suggest environmental friendliness to the end consumer, but the wood for the pulp may come from distant countries (transport impact) albeit from a certified forest, the paper mill can lavishly produce lots of water and energy, possibly bleaching even with chlorine, and the printer does not need to know how to handle eco dyes or IPA-free printing. In the meantime, you can print on FSC paper, but the product cannot be recycled because it is either UV printed or is used, for example, in adhesive paper.”

Record keeping needs to include any outwork, say perfect binding, that takes place, and the data needs to be kept for five years, well after a magazine, catalogue or report will have been recycled. Or worse, if the product carries an insert that is not itself compliant, the entire job is compromised. In turn this can lead to an investigation and the loss of the licence to use the FSC chain of custody certificate.

However, end customers have become accustomed to specifying chain of custody papers, almost as a tick box requirement without perhaps fully understanding the implications. This is certainly the case with government organisations, with the energy companies, with major retailers and banks. These will use the FSC logo along with the CoC number that can be used to identify the job and should it be necessary to follow the path to the source of the pulp assigned to that paper.

In reality this is almost impossible. Mills will use pulp from a variety of sources to achieve the correct mix of fibres to achieve the characteristics desired of a paper. If a percentage of the pulp comes from non certified sources, the mill can only claim certification for the percentage of paper that matches the volume of qualified pulp.

This results in some anomalies. Doogan explains how Denmaur sells paper from its warehouse originating from one mill in the US as an FSC grade, but if the same paper is purchased for a customer direct from the mill and does not rest in the Denmaur warehouse, it can have a PEFC certificate.

Matthew Botfield, environmental manager of Antalis, points out the differences between EUTR and FSC or PEFC relating to the greater information needed for the forestry management certifications. This also leads to greater information flowing to the mills and merchants, beyond the more limited due diligence required by EUTR.

However, he points out that while the financial burden on mills and merchants is manageable, this can be both onerous and costly on printers and for most end users, is unnecessary.

They are looking for the reassurance that CoC papers have been used, not necessary the full nine yards. In most instances they will not even ask for the FSC logo to be displayed on the finished piece.

There is an argument that printers are too far from the trees for the certification to be relevant for printers. In the past Antalis has suggested an associate membership of FSC indicating that the printer is buying from controlled and qualified sources, but without the full burden on auditing and paperwork.

This makes sense for Doogan. It may also stem the steady drip of companies deciding that, under cost pressure, FSC certification can be dropped. “There might be less stringent requirements, showing that printers are using certified products and also that they have no influence over the selection of the fibres. It would ease the financial strain on smaller printers. I think this would only do the FSC good and attract smaller printers and print management companies to join FSC.”

The alternative is that printers continue to drift away finding that provided printers can buy papers with certification, they have little need for a formal membership of the standards body.

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Matthew Bottfield

Matthew Bottfield

Matthew Botfield of Antalis says the cost of certification on printers can be burdensome.

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