A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification

Over the past few years, awareness has grown about FSC-certified papers and printing.  FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, a group that works to ensure that the materials used are sourced responsibly.  Each step in the chain (i.e. from forest to printer) must be traceable.  The intent of the FSC system is to eliminate habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples and violence against people and wildlife that can accompany logging.

Although I believe this is a meaningful cause, I wanted to report to my readers that I believe that FSC certification in the commercial printing and marketing communications industry has hit a negative tipping point.  By this, I mean that the future of FSC certification in these fields is murky at best.

I base my assertion on a lot of anecdotal evidence I have seen in the field, both from printers, and especially from marketing professionals and print buyers.  Back when I started conducting green marketing seminars (and writing on Sustainable Ink) in 2007, there was growing interest in FSC, and a sense that it would become the industry standard, on the level of recycled paper.  It was on its way there, but I believe it was hurt in three major ways:

  1. Lack of awareness of what FSC means. As I mentioned before, FSC is a system designed to ensure the chain of custody of paper, from when it was a tree to its final printed form.  The fact is, many people in our industry do not know what FSC is, and therefore do not sell it.  More importantly, I have seen many research studies that show that most consumers do not know what it means and are therefore not interested in it.
  2. Lack of tangible environmental benefit versus other green attributes. When people use recycled paper, they know they are consuming less natural resources than they would if they chose virgin fibers.  Vegetable-based inks sound like they make a positive difference, as they cut down on the use of oil, and are renewable.  Papers made with renewable energy send a message that an organization wants to reduce its carbon footprint and support a green economy.  Those terms, recycled, vegetable-based, and renewable energy, all are easy to understand and therefore end consumers of print and marketing collateral feel comfortable around these terms.  If they feel comfortable around these terms and believe they know what makes them green, they will continue to ask for papers and printers that meet these standards.  FSC, on the other hand, is difficult to understand, and the green attributes may not be immediately obvious.
  3. The combination of the difficult economy and the perceived greed of the Forest Stewardship Council. It is not surprising that FSC grew dramatically in 2007 and 2008, when the broader economy was stronger, and the environmental movement was top of mind.  However, as printers fell on tough times, FSC continued to charge large annual fees from printers to allow them to maintain their individual plant certifications.  One printer told me the following: “Look, I’m a small company – we do $3-$4 million in sales per year, and when I had to sign up for FSC certification in 2008, and spend $10,000-$15,000 to make this happen, with ongoing overhead expenses, I did it.  I thought it would be a cost of doing business, and that I would lose business from eco-minded clients if I wasn’t FSC certified.  When sales fell in 2009 and 2010, I appealed to FSC to get a reduction in my fees, as I was facing the choice between paying my FSC bill or my payroll.  FSC wouldn’t budge, so I didn’t renew, as I was more interested in protecting my employees than I was in paying what I saw as an FSC tax.  I haven’t noticed a sales drop off due to this decision.”  After hearing this, I spoke to several other printers, many of whom no longer maintain their FSC certification, as they said the costs outweighed the benefits.  Some questioned the mission of FSC, with one saying it seemed to be an “overhead-heavy organization” that “charged small printers large fees to pay for their bloated staff.”  I found this large organizational chart on their website which did not contradict this assertion.

In some sense, printers have been FSC’s sales force.  Once printers became certified, they sold FSC as an incredibly valuable brand, and one that all companies that wanted to send a green message should strive to put on their printed pieces.  Now that many of these smaller printers have declined to renew, FSC has lost a powerful constituency that will not continue to spread the word about FSC.

One other constituency FSC has partially alienated is designers, due to their strict rules around usage of the term “FSC.”  Several years ago, if an organization wanted to explain their green choices with words instead of symbols, they were allowed to do so.  As an example, if they printed a brochure on Neenah Environment PC 100, one of my favorite green papers made from 100% post-consumer recycled content, at an FSC-certified printer, they could use a simple sentence like “Printed using FSC-certified 100% post consumer recycled content.”  Now FSC no longer allows this, and insists that the term “FSC” only be used along with its official logo.  FSC is clearly trying to build awareness of its brand, but this shouldn’t be the responsibility of the end user.  I have seen this rule cause designers to sacrifice the use of the “FSC” term.

FSC is a worthwhile organization, and serves a good cause.  However, I believe its lack of obvious green benefits relative to other green elements like recycled paper is hurting adoption.  More than that, however, are the large fees charged to FSC’s sales army (printers) during this recession.  Those, coupled with strict rules around design, are a sign that FSC may have overplayed its hand in the marketing communications industry, and its best days are behind it.

This post is written by Ben Grossman. It originally appeared on Sustainable Ink and was cross-posted with permission.

Ben Grossman is Co-President of Grossman Marketing Group. He and his team work with clients to help them identify environmentally-conscious business practices as a way to differentiate them from their competition and establish a competitive advantage. Ben has worked as a strategy consultant to Fortune 500 clients and was the 2009 recipient of the New England Direct Marketing Association Prodigy Award, a prestigious marketing award for young professionals under 30.

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  • All great points. You might also consider that the use of “FSC” and logo is offered by print resellers- thereby breaking the chain. How does FSC enforce this?

    Great article


      As an FSC certified printer, I am at a loss to see what our certification adds to the cause of protecting forests or the environment. A carton of FSC certified paper arrives at our dock, how does our certification or lack thereof impact this carton? It remains FSC paper regardless of what our certification status is. The certification process for printers has value only in the minds of print buyers who do not have a full understanding of what is actually transpiring in the FSC certification process.

  • FSC destroys value within a printing organization; it exists only to feed itself, like all large bureaucracies. At some point, FSC may have served some useful purpose as you assert, but I have my doubts. I honestly believe, when it comes specifically to printing, FSC’s only reliable attribute is an extraordinary ability to perceive itself as the arbiter of All That Is Right And Proper within the printing industry, not caring one bit about it’s own customers. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? FSC is a marketing gimmick whose time, thankfully, is running short. I’ve been certified for 3 years roughly. I haven’t run a single job using the standard. No one cares. I, for one, will not renew my license when it comes up, as I refuse to support any further an organization whose main goal is to destroy value within mine. I now know what the F in FSC stands for….

    • Hey, why should you blame the FSC? As you know, FSC is a voluntary system. If you only see it as a marketing gimmick, you shouldn’t have obtained your certificate in the first place. And remember that the biggest cost you pay to your certification body, not to the ‘large bureaucracie’ you call the FSC.

      Small remark: if you haven’t done a single job with FSC paper, you should have a closer look at your marketing and communications. Maybe things are different in my country, but most print jobs I do are on FSC request of consumers…

      But as I said, FSC is a voluntary system. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. But don’t generalize.

      • Did I generalize? I assume you are a fan then of large bureaucracies that exist just to feed themselves. I specifically said The reason I blame FSC is they are the one that add nothing to our organization but a cost, thereby destroying value. We are a secure facility and print for sensitive clients; yet FSC wants to approve label placement on all printed art. I can’t send out any image to a third party for approval. And as a provider of print to major food companies, traceability is ingrained in our process. I have to be able to 100% identify where all of our packaging has been distributed within an hour of request. Yet FSC wants to me to add ridiculous paperwork to this to adhere to their imagined superior process. You are correct, it is voluntary. I will no longer volunteer my money to this charade.. My opinion is that this is a very european standard with burdensome and useless regulations, doubling effort in some cases and providing no shareholder value.

  • dan

    While you make some good points I hardly find this exclusive to FSC. Having worked in the lableling/certification area for several years many things are apparent. Consumers still have no clue, businesses even less so, there are far too many similar labels and certifications competing with each other, and less that 1% of all products have such types of certification. Thats no even accounting for “greenwashing”. What is really missing is some sort of regulatory body that sets the rules before anyone can make up their own. Fragmentation is also an issue. In this sort of environment i can hardly blame FSC for attempting to retain and/or create some brand awareness. I think you point out another symptom rather than a true cause.

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  • If soy ink is okay since it is renewable why is not paper made from
    virgin fiber from renewable trees .The ecosystems of professionally managed forests are far more diverse than fields growing soybeans loaded with herbicides and pesticides.Large tracts of land owned by the forest products industry will be subdivided and sold if there is no incentive for them to keep them. They are tree farms where tress are harvested every 25-30 years but for some reason the public has been brainwashed into the idea that using paper destroys trees.It is “green”to build with renewable wood but not to use renewable paper.

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  • Great article and some great discussions going on here, let me add

    Why is it, the paper mills can operate with FSC credits?

    For instance, paper mills purchase X amount of FSC raw material (pulp, recycled content, etc.) each year. This FSC raw material will yield so many lbs of paper at year’s end. As long as the mill does not claim to have made more lbs of “FSC Certified” paper than the FSC raw material will yield, then they pass the audit. If they make less, then they have to show where the scrap or waste went to. Problem with this method is there is no guarantee that the FSC certified paper you just purchased has the correct amount of FSC material in it………or better yet, there is a good chance it may not have any FSC material it. Yet the paper is sold as “FSC certified”. A printer can’t do this with their inventory. The auditors wants to come in and turn your records upside down even on orders that have no on product labeling, because you sold orders on a “house stock” which happens to be FSC certified.
    The FSC credit system is really no different than most manufacturing companies (printers or non-printers) purchasing “energy credits” claiming they operate under wind power. Give me a break; unless you have a wind turbine outside your building, the energy coming into your building is on the same electrical grid as the guy next door. If FSC really wanted to follow the chain to ensure each step is traceable, they would do away with the “credit system”……………………and mills would possibly do away with FSC.

    I also agree with Greg about the hassle of sending off every logo placement for approval. Though we are not quite in same position as Greg is, we don’t have time, nor do our custoemrs, to wait for approval. We get audited every year, tells us then if we did something wrong or even pull my license, don’t make us get approval each and everytime. While we’re on the subject….How many printers out there have customers that once they find out where the approved logo has to go as well as well as what size it has to be, they end up dropping it from their design or product?

    • Fell out of bed feeling down. This has bgritehned my day!

  • Reading these reactions, and based on my own experiences, I have to agree that certain things in the FSC system could be made more ‘user friendly’ for printers.

    And for the record: the demand is still going up (in Western Europe anyway). I’ve heard different remarks from within the sector the past few years, ao ‘FSC is a hype, it will pass in a few months’ and now ‘A Negative Tipping Point for FSC Certification’.

    But, I still see demand for FSC growing, more and more businesses worldwide deciding to use FSC labelled paper, and consumers choosing ‘green products’. True that FSC brings ‘inconveniences’ to printers, but I chose to embrace these new possibilities and refuse to see FSC as a hype.

    We’ll maybe speak each other in a few years, and we might see that the hype is still not over. Doing business in a sustainable way will NOT disappear (cant speak for US), but will only become more and more important. And this in all sectors.

    Companies that realize that today, will only benefit from that.

  • Hi all – thanks so much for your thoughtful and passionate comments on my article. There has been some very interesting discussion, and some excellent points have been made.

    As I hope I made clear in my article, FSC works for the right cause, but the execution and impact on channel partners like printers and designers has been very difficult. In addition, I believe that there is a lack of understanding in the marketplace for what FSC actually means.

    If FSC addresses some of these concerns, they may be able to “right the ship.” Regardless, it will be an interesting ride!

  • Mak

    I agree with Marc that the “Fee” the article refers to here is not all going to FSC. The annual FSC fee for 3 mil company is $400. The rest is going to the certifying body.
    A printer may consider talking to different auditors and see what the reasonable charge is? I read somewhere on FSC website that the certification cost should be more like $3,000 – $4,000. If it cost more than three times that, maybe that case was super complicated?

    Personally, my general attitude about FSC is this. “A screw driver is a great tool, and nothing can really replace it. But I am not expecting it to also open a can. One has to know what it’s designed for.” This is definitely in agreement with many of the points this article discusses where “one” can be “public” or “the marketing guy for the printer.”

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  • Thank you for posting this. Since FSC is so heavily invested in paper & printing (about 85% of certificates seem to be for that world) not building materials, we have added angst over availability. USGBC’s LEED program requires FSC wood to earn their MRc7 Credit, you need a full COC to complete it and get value for it, and all parts of an assembly must be FSC, veneer, core and solid lumber. USGBC seems specificially anti-wood while seeming to have no problem with finite source materials. A whole big mess as far as our industry can see. FSC does not help matters by pushing their own brand of greenwashing telling those that ask about availability, “Should be no problem, there’s 220 million acres certified FSC.” Which would be fine if more than 15% of that had something to do with building materials, not paper. And by the way, who cares how many MM acres are FSC Certified; we’re not selling land here…… The fees asked for from woodwork companies to become and stay certified are a deterent to those who might put a toe in the water but, in the end, like printing, with no ROI, people drop out OR they get fed up with the additional paperwork OR they get fed up with the minutia of label size, placement, prominence, and so on and so on and blah forth…….. What does it have to do with a sustainable forest management plan? UGH!!! Who needs it? Just more busy work that adds no value. More than half the time, people specify FSC because they are “brainwashed” into thinking that if it isn’t FSC, it’s bad. Once they find out what’s involved and the extra cost, they drop it like it never existed. Meanwhile, there are around 75 other sustainable forest management plans in operation (that I could find so far) that ALL do some good in helping forest health as a great renewable resource. Do we really have the luxury to approve of just one to help curb global deforestation? The irrelevant fist-fight over which certification has people SO laser focused on it that they are missing the big picture. Wood is a greatest renewable resource (and building materials) available. It is well managed in most places that we typically do business with especially in the US and Canada.
    We have a very duplicitous philosophy in this country about trees. When we want to believe we are doing a great environmental thing we want to use an alternate material, possibly something like and agriculture material like a grass based board or something to take it ‘s place or use a plastic so it looks like we didn’t cut down any trees to do the job. At the end of the project, we fill out our USGBC LEED submittal information about our wood products and when we hit send, an auto-message comes back that says” Thank you for submitting this electronically, you just saved 2.5 trees.” (seriously? it would have been printed on 3 pieces of paper….) That’s fine, I guess but, when they take down 43 mature oak trees on the land to build the building in their place you have to wonder how much they really cared about trees to begin with. The trees were there 9-12 generations before the mass murder took place in one afternoon and it didn’t make the news. We can do better.
    If FSC is so bent on being the only certification allowed in LEED, why doesn’t all the building plans, correspondences, spec books and shop drawings have to be submitted on FSC paper with an FSC logo?