Sweden’s Forestry Industry Not So Green After All

Logging Companies Routinely Abuse Country’s “Freedom with Responsibility” Forestry Framework

A recent assignment for Yale Environment 360 reporting on Sweden’s forestry industry made it clear to me that the country’s forestry model, which it likes to say is the most sustainable forestry system in the world, does not work. Restrictive federal regulations were replaced in 1993 by an act requiring that every logging operation balance production with conservation, allowing companies to be their own bosses and operate under a “freedom with responsibility” framework.

Photo by Erik HoffnerTrees are Sweden’s most valuable natural resource beside iron ore, but widespread
clearcuts like this are fast degrading the value of the country’s forests and the richness
of their biodiversity.

Earlier this summer the Swedish Forest Agency revealed that over a third of all the recent cutting activities, 37 percent, violated the tenets of the model by prioritizing production over conservation. That is perhaps not surprising: voluntary programs like this rarely work, no matter what country you’re from.

The good news, I thought, was that since nearly half of Sweden’s forests are certified by the country’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), those lands were likely to be managed sustainably. But as I discovered, this certification scheme is not helping. Instead, it is allowing its members to clearcut old forests of high conservation value and yet still market the products as sustainable, for top-dollar rates.

Of equal concern is that companies that violate the scheme’s rules, often by cutting the most valuable “woodland key habitats,” are not punished by FSC-Sweden. As that body’s director, Lina Bergström, told me: “I wish we could have more backbone. But big companies make mistakes. We are not a monitoring system, we are an improving system. It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.” 

It’s statements like this that dismay conservationists. How many times can a company violate the rules without losing their certification, they want to know?

An NGO which went over Bergström’s head and notified FSC’s international certifying body last year of repeated violations by one company without ramifications was given this reply: “As perfection cannot be expected at any given time, repeated deviations will also to some extent have to be accepted.” In other words, no one is perfect, so you’ll just have to trust us.

When one FSC-certified company, LVM, actually had its certification in nearby Latvia suspended in 2011 for unsustainable rates of logging, its right to sell forest products again with the FSC label was reinstated within two days without seeming to have rectified the problem.

Another concern surfaced by activists I met this summer was that FSC certified companies can still benefit from the cutting of high conservation value forests, even if they don’t cut them themselves. As a campaigner for the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation demonstrated to me in a videotaped interview at recent certified-sustainable cut, a company that owns such a biologically rich forest can just sell it to another company that’s not certified by FSC and therefore not bound by the rules against cutting woodland key habitats. So the FSC-certified company’s bottom line still benefits from the destruction of the country’s most diverse forests.

The problems with certification schemes are not limited to Europe but are global, as FSC Watch ably demonstrates. WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) sustainable timber certification was recently accused by Global Witness in a report of lacking monitoring and transparency while allowing its members to ignore the rules. Since GFTN is in place in areas like Borneo, one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world, this is of concern.

And it’s about more than trees, of course. The Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies seafood products, was described by marine biologist Jennifer Jacquet in a recent story on Living on Earth as, “if anything, a fisheries improvement project.” That echoes what I was told in Sweden: sustainable certifiers don’t police their industries, they set goals and then cajole their members to aspire to them, while marketing their product as the greenest available.

Activists like Daniel Rutschman of Swedish NGO Protect the Forest don’t feel like they can wait for such improvements. “You shouldn’t trust the FSC label … it’s greenwash, and creates a market for old forest destruction,” he said. “Species will go extinct to make these companies money. They’re stealing our heritage, our nature. It’ll be gone in a generation.”


See more images from Hoffner’s travels in Sweden including profiles of citizen scientists who are documenting biodiversity to spare forests from logging, here.



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