Bart Holvoet (FSC Belgium) about correct application of forest certification and use of wood with Chain of Custody in construction

"A level playing field for all suppliers"

Forestry Engineer Bart Holvoet was one of the founders of the national operations of FSC, or the Forest Stewardship Council. This organisation monitors the social, economic and ecological health of our forests. Initially he worked under the wings of WWF Belgium, but since 18 years he has done so directly for FSC Belgium. As director, he is therefore perfectly placed to shed his light on how FSC certification should be correctly applied in the construction sector, so that prescribers create a level playing field for their suppliers, and there is a guarantee that the end product does indeed contain sustainably produced timber. Beddeleem caught up with Bart in the showroom at Nazareth in front of the microphone of journalist Sammy Soetaert.

Could you first tell us something about the background of the FSC forest certification?

Bart Holvoet: "Our roots go back to the early nineties of the last century. The establishment of FSC and other organisations in the field of forest certification was an indirect consequence of the well-known UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, in 1992. At that time there was an urgent need for action on forests worldwide, but the national representatives could not reach a consensus on this theme. With no agreement on forest conservation at this Earth Summit, civil society decided to take the bull by the horns."

"What makes the organisation special is our three-chamber model, which brings together social, ecological and economic actors in a balanced way. Anyone who wants to adjust FSC policy must always find a consensus between these three groups. Because the interests differ, it sometimes takes some doing before this happens. Nevertheless, for over 25 years, we have succeeded in getting everyone on board and working together for the responsible management of forests worldwide. This goes beyond merely maintaining the productive power of the forest; the entire ecosystem must be maintained or improved where necessary, and this in a socially correct way."

What does the certification look like in practice?

Bart Holvoet: "In principle, we have two certifications: one for the forest managers and one for the processing chain, the 'Chain of Custody' certification. The latter is mainly focused on the traceability of the materials. In principle, the certification procedures are broadly the same for each sector, type of company or location, although there are sometimes local differences depending on the situation on site. For a standard Belgian company, it is relatively easy to obtain Chain of Custody certification. In essence, it involves managing the flow of FSC-certified materials and keeping the necessary records. Independent audit institutions test the management system against the requirements of FSC certification. Only then are companies allowed to use the FSC label."

Is your certification system a rigid model, or are there sometimes changes in the approach?

Bart Holvoet: "Forest certification follows the prevailing social evolutions. We are always facing new challenges and we have to respond to them. Let me give you two examples: in the early years, we were mainly fixated on responsible forest management, but the sector soon asked us about the use of recycled wood. That, too, certainly falls within the scope of responsible use and caring for forests, so we have also integrated this stream into our certification."

"A second change relates to complex end products. In many cases, this is a combination of FSC wood and other materials, but certification was initially only possible for products with 100% FSC certified material. This has also been modified in the meantime, as a result of which, under certain conditions, FSC certification is possible for composite products or productions that are not made exclusively from FSC-certified raw materials. In the near future, I do not expect major evolutions. The structure is there, and adjustments can easily be embedded in this framework.”

What are the most important points of attention for users and prescribers?

Bart Holvoet: "It is important for prescribers and end users to work with FSC-certified suppliers and contractors, because only they can deliver certified products with the right guarantees. However, working with an FSC certified company does not mean that all the products they offer are also FSC certified. Delivery and sales documents are of crucial importance here: FSC certified companies - and only they - can include the correct FSC guarantees on these and thus make certified products recognisable in black and white. Unfortunately, we often see misunderstandings in practice, especially when non-certified companies or suppliers are involved, who then often try to offer vague guarantees about the FSC origin of the materials they use. Suppose that a certain end product contains wooden panels. In principle, the processor that produces this end product must have its own FSC certificate in order to be able to offer it with the correct guarantee. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that the prescriber is satisfied with (often vague) documentary evidence that the wooden panels were purchased as FSC-certified. This is not correct. This happens mainly out of ignorance, but for the suppliers of these products it means an unequal battle, where the correct guarantees regarding the actual use of certified wood are not present."

Beddeleem, which specialises in the total finishing of buildings, can testify first-hand that creating a level playing field is important.

Anne De Coninck (Sustainability Officer at Beddeleem): "Anyone who, like Beddeleem, certifies their entire systems in the proper manner is naturally faced with investments. A company that only offers a certificate for a part of the system does not have to make such investments. That can sometimes unfairly play into the hands of companies that are not so keen on proper working methods. Builders or end customers should not allow any deviations from the correct application. If the certificate is accepted for a sub-product, such as the sheet material, no official link can be made between the purchase of the raw materials and the sale of the final product, such as the system walls or the furniture. That is precisely what the Chain of Custody is for. So the end customer has no guarantee that the end product does contain sustainably produced timber.”

Bart Holvoet: "The various governments generally do have the intention to work only with certified (with Chain of Custody) timber, but it sometimes gets stuck in good intentions. The Flemish Government, for example, clearly describes the procedure to be followed in terms of inclusion in specifications, but in practice, unfortunately, too little attention is paid to the check on compliance with these conditions. Perhaps this is a task for the client, architect and/or engineering firm. For our part, we need to raise awareness and continue to insist on the correct procedure.”

Author: Sammy Soetaert, freelance journalist

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