Forests are vital for life and the value they create for the economy, society and the environment is immense. Sustainable forest management (SFM) is the sustainable use of forests with the aim of maintaining and enhancing multiple forest values. It has economic, social and environmental targets, which are similar to the ones applying to circular economy.

SFM is supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which defines it as the stewardship and use of forests in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfill future ecological, economic and social functions.

The principles of circular economy are not far from those of SFM. A simple definition for circular economy is a closed loop that bridges the end of the life cycle of a product or a resource to the beginning of a new one. In other words, something useless is turned into something useful again, prolonging the life of natural resources as much as possible. Likewise, SFM focuses on the long-term, sustainable and healthy management of the forest resources. Both take into account the needs of the current and the future generations as well as resource scarcity, without jeopardizing the economic stability of the companies.

A NEW DYNAMIC

The sustainability and circular economy trends have emerged through the failure of our current linear economic model. The Earth Summit in Rio (1992) failed to issue legally binding principles and agreement for a global convention on forests among the nations. That led to the creation of forest certifying organizations such as FSC and a few years later PEFC. These organizations try to solve the issue by offering certificates regarding the sustainability standards of the forest management to the forest owners and companies using timber chain of custody products. In exchange, the companies which want to apply for these certifications have to commit to voluntarily binding standards.

A group of actors created mechanisms in order to find a way to reward good practices and to benefit the whole sector, instead of only those who are commercially successful. Forest certification promotes both SFM and circular economy, by encouraging to get rid of open loops which were unnecessary in terms of planning-management and resource use, by treating the forest in a natural sustainable way, without chemical and pesticide use, and by respecting the local communities and the biodiversity (among others).

In the EU region, sustainable forest management and forest certification have grown both in number of certificates and in land covered during the past few years. In 2012, as much as 153.3 million hectares of forest had been certified by FSC and PEFC, an increase by more than 50 millions compared to 2008. During the same period, the number of FSC Chain-of-Custody certificates had risen from 5,633 in 2008 to 12,602 in 2012 (more than 120% growth in four years) and the number of PEFC Chain-of-Custody certificates had also grown from 3,955 in 2008 to 7,912 in 2012.

This development has been steady even during the financial crisis, while companies in the forestry sector were not thriving in terms of financial security. To invest outside their core business instead of continuing the usual practices or instead of trying to minimize the expenses, could be considered as a paradox, but it makes sense for the forest owners and managers, since the responsibility they undertake through investments in sustainable management reinforces the sustainability of their business for the long term.

The indirect benefits which derive from maximizing the sustainability potential of the forests through certification are also important. Such benefits would include enhancing biodiversity, extending the lifetime of resources and taking care of soil and water quality. In other words, forest managers should not focus on the product called trees only, but on everything the forest has to offer. Even in cases where forests are not used for commercial purposes, they can still offer a lot to the environment, local communities and heritage, if managed sustainably.

WHO CAN DO WHAT?

Initiatives from individuals and citizen groups who care about environmental sustainability can make a difference and influence the EU states governments into introducing new policies in their sector, such as the EUTR (EU Timber Regulation). Under the EUTR, it is illegal to bring and use illegal harvested wood in the EU market. However, what else could be done and what can be hoped for the future of SFM?

To begin with, governments, the public sector and citizens in general could turn to recycling, or in other words the core of circular economy. Indeed, the main products of the forestry sector, paper and wood, can be recycled very efficiently. Being able to create a wide range of products, such as recycled paper, furniture or even biomass, from something which is no longer useful and has already fulfilled its original purpose would extend the life of timber resources. By reusing timber resources, the input of new raw materials in the system is reduced. There is still the same output (products) in the end, but with less input (raw materials). In addition, recycled paper produces less air pollution (up to 73%) and is more energy efficient (70% less energy required) compared with paper produced from raw materials.

Technological innovation is another factor, which can facilitate the transition towards environmental sustainability and circular economy. Good examples include replacing traditional printed newspapers with online versions, and converting advertising products like printed flyers or ads to online and paperless media advertising. However, relying on technological solutions only is not enough to become and remain sustainable. Appropriate education, mentality and behavioral shifts are also required for impactful changes to happen.

As for states and governments, promoting and encouraging the use of legal and sustainable timber through public procurement policies will contribute to the reduction of deforestation and illegal logging, and therefore strengthen sustainable forestry. The cooperation between the states and non-state actors shows signs of great potential for the future. A fair example is that forest managers and owners who have received forest certification usually meet the standards of such regulations even before the new regulations are put into action. The forest owners have then no need for additional expenses or change of their business-as-usual and the regulations are easier to be implemented and monitored thanks to the transparency that forest certification offers and thanks to the high standards these forest owners already follow.

In terms of industry, the forest sector, apart from being a big sector itself, is also affiliated with the construction, transport and energy sectors. The “wastes” of the forests, such as residues, twigs, deadwood and dry leaves, could be used to produce biomass fuel or biochar useful in these sectors. If regulated properly, it could enhance sustainable development. A few advantages of biomass use reside in the reduced dependency on fossil fuels, the less harmful emissions and the abundance of the resources, if the forests are efficiently managed. An indirect benefit would be the increased revenue channel created for the forest owners, or even the lowered prices of energy, if regulated accordingly by the respective authorities. Of course, a huge amount of raw resources would be needed to cover our current needs, but replacing even a small percentage of our current energy resources with biofuel would have a big impact on the environment.

Everything falls down to one common thread: the will of driving sustainability forward . Whether all actors involved in the scheme (state, citizens and industries) adopt the ideas of circular economy and SFM, or whether one of them is strong enough to lead the others, a new link is created. This link would hopefully be sustainable and powerful enough to slowly replace the current model. It ideally consists of citizens (or NGOs) exercising pressure to the state to be more environmental friendly, the state regulating the industry in the same direction, and the industry offering environmental friendly (including recycled) products to the consumers, as a form of marketing advantage.
Forest certification has shown obvious capability to draw these links and it has become an example to follow in the forestry sector and other sectors as well, if we want to look at sustainability at a greater scale.