Sustainable Forest Management

There is international consensus that climate change is the most significant environmental threat to life on earth. At nearly every stage of the life cycle, from the moment a tree is planted in the ground to the use of a timber component in a building, wood contributes to the solution of global warming. However, this is only truly correct if the tree is harvested using sustainable forest management practices.

Sustainable forest management is a set of practices built upon technical and scientific principles that set out how a forest can be managed to harvest timber whilst balancing the three pillars of social, economic and environmental objectives.

Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.

Where do the current policies of sustainable forest management come from?
1987 – The Brundtland Definition

The first effort to define modern sustainability came in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Prime Minister Brundtland of Norway. This report defined sustainable development as: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

1992 – UN Earth Summit

The Brundtland definition was expanded on and applied in-depth to forests at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. In fact, even now, the forest sector remains the only major international commodity sector where there is a worldwide international agreement on the key elements of sustainable production. The forest sector has led the way to translate “sustainability” from an idea on paper into a fundamental determinant of action on the ground.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, the international community agreed a “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forests” which states that:

Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations. These needs are for forest products and services, such as wood and wood products, water, food, fodder, medicine, fuel, shelter, employment, recreation, habitats for wildlife, landscape diversity, carbon sinks and reservoirs, and for other forest products. Appropriate measures should be taken to protect forests against harmful effects of pollution, including air-borne pollution, fires, pests and diseases, in order to maintain their full multiple value”.

There are several implications of this broad definition of sustainability when applied to forest management:

1. Sustainable forestry is more then “sustained yield”

While sustainability encompasses the concept of “sustained yield”, which refers to the continuing ability of forests to supply timber, the services that a forest provides go much further than this. Sustainability implies the long-term maintenance of all forest functions including ecological and landscape conservation, soil protection, recreation, aesthetic values, as well as the production of timber and other forest products.

2. Trade-offs must be made

It is important to realise that the management of a forest for a single product will affect the forest’s ability to provide other services or products, so a trade-off must be made. For example, managing the forest for high levels of timber production may affect the value of the forest as a habitat for wild animals.

3. Context affects the meaning of sustainable forestry

Sustainable forestry is also a moving target. It is about satisfying people’s needs. Just as these vary from place to place and through time, so the definition of sustainable forestry varies. For example, in developed countries, many people now attach greater significance to forests as areas for recreation. By contrast, in many developing countries, there is a much greater reliance on forests as a source of food, of employment and for economic development. So you can expect standards of “sustainable forestry” to vary between developed and developing countries.

How do you adapt the meaning to the context?

In practice, defining sustainable forestry requires two stages. The first is at an international level, governments, through a variety of United Nations processes, have established a series of international principles for sustainable forest management. Examples of these processes include:

  • The Pan European or Helsinki Process – covering all European forests
  • The International Tropical Timber Organisation covering all the major tropical wood producing countries
  • The Montreal Process, covering all forests in boreal and temperate zones outside Europe (including North America, Russia, Australasia, Chile)

The second stage involves interpretation and adaptation of the international sustainability principles into national forest policy, laws and regulations. This requires consultation with a wide range of interests to establish consensus on the contents of sustainable forestry standards. It also requires field testing of sustainable forestry standards.

What is the state of sustainable forest management today?

These UN-led processes have been on-going now for around three decades. Countries have been progressing at different rates. For obvious reasons, richer and more politically stable countries have tended to move faster than poor and politically unstable countries. But the progress is real and, in the wake of these processes, sustainability now lies at the very heart of forest policy, regulation and practice in most of the world’s largest timber producing countries.


The UN processes also provided a starting point for various private sector initiatives such as the FSC and PEFC. These forest certification frameworks have evolved to adapt the sustainable forestry standards to better reflect the views of the specific interests engaged in the development of the certification system and to provide procedures for independent inspection of individual forests.

However these technical requirements are increasingly out of step with the growing recognition that the major problems associated with forests in some parts of the world, such as deforestation and poor governance, cannot be addressed through forest certification.

Requirements focused only on certification also do not accommodate the need for broader metrics of sustainability in the forest products sector and to recognise the importance of other issues not covered by forest certification including:

  • carbon footprint and other life cycle impacts;
  • transparent information on national forest governance;
  • the quality of forest resources at national and regional level;
  • clear data on species volume, growth and harvest;
  • efficient use of the full range of species and grades;
  • product durability;
  • waste management and disposal

Forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC require compliance with a wide range of good forestry practices to be demonstrated by an accredited third party. It also requires that wood be traced through the supply chain to a certified forest management unit. The concept has proved valuable for buying organisations seeking to demonstrate that their timber products derive from well managed forests.

However, certification has certain limitations. While it can work well when timber is traded in large and relatively undifferentiated commercial volumes from large state and industrial forests, it is technically more challenging to implement where forest management units and supply chains are more fragmented.

Analysis of FSC and PEFC certified forest area data highlights that nearly all growth worldwide in the last decade has been in larger state and industrial forests, notably in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. There has been very little recent progress to extend forest certification amongst smaller non-industrial, community and indigeous forest operations. These are often the very operations that are, in practice, the most sustainable from the perspective of rural development, social welfare and natural forest conservation.

In addition to discriminating against smaller forest operators, another limitation of certification is that it cannot substitute for good forest governance and is open to abuse where this is absent. Where corruption is endemic, and someone wants to commit fraud intentionally, it is comparatively easy to manipulate a system like FSC which relies on annual paper-based audits.

For example, corrupt state-owned forestry enterprises in Ukraine managed to hoodwink FSC auditors year on year, supplying IKEA with illegally logged, certified timber 1.

It is this realisation that has led the EC and other authorities in the EU, to conclude that neither FSC nor PEFC certificates are an adequate assurance, in isolation, that timber is at negligible risk from illegal harvest. It has also highlighted the importance of a risk-based approach to responsible timber sourcing in which the first step is to assess the quality of forest governance in a supply region by combining data on forest resources with information on forest laws and institutions.

That being said, in countries which do have effective forest governance, certification can be a force for good. Rewarding those who do manage sustainably and hence, encouraging others to do the same. But as a rule, certification should not be taken at face value, and other measures such as EUTR, the Lacey Act and FLEGT need to be fulfilled in order to help guarantee the wood being bought is not from an unsustainably managed forest.

Other Solutions

The message and importance of managing forests sustainably is now widely recognised by international agencies, national governments and forestry experts. However, there are significant challenges to be addressed, notably the need to ensure forest laws which aim to promote sustainable forestry practices are fully enforced, to ensure sustainable forestry operations remain commercially competitive, particularly with rising pressure to convert forest land to other uses in many parts of the world and to inform the general populace of the role and benefits of sustainable forestry operations. 

Deforestation is still a significant problem in some regions, and finding solutions must remain a major focus for the international community. A large part of the solution lies in promoting sustainable forest management, combining the production of timber and other forest products to support rural livelihoods and communities, with the provision of other services, such as biodiversity and watershed protection. Equally important, sustainable forest management must be integrated within a larger sustainable land use plan, developed through stakeholder consultation and other democratic processes in the regions concerned, that restricts and controls conversion of land to other uses such as commercial agriculture. 

  1. Earthsight, 2020, ‘Flatpacked Forests’, Earthsight,[]