Strengthening the FSC chain could lose it valuable links

By Jenny Roper, Monday 05 May 2014

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FSC – not, most would agree, the most popular acronym in print. The majority of printers of course wholeheartedly support the organisation’s ethos and are more than happy that the majority of papers they and their customers like to use now come with this sustainability stamp of approval.

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But it’s also fair to say that escalating costs and proliferating FSC audit criteria have, over recent years, bred a fair amount of resentment towards the brand.

Unfortunately, the ‘burden’ of being officially FSC certified – that is, being permitted to include the FSC logo on finished jobs rather than just printing on the paper – is about, potentially, to be exacerbated. 

Though launch (initially scheduled for late 2013) of this has been postponed due to an overwhelmingly hostile initial reception, FSC is proposing a new Online Claims Platform (OCP) for verifying claims. This new system could, say some, make FSC certification prohibitively resource-intensive for both printers and paper merchants, to the point where it may be the final straw for some printers, pushing them away from FSC accreditation for good. 

The new system is designed to improve the integrity of FSC’s supply chain, ensuring the chain of custody is verified for every single FSC product and reducing instances whereby products are labelled as FSC when they’re not, or badged with the incorrect logo.

Currently the system is such that instances of this could still slip through the net. At present printers carrying the FSC badge are required to keep records of FSC papers processed – whether in paper form or digitally is up to them – which are only checked come FSC audit time. 

OCP proposes to make the system more watertight by requiring an additional form of record-keeping whereby every product is also logged online. This sends an immediate trigger back to the previous link in the supply chain, in printers’ cases the paper merchant, who must go online and verify the claim. Likewise, printers must verify claims logged by their customers.

“As products move down the supply chain their certification can be assured, thus enhancing the integrity of the FSC brand,” says FSC UK communications manager Tallulah Chapman. 

“Currently you can have circumstances where something is certified, possibly on the label itself, perhaps on a pallet label form, and somewhere up the chain it’s lost it’s chain of custody, perhaps because it’s gone through an uncertified distributor,” she says. “So this should reduce the number of issues with that.”

Room for error

Martin Lett, sales and marketing director at Kent-based Marstan Press, agrees there is currently a fair amount of room for error. “As the system stands, if one of my ‘goods inwards’ chaps doesn’t check the delivery note properly it could slip through, then the job gets processed and it’s not until audit time the job gets picked up. I could then get non-conformance on that, but it could have happened nine months ago, with the print job incorrectly labelled since then,” he says.

Lett adds that he’s often frustrated by seeing out of date or clearly incorrectly used FSC logos. “I pick up stuff all the time and see that the claim no longer exists or it’s the old style logo,” he reports.

Another claimed benefit of OCP is improved availability where a printer and their customer want to order a certain stock. 

“OCP should also enhance our depth of knowledge of products being traded. That will be helpful with supply issues,” says Chapman. “We can then better identify potential issues and see exactly where those are happening. We know sometimes there are specialist types of papers which we know are available at some points but perhaps they lose their certification at some point. So it’s finding out is there really no supply or is someone supplying this but only a little bit’s getting through to the market because of some sort of break in the chain of custody.”

But Lett is sceptical that this will really be so beneficial. “If you go back to 2007 when we were one of the first 100 in the UK to achieve FSC, there were only certain merchants with the certification, but nowadays the majority have it so if you can’t get one particular stock from one merchant you’ll be able to source a similar FSC product from another,” he counters. 

And regardless of the potential accountability benefit, Lett like many, is concerned that the costs to printers and paper merchants far outweigh the benefits.

Judita Bokrosova, marketing assistant at Park Communications in London, agrees. Currently she is able to log FSC information as an additional small add-on to her core marketing role. Should FSC make the OCP system – currently still in the trial phase after the decision about whether to make this mandatory was postponed until later in the year –mandatory, a whole extra role would need to be created.

“My opinion is we would need someone full-time for that, absolutely,” she reports. “It is quite time-consuming already. The amount of information they will require is scary, particularly as the information required is often not available to us.”

Another concern is data security. “We’ll be giving out information about the quantities we purchase. This is confidential information and I haven’t yet been given any information from FSC on who will have access to the system,” she says. “It is rather a worry. Data security is always concerning with any online system.”

Chapman responds: “The OCP is hosted on Amazon’s Web Service, which provides world-class security.  In addition, the OCP software itself is periodically security tested by an expert independent third party. The OCP is developed and maintained by Historic Futures (HF), which operates a comprehensive information security management system (ISMS), with board-level oversight. HF’s ISMS is designed according to the ISO 27001 standard and HF is in the process of gaining ISO 27001 accreditation.”

OCP could apparently lead to printers pushing back on paper suppliers to help them with inputting of data. Managing director at Northend Creative Nigel Stubley, has heard many mutterings to this effect, but points out merchants are in no position to shoulder this double burden. 

A more likely scenario if FSC does go down the mandatory OCP route, is many abandoning this official accreditation, says Stubley.

“We’re in danger of sleepwalking into something that’s going to add an unnecessary and expensive burden on an industry that is still struggling,” he says. “I think there could easily be an exodus away from FSC because of it.”

Stubley adds that his company would strongly consider using more PEFC-certified papers or different sorts of forestry certification if OCP was fully deployed. “ISO is developing its own chain of custody. They don’t charge me a penny whereas FSC has just put their prices up again, above inflation, to use the logo,” he says, adding: “Customers understand ISO, it’s a well-respected, recognised standard. And with the EU timber regulations introduced last March then that’s already adding an assurance that the paper should have been sustainably sourced.”

Bokrosova reports Park would also seriously consider dropping FSC certification. “It is on the table,” she says. “We’re not the only ones who might consider that, I would say.”

Low demand

The problem for many, reports production manager of Herefordshire-based printer Orphans Duncan Betts, is that nowhere near enough customers request the FSC logo to justify more effort and expense. “We only have two customers ask for this. We initially got the certification because we thought housing associations would want it, but we’ve suggested it again and again and they’re not bothered,” he says. “So OCP could definitely be a factor that led us to finally drop FSC.” 

Similarly Stubley reports that the number of Northend Creative customers requesting the FSC logo is “not even in double figures.”

He concedes though that, as with all eco accreditations, it will be the print customer who has the final say. “We’d say to our customers ‘this is what’s happening with FSC, are you willing to pay for the on-cost or here’s an alternative’,” he says. “But it’s not for us to make that decision, it has to be our customers.”

Environmental consultant Clare Taylor agrees that printing businesses will have to find a way of continuing to be FSC certified if customers continue to demand it. She points out that FSC is still typically high on many print buyer’s eco-badge wish lists, and that the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) doesn’t necessarily give the same assurance of sustainability.

“EUTR only means that the timber’s legal, it does not mean it’s sustainably sourced necessarily,” she says, adding: “People know FSC, it’s a well-known logo. People think they know what it means, and ISO standards are just another number. There are lots of ISO standards; many people get them confused and don’t know what they are.” 

This confidence that there’s still a strong market for FSC labelling among buyers may be what leads the system to be made mandatory. As may the cost FSC has already invested in developing the system, points out Stubley.

But the organisation is still very much open to stakeholder feedback about improving ease of use of OCP. Though some have criticised FSC for not communicating the changes effectively (many FSC-certified printers had still not heard about OCP before being contacted by PrintWeek), the organisation is apparently keen for as many as possible to trial its demo system (find more details about accessing this at www.ocp-info.fsc.org).

“What we’re doing at the moment is inviting people to try our demo version out and to get in touch with any comments they may have, either positive or negative,” confirms FSC’s Chapman.

Whether the feedback continues to be so overwhelmingly resistant that the whole endeavour has to be shelved remains to be seen. What printers and paper merchants alike will be desperately hoping for, is that FSC is true to its word, and listens to the industry’s serious concerns. 

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