‘Eco-labels’: A Solution to Deforestation, or Part of the Problem?

One of the more notable failures of interstate environmental negotiations over the last several decades has been their inability to devise a viable, effective means of combatting deforestation. In 1992, states at the Rio Earth Summit formally recognized the need for a comprehensive, timely response to the global problem of deforestation by adopting the Forest Principles and Agenda 21, of which Chapter 11 explicitly committed states to “enhance sustainable management and conservation, to rehabilitate degraded forests… and to improve the quality and availability of information about forests.” However, as is so often the case, states’ lofty commitments have not been met by adequate action. Indeed, despite the supposed advances of the Rio Earth Summit, the world has lost 420 million hectares of forest cover since 1990.

Consequently, many scholars have noted an increasing tendency to address deforestation by way of private, voluntary initiatives, rather than waiting on interstate negotiations. A rise, in other words, of transnational environmental governance (TEG) - the encroachment of non-state actors into the traditionally state-centric realm of global rule creation. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the pioneer transnational forest protection initiative, was established in 1993 by non-government organizations and businesses, rather than states or international organizations. Corporations that buy material from FSC certified forests can put the FSC logo on their products, thus signalling their commitment to environmental protection to consumers. These ‘eco-labels’ are intended to generate an economic incentive for sustainable forest management, as consumers are, in theory, more likely to purchase products from companies able to signal that their material is sourced from a certified forest manager.

However, disappointing as the interstate response to deforestation has been, there is little evidence that eco-labels will be any more effective. Eco-labels offer corporations an opportunity to privatise governance – that is, replace formal international regulations with voluntary initiatives. For example, corporations like B&Q and IKEA actively promoted the establishment of the FSC. Crucially, private forest certification initiatives lack stringent monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. The laxness of these private initiatives contrasts with the formal complaints mechanism incorporated into public institutions like the World Bank. Transnational initiatives thus allow corporations to attain the reputational benefits of being associated with an eco-label, without requiring significant operational changes. As such, there are myriad perils of relying on private, transnational forest protection initiatives as opposed to building a robust interstate regime

For example, whereas interstate negotiations typically yield a single, comprehensive regime, transnational forest protection is dangerously fragmented. Indeed, by 2003, just ten years after the foundation of the FSC, there were over fifty separate forest certification initiatives. This undermines the effectiveness of transnational forest protection governance by allowing businesses to ‘forum shop’ for the least stringent certification scheme. This is no accident. Corporations encourage the proliferation of transnational forest protection schemes as this generates a ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic, in which competition forces certification initiatives to progressively lower their standards in order to attract clients. This competitive dynamic has spawned certification schemes whose standards hardly differ from the status quo. For example, the American Forest and Paper Association established its own labelling scheme with the explicit intention of promulgating weaker standards than the FSC.

It is no surprise, then, that TEG deforestation initiatives have failed to achieve their objectives. Indeed, there is a widespread scholarly consensus that forest certification has “neither abetted nor hindered” deforestation. Consequently, 30 years on from the FSC’s foundation, the world is still losing 13 million hectares of forest cover each year. Overall, then, although the interstate process has thus far failed to devise a comprehensive response to deforestation, it would be a mistake to turn to eco-labels as an alternative means of addressing this serious problem. The growth of eco-labels has been driven more by corporations’ desire to ‘greenwash’ their operations through the promotion of ineffective private regulation, lacking meaningful monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, than by any serious intention to halt and reverse deforestation.


Joss Harrison