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The Objectives of PEFC, an interview with Ben Gunneberg, CEO and Secretary General of PEFC

PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, is a leading global alliance of national forest certification systems. We caught up with Ben Gunneberg, CEO and Secretary General of PEFC. In a far-reaching interview he covered the aims of PEFC, the growing trend towards paper-based packaging and away from plastics, and the priority of sustainable forest management.
How does PEFC differ from FSC, and how do the two complement each other?

Both have the same objective: the certification of forests to credible, independently verified standards of responsible forest management. Both forest certification systems are well regarded by governments, the business community, and civil society for their important work.

While we share this fundamental objective, one of the distinct differences between the two organisations is that PEFC focuses more on forests and trees owned by ordinary individuals and families. In other words, the hundreds of millions of ordinary individuals who are important stewards of a significant part of the world’s forests.

These smallholders are managing their forests and trees sustainably, yet certification is often out of their reach – simply because they don’t have the means to obtain it. Our movement was founded by small and family forest owners, and from early on, we were aware that the costs and procedures of forest certification can be a significant obstacle for them.

While we never compromise on sustainability – our requirements must be met by everyone, independent of size – we wanted PEFC certification to be available for all forest owners, including those with limited financial means, who wished to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. This is why we have developed processes such as group certification, which not only lower the administrative and financial burden for smallholders, but also enable them to collaborate and share knowledge and best practices. We have recently extended this to cover the option of trees outside forests for farmers and smallholders with hedgerows etc. which globally make up some 20% of the world’s round wood production.

Since its foundation 20 years ago, PEFC has grown to become the world’s leading forest certification system. But while we continue to grow, we have never forgotten our roots. We are the certification system of choice for small and family forest owners. To date (May 2020) about one million forest owners around the globe are certified to PEFC, covering over 325 million hectares of forests.

What percentage of the world’s forests are now under sustainable management plans?

By the end of 2019, 13% of the world’s forests were under certified sustainable management, with 62% of the total global certified area being certified to PEFC. Safeguarding the world’s forests is a global commitment, and the world’s governments have recognized the need to manage the world’s forests sustainably in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as well as in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports. PEFC is an official indicator for progress towards sustainable forest management, and we hope to be instrumental in helping to significantly increase the area of verifiable well managed forests by 2030.

What are some examples of your technological innovations?

PEFC works closely with packaging supply chain partners, brand owners and retailers that use packaging. We are keen to support PEFC certification claims for the wood-based packaging innovation that is currently taking place.

COVID-19 has been a real challenge to the forest supply chain. However, we have adapted quickly and have in place remote credible verification procedures. This is an example of innovation that pops up to support immediate market needs. If you had asked me pre-COVID, how long it would take to implement remote auditing procedures for certification, I would have said it will take several years for us to move progressively towards those.

At the moment we have developed and implemented the guidance for remote audits and credible verification procedures, which allows packaging companies and brands to continue to have access to responsible sourcing.

Are you seeing an increasing move towards the use of paper-based packaging?

The increasing criticism of single-use plastic has a positive impact on more sustainable non-mineral oil-based materials such as paper. Paper-based packaging companies are innovating to provide sustainable and more climate-smart alternatives.

Companies are working on multiple alternative solutions, and there is an increase in innovative products and designs on the market. These include multi-use items from metal, bamboo or composites, as well as innovative forest-based solutions for packaging and other consumer products. For example, major paper companies are working on the development of fully recyclable paper drinking straws that resist being a long time in liquid. Also scientists have developed a renewable bioplastic from a natural material called pinene found in pine needles which can be used as a foil for sealing fruit and vegetable packaging.

At PEFC, we promote the responsible sourcing of forest-based materials. So companies moving to paper packaging should ensure that they source raw materials from forests that are managed sustainably. To achieve wider sustainability goals, we also support responsible consumption and recycling. We believe companies should produce products which can be recycled or biodegraded at the end of their lifecycle.

How important is it that packaging companies source their material from sustainably managed forests?

Products such as office and catalogue paper, glossy paper, tissue and paper-based packaging, use over 40 percent of all industrial wood traded globally1. Already nearly half these volumes pass through a certified chain of custody but there is room to improve. Decisions on raw material sourcing have a direct impact on the forests and the people that depend on them for their livelihoods. Sustainable management requires that the trees that are harvested are replaced with new trees to maintain the carbon stock balance. Such management must maintain the quality of the ecosystem services that forests provide and preserve their biodiversity and ecologically valuable areas. Therefore, responsible sourcing from certified sustainably managed forests ensures zero-net deforestation, maintained biodiversity and forest ecosystems.

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What is your view on consumer interest in paper-based packaging as opposed to plastic packaging?

We are delighted that consumers are increasingly looking for more environmentally friendly products and packaging. A consumer study conducted by Coleman Parkes Research2 found that for three-quarters of surveyed consumers the environmental impact of a product’s packaging affects their purchasing decision. More than half of the surveyed consumers have already shifted to purchasing more products in environmentally-friendly packaging compared to the previous year.

Consumers are also more discerning. For example, for them the main attributes for sustainable packaging are its recyclability and the use of renewable raw materials to create them in the first place. Based on this study for European consumers, the most environmentally friendly and recyclable form of packaging for them is board. Yet the vast majority of consumers indicate that retailers and brands are not doing enough to introduce more environmentally-friendly packaging. Consumers want to be reassured that not only the product they buy is sustainable, but also its packaging. The same study shows that 90% of consumers want to see a label on the pack to show the environmental credentials of the origin of the packaging. That is why we encourage the use of the PEFC logo on the packaging to give assurances of the sustainability of the forests that provide the raw materials for the packaging.

What is your objective for your presence at the Free From Plastics Packaging event in Amsterdam?

Our objective is one of shared value creation with all stakeholders: foresters, eNGOs, related industries, retailers and brand owners who use packaging, to propose sustainable alternative solutions. To do this we need companies in the supply chain to embrace sustainable forest management, because together we can make a difference. By working from the forest and in the supply chain with PEFC-certified timber, paper and carton board you help preserve the forests, respond to the climate emergency by combating deforestation and increasing CO2 absorption. By choosing PEFC you are not only rewarding foresters around the world for their investment in sustainable forest management certification, you also empower companies to give assurance to consumers that the products come from responsibly managed forests.

More information

You can find representatives of PEFC at booth B112 at the Free From Expo Packaging (FFEP) exhibition in Amsterdam, 24-25 November 2020.

2 ProCarton European Consumer Packaging Perceptions study. 7000 consumers. Coleman Parkes Research


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