Unanswered questions over why forestry giant Ernslaw One lost environment label

8:23 am on 22 February 2024
Slash from the heavy rain in Gisbourne, June 2018.

Slash from the heavy rain in Gisborne, June 2018. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Analysis - Last Thursday, I got a tip that Ernslaw One, a huge Malaysian-owned forestry company, had lost its badge of environmental sustainability.

The loss of a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labelling is a big deal for a timber exporter - it opens access to overseas markets, and pops up on timber products in stores, like outdoor furniture.

Given that the badge is supposed to prove a forest is under responsible management, some green advocates were surprised when Ernslaw managed to keep its FSC label after being found to have broken environmental law, over devastation from its forestry slash.

I searched the FSC register, which showed the certificate was suspended.

So I contacted Ernslaw, who also confirmed it, adding they were appealing the decision, and that the issue stemmed from 2018 storm damage.

And that's where the clarity ended.

RNZ's rural team previously reported that ASI, an independent auditor for FSC, was looking into Ernslaw's certificate after concerns were raised.

I wanted to know what had caused the suspension, and, ideally, see the audit.

But when I asked Ernslaw for a copy of the report, or a description of the issues, it said the audit was carried out on SGS, a contractor responsible for certifying Ernslaw's New Zealand's forests as meeting FSC's standards. It wasn't carried out into Ernslaw itself.

Although the forester said "remediation of the issues was underway," it would not say what the issues were.

In fact, it said Ernslaw was "not privy" to the findings, and I would need to go to SGS.

But when I went to SGS, it replied it was: "Not in a position to further elaborate on specifics, as we have a duty to maintain our contractual obligations to our clients".

SGS also implied some new information had arisen about Ernslaw that led to the suspension, rather than any problems with SGS' processes.

"From time to time, certificates validly issued may be suspended or revoked when new circumstances surface, for example in the course of a regular surveillance audit or other control mechanisms provided for by the certification schemes," said its statement.

I sent this reply back to Ernslaw, asking it to confirm the truth.

Ernslaw replied: "We are unable to make any comments at this stage as the matter is currently under review".

So I went back to SGS for clarification, pointing out the confusion. No reply.

Finally, I went to FSC, as the certifier.

FSC replied that it was "not informed" of the suspension, or the rationale.

FSC directed me to a public statement, confirming ASI looked into SGS as the certification body for Ernslaw, and looked into another FSC certifier, Preferred by Nature (formerly Nepcon), which certified PF Olsen's forests (also in Tairāwhiti).

The statement comes close to implying FSC doesn't know the reasons, echoing Ernslaw's statement that it is "not privy".

Here's a portion of it (emphasis added):

"ASI operates independently of FSC, and FSC does not direct ASI to undertake assessments. When and where assessments occur is solely the decision of ASI. Further, FSC is not informed about the outcome of assessments and we, therefore, encourage interested stakeholders to direct any queries regarding the outcome of the assessments to ASI and/or the certification bodies."

"Further, as the standard-setting body, FSC ANZ is not informed of the rationale behind the suspension of FSC certificate holders or certification bodies. Any inquiries about suspensions should, therefore, be directed to the suspended certificate holder and/or their certification body."

In other words, if I wanted the reasons, the statement says I should ask the certification body - SGS - and/or the suspended certificated holder - Ernslaw One - two companies that had already said no.

FSC was able to give me one clue about the findings.

I had asked FSC if it was appropriate that Ernslaw had held onto its green labelling, after being fined for breaking environmental laws.

FSC said this was "part of what ASI considered" and I might find the answer when I perused ASI's report. It helpfully offered to put my name down to receive a copy.

But it added that ASI had not published the report yet, and the outcome was "still not official".

As of today 21 February, the report is not on the ASI website.

The suspension took effect on 2 February.

For now, FSC says Ernslaw cannot claim its products are FSC-certified, but it will have an opportunity to address the "non-conformity" that led to its suspension.

We will have to wait to find out what the non-conformity is.

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