Finnish forest companies pledge not to cause rainforest destruction, compete with food production, in series of new environmental, responsibility commitments; industry has learnt from its mistakes, says UPM official

HELSINKI , February 21, 2013 (press release) – In new joint commitments, Finnish forest industry corporations promise not to cause rainforest deforestation anywhere in the world by their consumption of wood.

”Finnish forest industry companies often face the claim that they use different standards in Finland than when operating in the southern hemisphere. This is not the case. As an example, Finnish forest corporations build all their pulp mills according to European standards or better,” says Päivi Salpakivi-Salomaa, UPM’s Vice President for Environmental Affairs.

Last week, thanks to the year-long work of a task group led by Salpakivi, the Finnish Forest Industries Federation published new commitments on environmental and responsibility issues binding all its members. Individual corporations can adopt even stricter commitments.

For example, Finnish forest industry corporations promise that they will operate equally responsibly in Finland and internationally. The companies promise that their wood consumption will not cause rainforest deforestation and that their corporate land use will not compete with food production. Their goal is that by 2020, at least 80 percent of the wood and fibre they use will be certified.

”Exceptional commitments”
Salpakivi says that such commitments, undertaken by a whole sector, are really rare. For the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an association of 200 environmentally aware companies, the flagship of sustainability is the Cement Sustainability Initiative.

How come the cutting-edge sustainability initiative is not about the achievements of the forest industry? Salpakivi says that this is an example of how, on the whole, the sector has not managed to make others aware of its degree of responsibility. “The Finnish forest sector woke up too late to the importance of the global debate on the development of biodiversity.”

On the face of it, the forest sector has a much better starting point in the race to become the model sector for the sustainable use of natural resources than the cement industries have. The forest sector’s raw material is renewable, its products can be and are recycled, and its operations are close to nature.

For a Finn, some of the new commitments just published seem self-evident. However, there still exist pulp mills in the world which do not clean their waste waters at all but dump them into the waterways as they are. Pulp is still bleached with chlorine globally. The environmental responsibility of Finnish forest companies is on a much higher level than this in Finland and globally.

”Finns have learned from their mistakes”
The Finnish forest sector has changed a lot during Salpakivi’s career. When she started working in wood procurement for Tehdaspuu, only a few percent of fellings were mechanized. Both felling sites and ditched areas were large, and pine was planted everywhere.

Nowadays mechanized fellings are the norm, the tree species for replanting are chosen to match site conditions, retention trees are left on every site and the amount of decayed wood found in commercial forests has started to increase.

The debate on silviculture methods and taking better care of biodiversity started in Finland in the early 1990’s. “Was this because of business reasons, pressure from environmental organizations or the companies’ own wishes? I think all these affected the matter,” Salpakivi says.

The modes of operation in Finland have changed. Some operators, however, have made the old mistakes abroad and focused too much on production and too little on social and ecological values.

The new commitments taken by the forest industries will mean increased costs out in the world, where some companies still cheerfully allow smoke to pour out of their stacks without cleaning. Why does the Finnish forest industry want to publicly commit to acting as an example?

“We’ve learned from our mistakes and understand the meaning of responsibility. It is unfortunate that you cannot see from the product whether the industry shoulders its responsibility. Happily, there are markets in which responsibility counts,” Salpakivi says.

”This is how it should be done”
Pekka Kauppi, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Helsinki considers initiatives taken by the companies themselves valuable, but reminds that the sector needs authorities, universities and non-governmental organizations, too.

“As regards the companies, one can say that this is how it should be done, through voluntary, spontaneous commitments. The way it shouldn’t be is that a company first screws up and is then reprimanded by the authorities,” Kauppi says of the forest industries’ commitments.

The world faces such enormous environmental challenges that they cannot be solvedby the authorities and organizations alone. The input of industries and companies is also needed.

How can we know that the new commitments will not remain as so many words on paper? In Finland, the verifying of compliance with these commitments is already being carried out. The forest industry gathers data for Finnish authorities about its operations and publishes these annually as environmental statistics. Plans are under way for similar reporting to be carried out on international operations, too.

Individual companies can take the reporting further if so desired. UPM, for example, has increased transparency by having a third party verify its reported figures.

The forest industry has done a lot, but it can still improve, and there are difficult questions to be faced, Salpakivi sums up.

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