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The Root of the Matter
Thoughts from FSC’s Director General

What does it really mean to be sustainable?

Saturday, 3 October 2015

What does it really mean to be sustainable?
What does it really mean to be sustainable?

With the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals highlighted this month, Director General Kim Carstensen explains why all claims to ‘sustainability’ should not be considered equally…

Everything FSC does is about sustainable development. Although we know this might not be immediately obvious to some. Our work is described as ‘responsible forest management’ – does that mean the same as sustainable or something else?

The issue is wider than just FSC, with the term ‘sustainability’ thrown around to describe clean energy movements, new buildings or a modified zoo.

So what should the word sustainability really stand for?

As I write, the United Nations (UN) are in the process of giving us an updated definition. Announced later this month, the updated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will present all of the factors that must be considered in pursuit of true sustainable development.

For us at FSC, it’s important that the SDGs will encompass the social, environmental and economic aspects of the world’s most valued resources. It means that to call your activities sustainable, people and business concerns must be married with those of plant and animal life. All parties must be considered equally.

Sustainability is about more than the environment

I often hear FSC described as an environmental organization. However, we have always understood that social and economic factors are just as important as those of the environment. The very origins of FSC were based on this principle (you can read exactly how it all started here).

Forests are, of course, one of the crucial resources that the SDGs will seek to protect. But not simply from an environmental perspective. As I wrote last month, intact forest landscapes are absolutely crucial for the hundreds of millions of people who live in or near them, and the businesses who want to produce certified wood products, on top of climate concerns.

This is why FSC has set out its vision for sustainability, as well as responsible forest management. We’ve just completed the development of our 2015-2020 Global Strategic Plan which explains our vision for sustainable development. But we do not, and cannot, pretend that FSC can deliver this plan alone, or that it will be fully achieved in the next five years.

Balancing social, environmental and economic concerns

Why, you may ask? Well, the reality is: sustainability is a pursuit. It’s a series of good intentions, the results of which can only be seen many years into the future.

No organization, including the UN, can ever guarantee sustainability in what it does. I remember fifteen years ago, when the Millennium Development Goals were announced, sustainability was front of mind. Some of those goals have not been met, so can hardly be called sustainable. However it’s clear to me that as a whole, the goals generated a momentum that would not, otherwise, have happened.

We can only hope to achieve sustainability by keeping social, environmental and economic concerns front of mind, and maintaining a constant dialogue between governments, NGOs and consumers to ensure new issues are being raised and addressed.

FSC provides the link

This is something I’m confident the SDGs will promote.

And in my opinion, FSC is well placed to help by providing the link between forests and consumers around the world. We can do this, by using our associations with indigenous groups, environmental organizations like the WWF and Greenpeace, and our global network of business members to keep these different groups talking to each other to make sure we’re all pulling in one direction.

This work is incredibly important because, as I’ve said before, governments around the world can only do so much. It’s the people who will make the true difference.

Our long-term aspiration is to continue promoting responsible forest management, until it becomes a value that everyone shares. If we do this, we hope to look back on the SDGs in another fifteen years and conclude that, yes, we achieved something that can really be called sustainable.


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About Kim

Kim Carstensen
Kim Carstensen

Kim is the Director General of the Forest Stewardship Council, a position he has held since October 2012. He was selected to succeed Andre de Freitas with the unanimous support of the FSC Board of Directors, who recognised that Kim’s proven track record as a global leader within the environment and development sectors make him extremely well-suited to consolidate FSC’s position as a global leader in responsible forest certification.

Copyright: Kim’s image (black/white) with thanks to Morten Holtum.

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