Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, PEFC, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, is the world’s leading forest certification system. With sustainable forest management a subject of ever-increasing relevance, Forestry Journal spoke to CEO Ben Gunneberg about PEFC’s beginnings, evolution and continuing mission.

It was back in 1999 when European small-forest owners came together to create an international forest certification system that had their needs at heart, and PEFC – the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification – was created.

Ben Gunneberg has been the CEO of PEFC International since its inception and recognised from the start that a new, overarching approach to certification could have tremendous benefits not only for many small forest owners, but for the world.

Raised in Glasgow and Tyndrum, Ben’s passion for forestry was awoken when he was gifted a load of old books from a retired forester. After giving up on plans to become a doctor – his parents’ preferred career path – he gained employment as a general unskilled forestry worker before pursuing the subject at university and, post-graduation, eventually working his way up to technical director of the Timber Growers Association.

In his early career, he met hundreds of forest owners and, naturally, became interested in the subject of certification, which was a hot topic at the time. His depth of knowledge and language skills led him to become a key figurehead for PEFC International, tasked with establishing its first international office – a process he recalls being somewhat chaotic.

He said: “While at the Timber Growers Association, I became the UK rep for the PEFC. As we were the native English speakers, we then got the contract to set the whole thing up, because English was the working language. Then, during the one meeting I didn’t attend – because I was doing an MBA exam – they basically elected me to become the secretary general and I was handed the opportunity to establish an international start-up in Luxembourg.”

Now based in Geneva, Ben’s passion for the PEFC project has only grown with the years and he is delighted to look back on all it has achieved in the two decades since its rollercoaster of a beginning.

“We were basically defining what sustainable forest management was, on behalf of society,” he said. “Certification was a connector between these very lofty ideals and what was happening on the ground. We also wanted to help facilitate global trade. Under an umbrella group like PEFC, you can still have national systems like the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme, Sustainable Forestry Initiative in the USA or Responsible Wood in Australia or MTCC, but when they’re trading globally, there’s a global chain of custody. It’s all being sold as PEFC certified, so you can mix wood whether it’s from Australia, from Uruguay, Indonesia or Japan, knowing it all meets the same benchmarks. Certified once, recognised everywhere. That’s what the certification movement is about.

“We started out focussed on Europe, but within a couple of years we were already getting people coming to visit us from Canada, Australia, Brazil, Chile and Malaysia. All of them joined the alliance in 2002. So by that time we’d only been in operation for effectively two years, and decided we were going global.

“In two decades we’ve moved from encompassing 12 national systems to 54 around the world. We’ve got 328 million ha of certified forests. Last year alone we were growing at about 1.3m ha per month of new area.

“That’s how PEFC evolved. We had a couple of milestones which were really good for us. The first was in about 2005, when we had the first 100 million ha. We were bringing in people like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and the CSA (Canadian Standards Association), and by 2008 we already had two million ha of certified forest and were bringing in the first African and Asian systems.

“We were the very first ones to integrate workers’ rights into our forest management standard and the chain of custody. That’s very important, because it’s one thing having the fibre coming from sustainable forestry, but if the factory along the line is not respecting workers’ rights, or has child labour, slave labour, prison labour, anything like that, at that stage, you’re undermining all the good you’re doing trying to promote a sustainable future.”

With climate change and sustainability at the top of the political agenda, Ben said one of the goals of the PEFC was to communicate how forestry and forestry products are contributing to sustainable development goals – an aim not without its challenges.

“All forestry is tarnished with some very negative brushstrokes in public opinion,” he said. “We have a situation right now where, according to some surveys, something like 57 per cent of millennials believe cutting down a tree is a bad thing.

“We have a huge communication challenge with the general public. We’ve got a real job to do to make sure that wood and wood-based products are seen as the climate-friendly, environmental choice for any discerning consumer. The way you have to do that is to prove where it’s coming from and that it’s from a well-managed forest, helping people overcome their concerns about forestry in general being a bad thing. That’s a very hard communications job that we all need to do as a sector, but certification can help, because it allows anybody along the supply chain to prove they’re doing the good stuff.”

It’s for this reason that forest owners are encouraged to seek certification, and anyone who uses timber products is urged to look for the PEFC label.

“The label is important,” said Ben. “We want people to use the label, because then consumers actually realise they’re doing something good when they make a purchase. When you see a labelled product and you buy it, you know you’re supporting a whole supply chain, a whole value chain, from the forests all the way down to the final consumer, which is promoting sustainable forest management.

“It’s a good communication tool for us and the forestry sector to talk to the rest of society. We’ve got to get people to realise the real value of forests. Our vision is a world which values the full contributions of sustainable forests in terms of climate mitigation, adaptation and livelihoods for a lot of disadvantaged rural people in many parts of the world.

“There’s an important educational element as well, which certification helps to provide. Once we’ve developed and designed what sustainable management is, it’s easier to tell people what needs to happen. You can do much more to reach out to people and help them.”

For Ben, his role at the head of PEFC International isn’t a job. It’s a mission. “When I started, I was using the home computer I’d used for my MBA,” he said. “We had an office with no furniture in it and I used my credit card to buy everything we needed. That’s how much I believed in the benefits of this.

“We’re about much more than certification. We’re a sustainability organisation, trying to create that link between all members of society to understand the real value of forestry, so people will value it better. If we don’t have that confidence in the value of our sector and realise the real impact it’s having – and help other people understand that impact – we’re always going to be relegated to the edges in all of the discussions and debates. Whereas, in reality, with the current challenges we’re having with climate change and everything else, we should be right in the centre, presenting ourselves as the guys with the answers.”