Lessons for Rio+20

Twenty years after the original Earth Summit, a recent United Nations report finds that "the world continues to speed down an unsustainable path." As leaders gather this week for the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, this stark fact should be foremost in our minds.

But hope is far from lost. Out of the ashes of the first Earth Summit, one of the most successful global conservation efforts in history, was born. Significantly, this initiative was voluntary, non-governmental, and used the power of the marketplace to protect forests and prevent deforestation.

Called the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, this independent nonprofit organization was created by environmental groups, academics and progressive businesses to meet current needs without compromising the health of the world's forests for future generations, creating an eco-label to help consumers identify products that come from such forests.

Twenty years later, the FSC logo can be found on furniture and lumber, paper, tissue and packaging. While not quite ubiquitous, FSC certified products are widely available in major retail outlets, such as The Home Depot, Walmart and Staples. And every time a consumer buys a product bearing the FSC mark, she sends a positive signal back to the forest, helping protect our air and water quality as well as preserving wildlife habitat in the U.S. and around the world.

As world leaders meet in Rio to develop an environmental agenda for the next 20 years, there are lessons from FSC that should inform the decisions they make.

First, set the bar high. When the Forest Stewardship Council developed its standards, people around the world thought they could not be achieved. For example, requirements to protect biodiversity, leave trees after harvest and ban the use of Genetically Modified Organisms were met with furrowed brows from some in the industry. Yet today, more than 370 million acres of forest are certified under FSC's system, with more than 150 million acres in the U.S. and Canada. These lands are protected from deforestation for future generations. High standards generated support for the system and drove improvement in the forests.

Second, make it open and inclusive. As it became clear that FSC would succeed, competitors entered the arena, mimicking some aspects of the system. Critically, these other schemes failed to create an open, member-based approach to governance. Without a diversity of voices or balanced authoritybetween environmental, social and economic interests, competing programs do not provide real assurance about forest protection for businesses or consumers. In contrast, anyone can join FSC, voting on decisions and electing leaders. This inclusive approach, with organizations as diverse as Kimberly Clark, WWF, Greenpeace and Oxfam involved, brings integrity and strength to the system.

Third, build in feedback loops for learning. Like any democracy, FSC is not perfect. The system is self-correcting, with built-in mechanisms to drive constant improvement. When it comes to responsibly managing forests, people disagree. Which is exactly why FSC created a robust system for debate, with forums to evaluate questions across environmental, social and economic interests and with decisions made in the full light of day. By encouraging criticism and debate, the whole system learns and becomes stronger.

Some people feel the best way to prevent deforestation is to stop using forest products. This logic is overly simplistic when you consider our needs for paper and wood. In reality, people use forest products every day. The average American uses nearly six trees worth of paper each year, and the United Nations estimates 1.6 billion people rely on forests for all or part of their livelihoods.

In the U.S., much of our forestland is private. If landowners can't earn a living from these forests, they will inevitably cut them down for farms, ranches or real estate development. So by creating demand for products from responsibly managed forests, FSC is helping protect forests for futuregenerations. And when people purchase products with the FSC logo, they are saying to the landowner, "thank you for taking care of your forest."

As global leaders gather, look to FSC as a model. Whether the issue is climate change, sustainable development or clean drinking water, the big environmental challenges require healthy forests. And by looking for the logo on products people use every day, the Forest Stewardship Council creates a way for everyone to be part of the solution.

Corey Brinkema is president of the Forest Stewardship Council U.S.