Certified wood and paper products come from responsibly managed forests – as defined by a particular standard. With third-party forest certification, an independent organization develops standards of good forest management, and independent auditors issue certificates to forest operations that comply with those standards.
Forest certification programs typically require that forest management practices conform to existing laws. Other basic requirements or characteristics of forest certification programs include:
Basic requirements of credible forest certification programs include:
Today there are more than 50 certification programs worldwide  addressing the many types of forests and tenures around the world. The two largest international forest certification programs are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
The PEFC is the largest certification framework in terms of forest area, with approximately two-thirds of the total certified area. The FSC program is the fastest growing.
Third-party forest certification was pioneered in the early 1990s by the FSC, a collaboration between environmental NGOs, forest product companies and social interests. Competing systems quickly emerged throughout the world. Some commentators, including Jared Diamond, have suggested that many competing standards were set up by logging companies specifically aiming to confuse consumers with less rigorously enforced but similarly named competing standards.
In the United States and Canada, there are a number of forest certification programs. Three of these programs are endorsed by the PEFC. They are the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association's Sustainable Forest Management Standard and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Program. ATFS is applicable only in the United States; the Canadian Standards Association SFM Standard is applicable only in Canada. SFI is applicable to both the United States and Canada. The FSC, program is applied throughout North America. SFI is the world's largest regional forest certification program in terms of total certified forest area.
The National Association of State Foresters in the USA passed a resolution in 2008 that supports all of the forest certification systems used in the USA and recognized the value of their differences: "... the ATFS, FSC, and SFI systems include the fundamental elements of credibility and make positive contributions to forest sustainability.... No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best’, and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility. Forest ecosystems are complex and a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ approach to certification cannot address all sustainability needs.".
The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers issued a statement in 2008 on forest certification standards in Canada, which said: "In Canada, each jurisdiction's forest laws, policies and administrative requirements comprise an over-arching framework that fully characterizes what sustainable forest management (SFM) means in that jurisdiction, and what actions may take place on public and/or private forest land. Governments in Canada support third-party forest certification as a tool to demonstrate the rigor of Canada's forest management laws, and to document the country's world-class sustainable forest management record. The forest management standards of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), the FSC and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are all used in Canada. Governments in Canada accept that these standards demonstrate, and promote the sustainability of forest management practices in Canada."
Chain of custody certification tracks the certified material through the production process – from the forest to the consumer, including all successive stages of processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution. It also provides evidence that certified material in a certified product originates from certified forests.
The United Nations reports that between January 2009 and May 2010, the total number of PEFC and FSC chain-of-custody certificates issued worldwide increased by 88% for a total of 23,717 certificates (this does not include SFI certificates).
Forest certification is a voluntary process. About 10% of the world's forest under at least one certification program. Customers that choose to buy certified products are supporting land managers, land owners and forest product companies that have made a commitment to meeting the standards of forest certification.
Third-party forest certification is a useful tool for those seeking to purchase paper and wood products that come from forests that are well-managed and use materials that are legally harvested. Incorporating third-party certification into forest product buying practices can be a centerpiece for responsible wood and paper purchasing policies that include factors such as the protection of sensitive forest values, thoughtful material selection and efficient use of products.
The 2009-2010 United Nations Market Review reported that companies that produced or traded in certified forest products often had a market advantage during the 2008-2009 recession because, in a buyers’ market, buyers could be more selective in choosing their sources of supply. The report cites four demand drivers for certification:
The World Resources Institute, in partnership with the Environmental Investigation Agency, released a fact sheet designed to answer some of the frequently asked questions about the Lacey Act, which was amended in 2008 to ban commerce in illegally sourced plants and their products—including timber, wood, and paper products. The fact sheet says forest certification is a very good approach for demonstrating due care by showing government and customers that a company has taken proactive steps to eliminate illegal wood or plant material from its supply chain. Certification does not relieve importers of the requirement to submit appropriate import declaration information to U.S. government agencies.