Practicing continuous improvement: The evolution of PEFC standards

PEFC International develops sustainability benchmarks that are applicable globally. Yet the real work is done by local stakeholders, who adapt them to local conditions and add their own requirements.

In our latest video, our CEO Ben Gunneberg speaks about the development of the PEFC standards and why it is so important to adapt national forest management standards to local conditions.

“In every country, there's a different type of forestry. So in every country there are different factors which impact how you do your sustainable forestry, so that needed to be taken into consideration. You couldn't have one size fits all,” he explains.

“The national standards are like the mountain linking the international standard to what actually has to be done every day on the ground to ensure sustainable forest management.”

“The various needs and the requirements to interpret the correct implementation of forest management on the ground are then elaborated in that national standard.”


PEFC standards, who writes them?

From the requirements that companies must meet to achieve PEFC chain of custody certification, to the specific steps stakeholders must take as they develop their national forest certification system, our standards are vital to the functioning of our organization. But who is responsible for developing them?

The answer to this might not be what you think. It is not PEFC that develops the standards, but multi-stakeholder working groups. These working groups build consensus, relying on the involvement of active and committed individuals from different interest groups. PEFC’s role is essentially limited to coordinating these working groups.

But why do we do it like this? We need to ensure that the wealth of knowledge, interests, experience and expectations that exists can be captured when developing a standard. Suggestions and ideas need to be challenged and discussed. 

What works for one interest may not be practicable or agreeable to another. By bringing together a diverse group of people that must work together to build consensus, we can ensure that our standards meet the many expectations placed upon them, and that they integrate the best available knowledge.

Forming the working groups

How a working group is formed is important, and we do it as open and transparent as possible. To start, everybody can nominate a representative to be in a working group. This helps to provide for a wide range of candidates for the group. The PEFC Board of Directors then selects the members from the nominations received, based on what skills and expertise needs to be represented in the working group – this is different for different standards. 

To ensure that no single concerned interest can dominate the process, all working groups have balanced representation of interested stakeholders, including geographical representation. Stakeholder categories within the working groups are derived from the major groups outlined in the UN Agenda 21 (Business & Industry; NGOs; Scientific & Technological Communities; Farmers & Small Forest Landowners; Workers & Trade Unions; Local Authorities; Indigenous People; Women; and Children & Youth).

Going further, we refine the desired composition of a working group and require at least the following stakeholder categories to participate:

  • Certified PEFC scheme users (e.g. forest owners and managers, forest based industry)
  • Uncertified PEFC scheme users (e.g. certification bodies)
  • Customers and consumers (e.g. retailer organizations, consumer organizations)
  • Civil society (e.g. science, environmental, social and other interest groups)
  • PEFC National Governing Body members

This ensures there is always a balanced group of interests around the table, taking into account the key stakeholders affected by the standard in question. 

What does PEFC do?

Our role at the PEFC International office in Geneva is to coordinate the work of these working groups, providing organizational and administrative support. The role of the PEFC Board of Directors and the PEFC General Assembly is limited to the formal approval (or rejection) of the standard.


The PEFC standards – the core of what we do

Our standards and technical documents are at the heart of our work at PEFC. But what is a PEFC standard and how do we ensure they continue to be innovative, relevant and effective? And are the same standards applied all over the world?

At PEFC we are convinced that one size does not fit all when it comes to forest certification. Forests are highly diverse; as is their management, local traditions, cultural and spiritual expectations, average property sizes and support structures. 

This is why we work through national forest certification systems, enabling countries to tailor their sustainable forest management requirements to their specific forest ecosystems, the legal framework and the socio-cultural context.

While these national systems are developed locally, they need to undergo rigorous third-party assessment to ensure consistency with international requirements.

The PEFC standards

We distinguish between two types of international standards

  • International benchmark standards are used by our national members to develop their national standards. The benchmark standards set out the requirements that national standards must meet in order to achieve PEFC endorsement. Our Sustainable Forest Management standard is a benchmark standard.
  • International standards are applied directly in the field. These include our standards for Chain of Custody and Trademarks, which are used by thousands of companies, certification bodies and accreditation bodies around the world.

Making the best even better – the advancement of our standards over time

To ensure the highest level of credibility for our standards, internationally recognized processes have always been core to PEFC. When we first developed our standards, we adapted requirements that had just been approved by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe one year earlier, involving thousands of stakeholders in their elaboration.

From this basis, standards have been further developed in PEFC at national and international levels. This happens through multi-stakeholder standard setting processes, with PEFC acting as convener and facilitator.

From the beginning, our standards have been oriented on the latest scientific research and best practices from the field. But in order to keep them up to date, they have to be revised regularly.

In 2001, we implemented the seven core ILO conventions into our guidelines on standard setting. They include fair wages, respect for property and land tenure rights, human rights to indigenous people and local communities, and prohibition of the most hazardous chemicals.

In 2010, we became the first global forest certification system to consider social requirements for chain of custody certification. In the following years, we developed guidelines for the avoidance of Controversial Sources, added recycled materials to the new standard requirements and aligned our Chain of Custody standard with the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR).

PEFC has always been innovation driven: Beyond the bottom-up approach, we coined the concept of group certification and were the first forest certification system to recognize the need to certify Trees outside Forests.

The latest round of revisions

The latest revision process of our international standards started in 2016 and has involved the whole PEFC alliance, hundreds of experts and thousands of stakeholders. Six of our seven key technical documents have already been revised in that process.

The 2020 versions of these three standards were approved by our General Assembly in February 2020. The changes in the Chain of Custody standard make PEFC certification more resource-efficient and environmentally friendly. We expanded our Due Diligence System (DDS), raising the bar for the small amount of uncertified material that can be mixed with certified material. The revised Trademarks standard strengthens the consistent use of our PEFC trademarks, while making it easier to understand what the PEFC logo stands for. The revised Requirements for Certification Bodies require that auditors have specific experience on PEFC chain of custody audits.

Entered into force in 2018, the revised Sustainable Forest Management standard made PEFC certification accessible to millions of famers and smallholders, by expanding its scope to Trees outside Forests. The Group Forest Management Certification standard includes improved requirements for internal auditing to enable even more small forest owners to pool their resources and jointly apply for PEFC certification.

The main change in these revised documents is that PEFC endorsement of a national system no longer has an expiry date. Instead, it is linked to the national periodic review, which must be started within five years of the approval date of the national standard. Periodic reviews aim at ensuring that national systems are consistently updated to meet national and international expectations.


20th anniversary celebrations kick start PEFC Week 2019

20 years ago, European small-forest owners met in Würzburg, Germany, to create an international forest certification system that had their needs at heart. On 30 June 1999, PEFC was born. 20 years later, the PEFC alliance is back, for the 2019 PEFC Forest Certification Week. 

The Würzburg meeting in April 1999 proved to be a turning point in our history. It was the moment when everyone involved committed to the creation of PEFC: there was no turning back – and we are delighted to return to this defining location!

Today, the stunning Marienberg Fortress, rising above the city of Würzburg, welcomes 150 representatives from PEFC members from around the world. The biggest PEFC Week ever, we have come together not only to celebrate our 20th anniversary, but also to look forward, to discuss where the future will take us. 

The PEFC General Assembly will take place on Wednesday. Our highest decision making body, the General Assembly votes on the key decisions of our organization. This year, they will vote on the approval of our revised PEFC Chain of Custody standard and PEFC Trademarks standard, two vital standards that affect thousands of PEFC-certified companies globally.


On Thursday, PEFC Week opens up to the public, for the 2019 PEFC Stakeholder Dialogue. What are the next steps towards moving sustainability and certification from niche to mainstream? What are the options of forest certification to improve accessibility, expand scope and increase impact in forest management and beyond? These are some of the issues we will dive into. 

Over the week, our members and guests will not only discover the fortress, but also get to take a walk down a memory lane over the last 20 years of PEFC history. Back to the present day, the 12 winning photos from the Experience Forests, Experience PEFC 2019 photo contest are on display, as are some German specialties, in the PEFC lounge. 

Follow #20yearsofcaring to see what we get up to over the next week!


PEFC’s story, from Europe to the world

The PEFC story continues! In July we looked back at our early years, from our creation in 1999 up to our name change in 2003. Until this point, we had members from outside Europe, but none had achieved PEFC endorsement of their national forest certification systems. This meant only European forest owners were benefitting from PEFC certification. This all changed in 2004.

Just five years after PEFC was born as a certification system for European forest owners, we welcomed the first PEFC-certified forest area outside Europe, as Australia and Chile achieved PEFC endorsement. This marked our first big leap from a European to a global organization.



Since then, we have grown to become the world’s largest forest certification system, with PEFC-certified forest area in 37 countries, covering five continents. 

2004 to 2010: six years of growth 

By the end of 2004, there was more than 2 million hectares of PEFC-certified forest area in South America and Oceania. This was followed shortly by hectares in North America, as the Canadian CSA forest certification system and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) both achieved PEFC endorsement. This brought with it a big leap in PEFC-certified area, from 55 million to 187 million in one year.

2004 also saw an important step in Africa, as PAFC Gabon joined the PEFC alliance, becoming the first country to develop a national forest certification system in the continent. Since then, PAFC Gabon has been joined by PAFC Cameroon and PAFC Congo. Together, these members have united in developing a regional system – the first of its kind. The collaboration allows the three organizations to pool their resources and share knowledge, while running their systems independently at national level.

As the years passed and PEFC-certified forest area continued to grow in Europe, Oceania and the Americas, it became clear that we needed to look to Asia. In 2007, we launched the Asia Promotions Initiative, with two main objectives: enable PEFC sustainable forest management certification in the region and increase the recognition of PEFC and the growth of Chain of Custody certification.

In 2009, the Malaysian national forest certification system achieved endorsement, with over 4 million hectares of forest gaining PEFC certification within a year. Since then, our presence in the region has continued to expand. There are now nine national PEFC members in Asia, including China, India and Indonesia, with several other countries actively developing national systems in line with PEFC requirements. 


By the end of 2010, there was over 220 million hectares of PEFC-certified forest area worldwide, covering 27 countries and five continents. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of PEFC Chain of Custody certificates had than quadrupled, from around 1,900 in 16 countries to over 7,600 in 53 countries.

Stay tuned to learn about more milestones in PEFC’s history!