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Third Party Certification for Environmental Standards

By Lincoln Kern, Managing Director

I have long supported third party certification for various products in order to have the confidence that the products I purchase meet appropriate standards. I have bought certified organic since the 1980’s and helped develop a third party certification system for organic food retailers in Victoria in the early 1990’s. I also have bought only Fair Trade certified coffee for many years to make sure our coffee habits at Practical Ecology do not exploit the growers. In recent years Practical Ecology has been playing a role in other third party certification schemes that need an ecologists’ involvement, partially by accident but intentionally as well. Playing a role in third party certification is only a small step from our core business of ecological survey and management advice and implementation; it all requires an independent, professional and ethical approach.

Green Star Certification by the Green Building Council of Australia
The Green Building Council of Australia operates the Green Star certification to help improve all aspects of sustainable building and development. Being Green Star certified means that many environmental issues have to be addressed to meet the standards. There are three levels of Green Star certification, 4 stars or Best Practice, 5 stars or Australian Excellence and 6 stars or World Leader, and the level you reach is based on accumulating points for good environmental practices.

I got the beginnings of an understanding of Green Star certification in 2007 when I volunteered to provide advice for the standard designed to ensure that no natural wetlands were impacted by a Green Star project. The daylong workshop was an eye opener because at that point the Green Building Council of Australia was only requiring that to be Green Star certified no wetlands or old growth forest could be destroyed and the engineer running the workshop found it hard to believe that ecologists were not registered as part of any professional body.

Fortunately, the standards for Green Star certification now include more consideration of ecological matters under the Land Use and Ecology section of their rating tools. Projects must first meet an “Eco-Conditional Requirement” for eligibility to be Green Star certified; being on prime farm land, on a site with old growth forest or within 100 m of a wetland without wetland protection measures makes a facility ineligible. Points are then given for protecting topsoil, reusing land previously developed, using contaminated land that has been remediated and/or maintaining or enhancing the ecological values of a site. The last objective is considered in their “Change in Ecology” calculator where land use before and after development is compared in the context of significant flora and fauna being present and the bio-region where the site occurs. Avoiding the destruction of natural habitat and restoring natural areas gets more points. It is these two sections of the rating tools that require a recognised (but not registered since no system exists) ecologist to calculate and document.

Practical Ecology has helped document the Land Use and Ecology sections of two Green Star certified projects to date. The first was the Peter Doherty Institute in Parkville. This project was built on a site with hardly any trees or topsoil present since it was previously a hotel with a small car park; points were easily gained through using a previously developed site and adding a rooftop wetland to process recycled water. The second project was an industrial park in Dandenong developed by Australand. Some low quality “native grazing” land was destroyed on that site but the developers compensated to some degree by establishing extensive local native plantings in other areas. With this experience we would be keen to contribute to more Green Star certified projects as the process will result in much more sustainable buildings and developments.

As an ecologist aware of the pressing conservation issues in Australia I would suggest that the Green Star ratings don’t go far enough in protecting a variety of habitats. It is important to protect prime agricultural land, wetlands and old growth forests but there are a wide variety of significant ecosystems that at risk of clearing for development in this country and state. For example, rare and endangered grasslands and grassy woodlands are much more likely to be developed in metropolitan Melbourne than old growth forest and the rating system only encourages their protection by awarding points for “no net reduction in vegetation cover”. In addition, the rating tools seem to recognise that restored habitat is roughly equivalent to remnant habitat but remnant habitats will often have qualities that impossible to recreate in revegetated or restored sites. Nonetheless, certified Green Buildings will help reverse the enormous impacts of new buildings and developments and should be supported in our view.

For more information please refer the Green Building Council’s website:

http://www.gbca.org.au/green-star/green-star-overview/

Forest Stewardship Council Certification for Sustainable Forestry
I have also long been aware of the efforts of the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in encouraging sustainable forestry around the world. The FSC is a coalition of foresters and environmental groups cooperating to produce sustainable production standards with subsidiary organisations many countries, including Australia. The organisation was originally set up with the primary aim of ensuring that the production of tropical hardwood timbers were not contributing to the clearing of tropical rainforests. Ironically, industrialised forestry in developed countries has used the system to a greater degree than countries with tropical rainforest. The idea of helping with auditing had been my goal for several years but the opportunity to be trained arose in early 2012.

I noticed an ad for a one week course in FSC auditing offered by the Rainforest Alliance in Melbourne in February 2012. The course was designed for potential auditors and for any people employed by forestry or wood production companies to understand the system better. I was available and so was a space.

The course was really engaging and I learned that the FSC has approved sustainable forestry standards for Australia with over 200 individual standards that must be met. The FSC Forest Management standards require good environmental care through minimising chemical use, maintaining ecological processes and protecting threatened species as well as the protection of the rights of indigenous people, workers health and safety and supporting local communities. The associated Chain of Custody (CoC) standards help ensure that sustainably produced forestry products are properly inventoried and labelled through supply and sale systems because of the sometimes complicated production systems. In a week, I was able to learn the essentials of the FSC certification systems and their value.

FSC certification may not produce the perfect “sustainable forestry” system but it certainly raises the bar significantly above many past and currently legal practices. I am confident that a company with the FSC logo will be performing much better environmentally and socially because of the efforts it must makes to achieve that certification.

Over the last 2 years I have worked on several FSC audits implemented by the Rainforest Alliance. As an auditor you must ask many questions and see supporting evidence to every standard you consider. The process of developing the systems to achieve FSC certification makes every company more skilled and accountable with more reliable systems.

The other business opportunity for Practical Ecology is helping forestry businesses meet the FSC standards. For example, the standards require that a forestry production company assess the presence of forests or ecosystems of high conservation value on the land and if present to develop management plans to protect them. In addition, the presence of rare or threatened flora and fauna species must be assessed and if present protected and managed over time. Plantation companies also need to have management plans in place for any native vegetation remaining on their land around the plantations. Practical Ecology can help forestry production companies address the ecological issues required by FSC standards because we understand what the standards require and how to address those requirements.

For more information please refer to the following websites:

http://au.fsc.org/

http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/certification-verification

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