Monday, 21 June 2021
Interview with FSC US CMO
Marketing and market development update with Chris McLaren, FSC US Chief Marketing Officer
Demand for certified forest products is critical to the health of the FSC system. Ultimately, demand drives forest certification and provides economic value to all certificate holders. At its core, FSC is a market-based certification system, and 2021 has seen remarkable advances and new commitments by US-based corporations. The current market environment offers unprecedented opportunities to expand the FSC system, delivering the many social, environmental, and economic benefits that FSC brings.
We sat down with Chris McLaren, FSC US Chief Marketing Officer, to discuss forest products certification and current FSC initiatives that build on the growing market demand for sustainability.
FSC: Why is demand for FSC certification of forest products valuable?
Chris: Demand for FSC certified forest products drives adoption of FSC, and by extension, responsible and climate smart forest management practices. Today, consumers and stakeholders are reacting to climate-related challenges and increasingly demanding climate smart products. As a market-based solution, FSC serves as a direct line of communication from forest-based products buyers to industry; buyers express their preference for sustainable, climate smart products by choosing FSC, and industry reacts by beginning, continuing or increasing commitments to FSC certification.
FSC: What is the current state of the US and global market for FSC certification of forest products? How has it changed since you started at FSC US?
Chris: From my point of view, corporate demand has increased considerably since I started at FSC 4 years ago. Of late, the US has clearly become the region where the most corporate action is happening. US corporations are truly beginning to apply themselves – and their world-leading market power – to reducing and eliminating carbon emissions. In recent years, climate has pushed sustainability to the forefront of business media, boardroom, and C-suite consciousness, which has spawned an exponentially greater overall level of action. Many corporations now view climate as an existential business challenge and realize that future economic (not to mention personal) success will depend significantly on actions taken today.
In general, brands have been doing more than ever to transform their operations, supply chains, building projects, and materials procurement, often tied to increasingly aggressive carbon-footprint-related goal setting – whether to achieve neutrality or even to become carbon negative. And some of the US’s biggest brands (e.g., Amazon and Microsoft) are not only changing their own practices, but also working pre-competitively to incentivize, inform and enable change across their entire industries.
It is also important to note that while some of this change can be attribted to changing consumer desires, businesses are reacting perhaps even more to demand from their other stakeholders. Companies like McDonald’s, Allbirds, BMW, Pirelli and Procter & Gamble are not just reacting to increasing consumer demand for environmental and social responsibility; they are also doing much to help shape that demand, which creates new corporate marketing partnership opportunities for us. Thanks to new initiatives like BuildwithFSC.org, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Friendly program, and the new OneSimpleAction.org, the US is seen within the FSC network and by the wider sustainability market as a leader and innovator, and this is bodes well for our collective future.
FSC: What is FSC US doing now to drive demand for certified forest products?
Chris: We are seeking to capitalize on the unique strengths of FSC as a market-based solution, doing a better job at tapping into US-based market power to increase demand. For instance, we are building self-funded, FSC-branded buyer-seller exchanges that “run” on corporate sponsorship (i.e., market power) that funds their build-out and promotion, and which (paired with smart media campaigns) produce greater buyer awareness, understanding, and demand for FSC. These platforms make the market for FSC more efficient at connecting demand with supply, even as they help increase demand. Our two primary platforms are OneSimpleAction.org (connecting consumer packaged goods manufacturers with buyers) and BuildwithFSC.org (connecting construction materials manufacturers and primary manufacturers (suppliers), with secondary manufacturers, AEC professionals, and DIY consumers (buyers). We are also working with partners like Amazon – the world’s largest e-commerce retailer – to highlight and “sell” FSC certified products within their Climate Pledge Friendly products program. We have also created a new FSC Ambassador program, seeking to tap into the power of influencers to change consumer behavior. We are working with major retailers to support the development and promotion of new FSC certified products – such as the new Target-Levi’s Home partnership – and to improve the visibility of all FSC certified products in retail (beyond the aforementioned partnership with Amazon) at retailers like REI, Lowe’s, Walmart, Target, and others. The efforts we’ve undertaken here in the US also helps to inform thinking at FSC International, which is focusing anew on the need to collect and publish product-level data to facilitate markets for FSC around the world. Our US office is now looking to create more new vehicles to tap US corporate power and use it to transform the value proposition for FSC certification at the forest level. For example, a major corporate partner is currently helping us start up a new fund that will be used to support certification for US smallholders. While I can’t list everything we’re working on, this at least offers some of the highlights. Frankly, the potential to drive national and global change from our position here in the US is practically unlimited.
FSC: Tell us more about OneSimpleAction.org.
Chris: A few years in the making, OneSimpleAction.org showcases brands and products that consumers should give preference to if they want to be part of the solution for the world’s forests. The nearly 1,800 products listed can be purchased on Amazon.com or at other e-retailers directly from our site, which was a very difficult thing to pull off. HP is credited with funding the creation of OneSimpleAction.org, while our first site sponsor P&G is helping to pay for the placement of ongoing targeted digital advertising which generates consumer awareness, understanding, demand (and sales!) of FSC certified forest products through the site. Launched on Earth Day 2021 with a strong accompanying PR and social media campaign in collaboration with our sponsors, the site saw a 40x increase in consumer traffic over the previous consuner desination. While it is remarkable that consumers (a.k.a. buyers) can now be directly transact with sellers, perhaps more importantly, site sponsorship funds direct marketing to a carefully-defined market segment of most-likely US-based FSC supporters (called the FSCSegment™) which allows us to advertise FSC to US consumers. The FSCSegment™ will continuously improve with each campaign, generating demographic and behavioral data that lets us refine the FSCSegment™ over time. Thanks to site sponsor P&G, ads are already up and running in display, native, Facebook and Instagram across the US (perhaps have you seen them?). We are optimizing our targeting now for traffic/website visits. This ongoing, financially sustainable campaign is not only generating awareness, understanding and direct sales of FSC; it is also “advancing the science” of how to effectively market an FSC certified product so FSC can be more useful to FSC’s CPG and retail partners, helping them be more successful in their own marketing efforts going forward.
FSC: Tell us more about BuildwithFSC.org.
Chris: Concepted, designed, and built from 2017-19, BuildwithFSC.org connects FSC-certified suppliers with buyers in the building sector, and now includes ~600 FSC building materials suppliers across Canada, the US, and Mexico. Of the total North American CoC base that includes construction materials in scope, this represents about 35% of the possible number of materials suppliers, and we are on track to reach 800 suppliers (or 50%) by the end of 2021. The site makes it easier for manufacturers, AEC professionals, and DIY buyers to source FSC construction materials of all kinds – in engineered forms for long spans, standard conventional uses, decorative uses, and for tall buildings. It also includes furniture. For next steps, we are looking to secure a new sponsor of the website from the building materials supply community, continue to add more FSC materials suppliers, run new advertising campaigns targeted at buyers, and make the supplier dataset shareable with other buyer/seller exchanges (such as Mindful Materials, Ecomedes, and UL Spot) to make it easier for buyers to fund supply for this mission-critical value chain.
FSC: Where do you see US forest certification and the market for FSC certified forest products five years from now?
Chris: To facilitate our growth and help ensure a healthy planet we will also need to continue to help develop demand for FSC and faciliate marketplaces that make it easier for buyers to transact. That said, the climate crisis will likely be the single largest influence on forest product markets for the foreseeable future. Climate concerns currently dominate market thinking. Although FSC standards do much more than just preserve and improve forest health, US and global markets today are fixated on and demanding climate smart forestry and climate friendly forest products. This demand has the potential to increase FSC certified forest area quickly both here and around the world, but to realize that potential, we need to do more to cement FSC in the minds of decision makers as an indispensable market-based climate solution.
To this point, FSC US is leading a North American research project to quantify the forest carbon impacts of FSC certification in North America, focused on identifying the additional benefits of FSC-certified forest management (relative to forestry at the regulatory floor) on forest carbon in priority landscapes of Canada and the United States, including the boreal, US Southeast and the West Coast (https://us.fsc.org/en-us/newsroom/newsletter/id/1162). This research will provide critical information to the marketplace and policy makers and is made possible by financial support from Google, Procter & Gamble, IKEA of Sweden AB, International Paper, Kimberly-Clark, Lowes, DPR Construction, Cascades, Kruger, and the Fox Foundation.