When shopping for paper, you may notice an 'FSC-Certified' stamp on the packaging of certain brands. But what is FSC certified paper, and what are the benefits of choosing it over conventional paper — especially when the latter may be less expensive?

'FSC' stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that works to promote the practice of sustainable forestry worldwide. The Forest Stewardship Council sets standards for forest products, independently certifies that these standards have been met, and bestows labels upon the products that qualify. Forest Stewardship Council certification gives customers the option to choose forest products like paper and wood that have been sourced in an environmentally-friendly, socially responsible and economically viable manner. FSC was founded in 1993 in response to concerns about deforestation.

ForestBenefits of FSC-Certified Paper

FSC-certified paper is different from recycled paper, as it's typically composed of virgin tree fibers rather than pre- or post-consumer recycled materials (although recycled paper is sometimes also FSC-certified). But when the wood pulp used to make this paper is sourced from a well-managed forest, it can be just as eco-friendly.

According to the Forest Stewardship Council, the U.S. consumes 100 million tons of paper annually, and recycled paper makes up just 35 percent of that amount. The remainder must come from timber forests. Encouraging paper manufacturers to seek out wood suppliers that work to protect habitat, prevent pollution, plant more trees than are harvested and avoid displacing native peoples and harming wildlife, can make a big difference.

FSC Certification Standards

What makes paper 'sustainable'? Like many other green buzzwords including 'organic' and 'natural,' the word 'sustainable' can be vague. With its 'FSC-Certified' label, the Forest Stewardship Council defines a strict set of standards that paper products must meet in order to prove that they are truly environmentally and socially responsible.

The FSC requires products that bear an FSC-certified label to go through a “chain of custody” from the forest to the manufacturer to the merchant and finally, to the printer, when applicable. Independent, third-party auditors conduct chain-of-custody assessments of companies that would like to achieve FSC certification. The FSC also requires a 'management plan', which outlines the scale and intensity of logging and renewal operations in addition to long-term objectives for maintaining the health of the forest.

There are four standard FSC certification labels. One indicates that the product is sourced from 100 percent well-managed sources and another verifies that the paper is recycled. Two other labels indicate that the product came from mixed sources, either from well-managed forests alone or from a mixture of well-managed forests and recycled materials.

Purchasing FSC-Certified Products

Copy paper, letterhead, envelopes — almost all paper products are now available with FSC certification. Many printers now offer FSC-certified paper as an option for environmentally aware consumers. Whenever the look and texture of the paper must be smooth and uniform, as in professional-quality materials, FSC-certified paper is a great alternative to rougher recycled paper. Tissue paper, toilet paper and other household paper goods can also be FSC-certified.

While choosing FSC-certified paper can increase paper costs by up to 20 percent, it does not always cost more. Many FSC-certified paper products are comparable in price to products that come from forests that may not be sustainably managed. You can find FSC-certified paper merchants and printers at the Forest Stewardship Council website, FSCUS.org.

Photos: Euless, Texas; SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget/Flickr