Kathy Abusow is on a mission to save forests by having people use more wood. While that sounds counterintuitive, her argument at Signal 2021 was clear: when people buy goods made from sustainably harvested wood, more trees get planted to replace those removed, with more carbon captured by the saplings. Sustainable forests are less susceptible to explosive forest fires and less vulnerable to insects and disease, says the president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Plus, SFI-certified forests store 235 million metric tons of carbon — equal to taking 50 million gas-powered cars off the road a year.

You can hear more from Abusows Signal 2021 talk in the video below, or you can read the lightly-edited transcript.


John Battelle
Sustainability has been a core focus of Signal this year. And I learned a lot from listening to Kathy Abusow, the President and CEO of Sustainable Forestry Initiative. So Kathy, the floor is yours.

Kathy Abusow
Thanks so much, John. And thanks so much to P&G for including me in this amazing opportunity to speak today. I’m calling in from the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe People. I’m here with you today because I love forests. In fact, they literally saved my life. My love for forests started as a child, but my appreciation for their life-saving qualities struck me as a young adult.

During a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, lightning struck my home, just feet from my bed. I still remember the flash and the smell of that lightning strike. I still remember my shock the next day when the electrician surveyed the damage and said my husband should have been dead, that that lightning should have jumped to our steel frame bed. But I knew I didn’t die. My father made that bed. He was a carpenter. That bed was made of wood. It saved my life.

Today, I still love forests, and forests are my life’s work. I’m president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and SFI’s mission is to advance sustainability through forest focused collaborations. We’re an independent nonprofit charitable organization that sets sustainable forest management standards, promotes responsible procurement, advances conservation collaboration, community engagement, and we help a diversity of youth engage in forest literacy and skills to to pursue green jobs through Project Learning Tree. In other words, we’re focused on making better choices for people and the planet.

I’ve dedicated my entire career to forests, so you might think to call me a tree hugger. But in fact, I’m a forest hugger. A tree hugger generally doesn’t want to see a tree harvested. Whereas a forest hugger sees trees being harvested, as part of a larger set of life saving, and life sustaining values. Forests purify the air we breathe, they clean the water that we drink, they provide habitat for animals, and they sustain communities. They provide products from a renewable resource for a circular economy.

I’m pleased at how much we as a society have collectively come to care about our forests, responsible and efficient use of forest products and recycling. We increasingly understand the values of forests, and that caring for the planet and our natural resources impacts current and future generations. We have initiatives like 1T.org to plant a trillion trees. But we’re also in a unique time. What a year and a half we’ve had with COVID, we more than ever understand that the choices we make every single day make a difference to our shared existence. We better understand the notion of belonging together on a shared planet with finite resources. Another thing we learned during COVID is that our health and well being depend on connection with others, and connection with nature. People have found sanctuary and for us and to spend time safely with family and friends to destress and to unplug. People care so much about forests yet they might not realize that caring for forests includes responsible harvesting, that can keep forests healthy, while providing us with products that improve our quality of life. Beautiful wood decks, books or, or tissue products. Remember how important they were to all of us during the pandemic. And remember the boxes that appear at our front doors with products that we depend on every single day for our quality of life delivered to us in a safe way. Let’s not forget the forest based PPE, including masks and gowns, that protected protected all of us during this pandemic. There’s a reason why the forest sector was deemed to be a critical or essential infrastructure during COVID in Canada and the US. Forest products are key to our survival.

I hear it all the time “I saved a tree I didn’t print this,” or “I saved the tree I read an e-book instead of an actual book.” There’s nothing wrong with doing those things. But it’s just important to know that you didn’t save a forest doing those things. Forests are a renewable resource. And if they are not valued as a renewable resource, then they might get converted to something else that isn’t renewable.

So how do we move from feeling guilty about the use of forest products to feeling proud about using a product from a renewable resource that is sustainably managed using recycled and often recyclable products, all the while contributing to a circular economy? It usually begins when people understand the distinction between deforestation, the permanent loss of forests, and responsible forestry, this sustainable cycle of harvesting and regeneration while sustaining other values as well and communities. It’s an important distinction to understand because many large corporations are making zero deforestation commitments. And if they think that avoiding Forest products is part of the solution, there could be unintended consequences of that. The consequence could be the conversion of forest to non-forest uses that do not have those renewable and life saving qualities. They could be overlooked as a viable solution to solving for climate change. They could be overlooked for an alternative solution to solving non-biodegradable ocean plastics and other non-renewable products.

Since we can’t be all together for this P&G Signal event, I’m going to ask each of you to use your imagination. Pretend we’re in a room with 1000 people, each representing a tree in a forest, and 10 of you get up to leave for a coffee. Now while we’re sad to see you go, we know that 10 people can come in and take your place, and even more will come in for standing room only at the back. That is the cycle of responsible forestry, for every tree harvested another tree replaces it and sometimes even more trees are planted or regenerated than harvested. In fact, SFI-certified organizations according to audit reports reforest 38% more trees than what they harvested. In other words, for every 100 Trees harvested by SFI-certified organizations in 2020, 138 trees were replanted or naturally regenerated. On land certified to the standard, less than 1% of the trees in that forest are harvested each year. Contrast that with nearly 3% of trees that are lost to insect, forest fires and disease.

But it’s not just about replacing as many or even more trees in the forest than we’ve harvested, it’s about managing it sustainably for a variety of important values so that they are maintained over the long term. Managed forests can store massive amounts of carbon, they can filter water, clean the air and provide animals, like birds, safe habitat, and also sustain communities. And they provide green jobs. Third-party forest certification helps people know where a product is sourced from, and that it comes from a sustainably managed forests. That’s why buying certified products actually matter. Forest certification standards, like SFI, have measures in place to avoid deforestation illegal logging, but that’s a low bar. More importantly, these standards promote more good things, helping address climate change, how to recover species, and they promote sustainable communities and a circular economy.

Now for a moment, imagine 1000 people again, each representing a tree in a forest. But this time, everyone was forced to leave. Perhaps some of you lost your seats if they were turned into a strip mall. Others a strip mine, others a cattle ranch and others to a big black box store with rows and rows of cars instead of rows and rows of trees, asphalt as the last rotation. That is deforestation. That is the total and permanent loss of forests. And that is a great, great concern. Now why does this happen? It can happen because the forest isn’t valued. Everyone was so busy saving a tree they forgot they could lose the forest. If the forest isn’t valued, and an institution and investor, an organization or individual that owns or manages that forest, may want to get a return on that investment and be able to sell some of that wood. But if they can’t do that, and they find an alternative use that they deem has a higher return on investment that isn’t renewable and doesn’t necessarily have those life saving qualities, we can lose our forests and we can lose the clean air clean water, sustainable communities and green jobs in a renewable resource that goes along with them.

I asked you has anyone ever thought to save a farm by not buying a farmer’s produce? No. That’s a surefire way to lose the farm and all the food it provides. The same applies to forests. If you want to save a forest and think not buying sustainably-sourced wood products does that you’re inviting another use or a non-renewable resource to take its place?

While we all hope for robust ecosystem services markets to provide additional forms of revenue for forest owners, that isn’t nearly enough revenue to sustain a forest, not to mention harvesting forests, keeping forests thriving and healthy. That has many other benefits, like reducing the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire, insect and disease infestation.

Harvesting forests, and ultimately managing them sustainably is a solution to climate change. That’s why in the last revision to our SFI standards, we’ve indicated climate smart forestry objectives. I remember years ago listening to Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin at Fortune Brainstorm Green, and he said, “I’m gonna give $25 million to the individual organization that develops this huge carbon sucking machine and takes all of that carbon out of the atmosphere.” And I thought to myself, “I should win that prize. I know what that innovation is. It’s the forest that is the huge carbon sucking machine, as well as the products that come from them, those solid wood products that store carbon.” When a tree is harvested, carbon continues to be stored in that solid wood product. So by planting and growing trees, you’re sequestering carbon in the forest. By harvesting your product, more carbon is sequestered in that product. By the way, pulp and paper and packaging products come from recycled fiber and the efficient use of the whole tree, often from chips and other residuals that are left after saw milling a big solid wood product, or from thinning or harvesting of forests to keep it healthy. These products are important part and they’re part of the circular economy. They are recycled and recyclable. In fact, two thirds of the paper used in the US is recycled, and it’s used to make sustainable paper and packaging products people use every day.

But some of the folks leading innovative solutions to climate change are architects and builders. They understand very well that building with wood is a sustainable solution in a carbon intensive building industry as well. Mass timber is a prefabricated large, solid engineered wood product, and it’s as strong as traditional building materials such as steel and concrete. Yet these wood products store carbon and are renewable. When you walk into a beautiful wood building, you are getting the benefits of bringing nature indoors, including reducing stress, improving cognitive function, and creativity. You’re accelerating healing and fostering an overall sense of well being, you are also interacting with a large carbon storage device. Sustainably managed forests and the products made from them store almost 15% of all annual US carbon dioxide emissions. SFI-certified forests alone store 235 million metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of taking 50 million gas-powered cars off the road any year.

Sustainable Forest Management can include the careful use of harvesting and prescribed and natural fire to keep a forest healthy. Unmanaged forests can have an incredible amount of dead dying and decaying trees and unharvested forests can be a tinderbox with loads of dead wood and fuel on the ground, waiting for catastrophe to strike, with hotter weather, with climate change. One of the most evident impacts of climate change is the increase in the intensity of catastrophic wildfire. In 2020, about 10 million acres burned in the US, about the size of Maryland. Catastrophic wildfire generates negative environmental and economic impacts, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to lost economic value. It’s also important to know that professionally managed forests are more climate and fire resilient and produce multiple benefits that are simply less likely to go up in smoke and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why we’ve created a fire resiliency and awareness requirement in our standard.

Forest fires also negatively affect water quality. Sustainably managed forests also maintain and purify our clean water sources. If we took all the streams on SFI-certified lands in the United in the United States, they could wrap around the Earth ten times. So if you buy a forest product, we still have forests, we are hugging a forest we are keeping the watersheds that are so critical to treat clean drinking water supplies, and to fish habitat, recreation and to sustaining communities. Strip mines and strip malls and urban sprawl do not provide the natural green infrastructure benefits that forest provide. What you buy and sell matters. It’s not just the Sustainable Forestry Initiative that does great work. There are many other forest certification standards around the world like PFC, SFP, SFI and the Forest Stewardship Council. By looking for a label that that forest product is certified, you are choosing products from a responsibly managed forests. That’s a precious gift. So by looking for a forest certification label, you know you’re making a sound choice. Just don’t forget to reuse and recycle. Saying yes to well-managed forests and the products derived from them means you are making better choices for people on the planet. You are a forest hugger. Thank you.