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How to Change Public Perceptions of Forestry and the Forest Products Industry

August 03, 2016
Author: John Greene

The Committee on Forestry (COFO) of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently held its annual gathering in conjunction with World Forest Week in Rome—a series of meetings and events sponsored by the FAO as well as its partner organizations and institutions. World Forest Week is an opportunity for sharing state-of-the-art knowledge and major accomplishments and achievements in the forestry field on a global scale. 

Fundamental themes of the event included the milestone agreements of 2015 (COP21), as well as knowledge sharing on how forests and sustainable forest management can contribute to the achievement of internationally-agreed upon development and sustainability goals. The primary objective of COFO is to consider how the full potential of forests, including forests’ contributions to livelihoods, food security, jobs, gender equality and many other global development goals (including the 2030 Agenda), can best be shared and ultimately utilized.

One of the key takeaways from this year’s meeting was that public perceptions of forestry need to change. At the session titled “How do we Lead Forestry out of the Woods?,” founding partner and head of strategy for South African communications firm M&C Saatchi Abel, Robert Grace, argued that forest communications need to move away from statistics and engage on more of a human level in order to shift negative perceptions of the forest industry and forestry issues. 

Grace’s contention was that the broader public has grown tired of hearing the same messaging and simply cannot connect with messages that are either too long or too complex. He noted that simple communication has the power to change perceptions about forests by addressing the real, tangible value that forests and forest products deliver to our daily lives when sustainably managed and harvested. “Forests as a library, or an apartment block, or low-cost housing is a different conversation,” Grace noted, adding as another example the concept that vital medicine originates in Amazonian forests. He also presented examples of powerful advertising campaigns and explained that forest communicators must ask if their message is relevant, original and impactful. 

The leaders of the six Regional FAO Forest Communicators Networks discussed the communications challenges unique to their regions at a panel session, which included the fact that Europeans generally prefer wood as a material but are uncomfortable with actually harvesting this wood from the forest, and the need to engage African youth in forestry. FAO Assistant Director General of Forestry, René Castro Salazar, introduced an animated video explaining the work of the Regional Forest Communications Networks and the importance of effectively communicating the value in maintaining healthy, working forests. 


Industry Messaging Needs Data 

Opponents of the forest products industry tend to rely on a simplistic, emotional appeal in their own messaging: images of clear cuts, stacks of delimbed logs and slash piles are the go-to visuals of choice. While these images can be shocking at first glance, especially when taken out of context by a general public that is largely uninformed in forest management practices, they nevertheless tell only a fraction of the story. This tactic works well when the data is not on your side; why inform when you can incite? 

Forest industry communicators have data on their side. They don’t need to rely on emotional half-truths to make a point and, based on this data, they have no reason to be on the defensive. The National Association of Forest Owners (NAFO) is an industry organization that does an excellent job of advocating for America’s working forests by focusing on the “human level” connection that Mr. Grace references. NAFO also understands the importance of using accurate and reliable data to bolster this connection, which is overtly presented on the organization’s website home page. 

In the screen shot of the NAFO home page below, note the immediate, yet broad, human level connections that are presented with imagery. Working forests benefit us all in many more ways than the average consumer understands; economic, consumer product, environmental and energy benefits just to name a few. Once a visitor clicks on one of these portals, they are then presented with a wealth of helpful information bolstered by relevant data—much of which was recently updated by Forest2Market via a comprehensive, commissioned study.


For example, visitors can click on the “Jobs and Economic Growth” image and research the economic impact of privately-owned forests in the United States on a state level and in great detail. This story is best told not by images of loggers and sawmills, but by hard data. On a national level, forest owners support:

  • 2.4 million jobs
  • $99 billion in payroll
  • $281 billion in sales 

At a state level, the numbers are even easier for the average consumer to relate to. In North Carolina, for example the data include: 

  • Private Forest Acres: 15,419,165
  • Public Forest Acres: 2,468,699
  • DII Jobs* from Private Forests: 155,248
  • DII Payroll* from Private Forests: $5,997,826,665
  • Annual Sales from Private Forests: $364,097,382

These are compelling figures. They humanize the forest industry by demonstrating forestry’s enormous contribution to the American workforce, providing wages and opportunities to millions of families primarily in rural markets. 

Via its visual guide for working forests, NAFO also provides a number of helpful infographics that are all backed with pertinent data. In the infographic below, note the attractive presentation that is informative in a broad sense, but also includes very specific, poignant data. The fact that America’s private forest owners are growing 40 percent more wood than they remove on an annual basis should give pause to even the most strident alarmist.nafo-pp-sus-page.jpg

Visitors wishing to research the environmental benefits of working forests and the forest products industry will also find loads of data-backed information to educate themselves. For example:

  • The EPA estimates that the amount of carbon stored annually in forest products in the U.S. is equivalent to removing more than 70 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. [1]
  • An independent study shows that wood products used in construction store more carbon and use less fossil fuels than other materials, like steel and concrete. Wood framing in a home produces 26% less net CO2 emissions than steel and 31% less than concrete. [2]
  • Research on private forestlands has shown that more intensively managed forests and the products they produce can provide as much as 100% more carbon mitigation benefits than less intensively managed forests. [3]  

Events such as the recent COFO gathering are beneficial for sharing forestry knowledge and best practices on a global scale, and for bringing members of the forestry community from disparate parts of the world together. Collaborative efforts among knowledgeable professionals are key not only for spreading sound forest management practices globally, but also for crafting the messaging and communications that the forest products community must proactively manage.

To Mr. Grace’s point, forest products communicators must simplify and humanize the positive messaging behind working forests going forward, especially as land use and development concerns become more prevalent. Demonstrating how a forest can provide the building materials for a library or home is indeed impactful. But proving that this same forest is environmentally sound, sustainably managed and will remain a productive, working forest well into the future is even more essential. And this can only be accomplished with accurate, reliable data.


[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011, table 7.7.

[2] CORRIM: Life-Cycle Environmental Performance of Renewable Building Materials, Forest Products Journal (June 2004).

[3] Life cycle impacts of forest management and wood utilization on carbon mitigation: known and unknowns (2011).

*DII represents total economic activity, which is the sum of direct, indirect and induced impacts.

Direct impacts include wages and spending on goods and services by all entities operating within the industry. Indirect impacts are the production, employment and income changes occurring in other businesses in the community that supply inputs to the industry under consideration. Induced impacts are the effects of spending by the households in the local economy as the result of direct and indirect effects.

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