A few weeks ago, broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough broke world records by reaching a million followers on Instagram in under five hours with a clear message: saving our planet is now a communications challenge.
This is especially true for the world’s forests.
Forests have a key role to play in helping to achieve many of the SDGs, from mitigating climate change by acting carbon sinks to providing food, livelihoods, fuel, shelter and clean water.
However, the forest sector has an image problem.
In many places around the world, forests are seen as something to be set aside for conservation. Many communication campaigns around forests contain sweeping shots showing forests as great swathes of green – exactly what the public does not want to see cut down. The buzz of a chainsaw in this context would make many people recoil.
But to say that there is a vital difference between sustainably managing forests and indiscriminate logging would be an understatement.
The challenge is to communicate this to the general public and to change this deep-seated way of thinking about forests. We need to improve understanding of the sustainable use of forests for diverse purposes not only for the benefit of billions of people, including some of the world’s most vulnerable, but also as an elemental means of protecting forests themselves.
As the world focuses on building back better in the aftermath of COVID-19, this communication challenge is more pressing than ever. Forests – and forest products – can help tackle climate change and reach sustainability goals and should be included in recovery plans as we design a new normal.
The pandemic is also a moment in history when people are more conscious of how important forest products are in our daily lives. During the crisis, forest products have been at the forefront of providing hygiene products and other supplies for personal protective equipment, biomass for energy and ethanol for cleaning, as well as packaging for food and parcels.
COVID-19 has also brought about a shift in consumer attitudes and behaviour as people reassess their priorities. In a survey by consulting firm McKinsey, almost two-thirds of consumers surveyed have made significant changes to their lifestyle to reduce their environmental impact. More than 60 percent report starting to recycle and buying products in environmentally friendly packaging. A vast majority of respondents say more attention should be paid to reducing pollution – something wood products can achieve by replacing plastic alternatives.
We need to use this window of opportunity to turn perceptions of sustainable forestry and forest products around.
After all, there is a powerful “sustainable wood” story to tell, because science and innovation are pushing the boundaries of what we can do with wood products, from construction to medicine, as well as replacing fossil fuel-based products with products from renewable sources. We have a great opportunity to form a persuasive narrative about solutions, to rethink our development paths, to reduce our carbon footprint and to work together on solving the economic, biodiversity and climate change crises.
What can we do to ensure that we do not miss our chance to reframe the forest sector and sustainable forest products?
First, we need to ensure our messaging is consistent. Governments, international organizations and the private sector need to work together to promote the understanding of topical forestry issues in order to strengthen sustainable forest management in policy and practice.
Second, we need to showcase the innovations that use wood as a valid, affordable and renewable alternative to fossil-derived products.
Third, we need to transform and simplify a complex and abstract agenda into human stories. We need to make our message relevant to people’s everyday lives and what they can do personally to help build a better world.
Finally, we need to explain better the truth that so many people have yet to grasp: how and why sustainable wood products, rather than causing deforestation, actually contribute to keeping forests and ecosystems healthy, while helping to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As the proverb holds, “fact is fact, but perception is reality.”
As people re-evaluate their lives as a result of direct and indirect implications of COVID-19, we have a rare opportunity to make forestry a meaningful part of the solution. Let us not waste it.
Kai Lintunen is the Leader of the FAO-UNECE Forest Communicators’ Network and Head of International Communication for the Finnish Forest Association.