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ForestEthics Wants SFI to 'Make Like a Tree and Leave'
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May 17, 2012

ForestEthics Wants SFI to 'Make Like a Tree and Leave'

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

An “eco-label” proudly displayed on paper and lumber products by the members of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative is nothing more than “pulp fiction,” according to the San Francisco-based environmental watchdog organization, ForestEthics.

While the label assures consumers that the product they are purchasing is “Good for you. Good for our forests,” the group making those claims actually is an industry organization launched in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association. What’s more, the SFI was formed just one year after the Bonn-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit, multi-stakeholder organization established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.  

Both organizations offer certification that logging projects and products are environmentally sustainable—but the SFI appears to be policing itself.

Chicago-based printer, RR Donnelley (News - Alert), a member of SFI, states that, “participants practice sustainable forestry on all the lands that they manage. They also influence millions of additional acres through the training of loggers and foresters in best management practices and landowner outreach programs. SFI goals include … broadening sustainable forest practices through procurement systems, prompt reforestation to ensure long- term productivity, and continual improvement in standards and practices. RR Donnelley is pursuing and achieving SFI Chain of Custody (CoC) Certifications at worldwide locations.”

But on its website, ForestEthics contends that “Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) = Selling False Information,” going on to purport that, “The phony SFI certification program— developed and funded by some of the biggest forest destroyers in North America— is a marketing tool for selling environmentally harmful products by falsely describing them as ‘green.’ This scam threatens our forests, communities, fresh water, and wildlife.”

It is ForestEthics’ position that, despite the promises of its eco-logo, “SFI certifies logging practices that have a disastrous impact on North American forests,” including, the watchdog group says:

  • Threats to rare wildlife: SFI’s rules do not require any work, within areas it certifies as “good,” to restore forests that are essential for the survival of rare wildlife.
  • Clearcuts: The average clearcut approved by SFI is the size of 90 football fields. Whether it’s the “average” SFI-approved clearcut or bigger, the cumulative impacts to watersheds, water quality, and soil productivity often are permanent.
  • Widespread toxic chemical use: SFI allows excessive use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides that contaminate fresh water.
  • Endangered forest destruction: SFI provides virtually no protection against the destruction of old-growth forests, wild areas that do not currently have roads, or other places in which ecological values are especially rich.

In addition to publicizing the issue, ForestEthics has filed complaints with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Internal Revenue Service , alleging that SFI misleads the public through deceptive marketing and operates as a nonprofit public charity even though it primarily serves private for-profit interests. The complaints can be viewed on the website of the Washington Forest Law Center.

What’s more, ForestEthics has been urging companies that had relied on the eco-label certification in their purchasing processes to distance themselves from SFI. The campaign began in 2011, when ForestEthics released a list of 14 prominent brands—including AT&T (News - Alert), Office Depot, United Stationers, and Allstate—that pledged to take action, or made commitments to phase out or eliminate the use of SFI’s logo on products or in public communications. 

And this week, ForestEthics announced that it has convinced a total of “21 big brands” to curtail their business with SFI-certified members. "Behind the green paint on SFI’s brand is business-as-usual forest destruction,” said Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics. "Today’s leading companies want environmentally responsible partners—not the seal of a timber industry-supported organization that leading environmental groups believe is irresponsible.”

Among the latest companies to renounce SFI are:

  • Ruby Tuesday, which has made a commitment to avoid any use or promotion of the SFI logo and name in conjunction with Ruby Tuesday’s brand, products or services;
  • Phillips Van Heusen, which will maintain a strong preference for FSC certified products and will avoid using or promoting the SFI;
  • Shutterfly, which will give preference to FSC-certified products in all new paper purchases and will avoid reference to the SFI program in its external communications;
  • Pitney Bowes, which will give preference to FSC certified products in all new paper purchases for its own internal use and will avoid reference to the SFI program in its external communications;
  • Allied Electronics, which has changed its catalog paper from SFI to FSC;
  • Energizer (News - Alert), which has committed to stop using the SFI logo; and
  • US Airways, which has committed to avoid any use or promotion of the SFI logo or SFI-certified products.

In response, Kathy Abusow, president of SFI, replied with a blog on GreenBiz, “We checked with most [of] those companies and found that many were caught in the unfortunate position of managing ForestEthics’ pressure tactics and had no desire to take such a public stance. These companies, as we currently understand it, have not stopped using products from SFI certified companies, but most have been pressured to drop the use of the SFI label on products as a mechanism to appease ForestEthics.”

SFI further counters the ForestEthics criticisms by noting, “The wealth of products and information can make it hard for consumers to know where to start when they want to make an environmentally responsible buying decision. Reports from respected science-based and consumer organizations show all forest certification programs used in North America, including SFI, support sustainable forest management. In its 2010 Sins of Greenwashing report, TerraChoice includes SFI among ‘legitimate’ environmental standards and certifications.”

What’s more SFI points out, in its Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers, the Canadian Competition Bureau says it is difficult to make a verifiable claim of sustainability, and says that the preferred approach for wood is to show it is certified to a sustainable forest management standard. It lists the four programs used in Canada, including SFI.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative also has been taking steps to change its image of late—touting new additions to its Board of Directors, including, on March 13, David Walkem, chief of Cooks Ferry Band and president of Stuwix Resources, “the only First Nations company in the British Columbia Interior to hold a replaceable forest license, and the 277,000 acres it manages are independently certified to the SFI 2010-2014 Standard,” and Craig Blair, president and CEO of Resource Management Service LLC (RMS), “a company founded in 1950 by two foresters,” which today is “a privately held timberland investment firm serving pension funds, endowments, foundations, and family offices.”

And last month, SFI publicized its association with the “warm and fuzzy” White House Egg Roll event, for the fourth year running—as the National Park Foundation opted to package the official White House Easter Egg in a gift box made from paperboard certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

“I am thrilled that the National Park Foundation chose to package their famous White House Easter Eggs in SFI-certified boxes, said Kathy Abusow. “This action is an excellent example of making environmentally responsible decisions and will, hopefully, inspire others in the public and private sector to think creatively about their own sustainable practices.” In addition, Abusow noted, “The souvenir Easter Egg is made with U.S. wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, highlighting the recognition and importance of multiple forest certification standards.”

Finally, in response to Abusow’s  GreenBiz blog in April regarding the “pressure tactics” being used in the industry, Laura Thompson, director of Technical Marketing and Sustainable Development for Sappi Fine Paper North America commented: “It is an ongoing frustration that so much creative energy is put into the debate of FSC vs. SFI when that same energy could be going toward expanding the level of certified forests. As a chain of custody certified paper supplier, Sappi, we advise our customers to take a balanced approach to their procurement practices. We are certified in accordance with FSC, SFI, and PEFC [Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, based in Geneva and founded in 1999] chain of custody standards. We work hard to drive higher levels of certified content and still have less than two-thirds of our fiber from any certified source. A quick scan of the competitive landscape will reveal roughly the same levels of certification by other suppliers. As Kathy points out, the supply chain is complex but the data is clear – there is more SFI fiber in the United States than FSC because SFI has worked so hard with landowners and loggers. We need to shift the effort to more certified fiber and spend less energy on labels.”

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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