Forestry wars: Who’s peddling pulp fiction?

Pity the shopper who wants to buy “green” paper or forest products.

They can choose products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Only the most dedicated deep-green consumer can be expected to understand the differences between the two.

And few know there’s a war of words going on between backers of the FSC and SFI.

Todd Paglia, executive director of the activist group Forest Ethics, says this about the SFI:

SFI is dangerous because it is a lie – it tells consumers that the product bearing the label is green when it isn’t.  SFI allows logging in old growth, logging in endangered species habitat, clearcut logging on landslide prone slopes above salmon streams….  In other words, business as usual with a “green” façade.

When industry is helping write the rules and set its own standards they will be high on rhetoric and extremely low on substance. That is SFI:  this is a fake eco-label of, by, and for the forest industry.

Not surprisingly, this kind of talk angers the folks at SFI–so much so that they  approached The New York Community Trust, a foundation that supports Forest Ethics, to complain. On its website SFI says:

ForestEthics continues to peddle pulp fiction about the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, repeating the same old inaccurate and misleading information.

With just 10 percent of the world’s forests certified to any certification standard, groups should work together to increase responsible forestry. Instead, ForestEthics spends energy and resources on well-funded attacks to discredit SFI, often citing outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information.

Such conflicts aren’t unique to the forest products industry, although the rhetoric here is unusually heated. Eco-labels are supposed to guide consumers to environmentally-friendly choices, but they have become so numerous–more than 300, by some estimates–and so confusing that consumers now need their own guides to eco-labels, like this Greener Choices website from Consumer Reports. Meanwhile, organizations that create standards have formed their own organization, called the ISEAL Alliance, to separate good standards from the not-so-good. It’s like a Good Housekeeping seal for other seals. With words like “natural” and “sustainable” and “green” being thrown around, it’s likely that some consumers just give up trying to figure out which claims are meaningful and which are not.

Graphic courtesy of

In the forestry wars, Forest Ethics announced a victory yesterday (3-28-2011): Seven companies, including four from the FORTUNE 500–Aetna, Allstate, Office Depot and Symantec–said they would phase out their use of the SFI label.

The company on that list that caught my eye was Office Depot because I know the company’s sustainability chief, Yalmaz Siddiqui, is a thoughtful and dedicated sustainability advocate. (See Radical Transparency at Office Depot.)

When I called Yalmaz, he told me: “We’ve really had to struggle with the question of, when is a product green?” To the average consumer, he said, an eco-label signals that a product has gone beyond the norm. SFI has become the norm. “In North America, the vast majority of the mainstream providers of paper products have got SFI certification,” he said. In one sense, the SFI standard has become a victim of its success. That’s particularly true because, according to a hierarchy established by Office Depot–in which papers are ranked as dark green, mid-green and light green– recycled paper is favored over even sustainably harvested virgin paper. SFI doesn’t even qualify as light green, but instead gets a rating of “meets industry environmental norms.”

This isn’t to say that SFI doesn’t do good work, particularly with small-scale, family-owned foresters. SFI program participants have, among other things, invested over $ 1.1 billion in forest research, and over $55 million to support community programs such as education and training for 120,000 loggers and foresters, the organization says.

But there are good reasons to trust FSC, and some to be suspicious of SFI. Here are a few:

History: The FSC was started in 1993 by environmentalists, while SFI was formed a year later by the North American forest products industry. It didn’t fully separate from the American Forest and Paper Association until 2007 and, even now, the CEOs of several big forestry companies sit on its board. To be fair, so do six board members from environmental groups including Resources for the Future and The Conservation Fund.

The LEED brouhaha: A long battle involved lots of lobbying about whether to provide points for SFI-certified wood  under the widely-accepted LEED standards for green buildings ended with a decision that did not favor SFI. According to The New York Times Green blog, NGOs including the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace opposed granting favorable treatment to SFI.

Conflicts of interest SFI today gives its seal of approval or ‘certification’ to activities on more than 160 million acres of forests or tree plantations all across North America. Virtually all of SFI’s funding comes from the companies that own or manage these lands, according to Forest Ethics. Unfortunately, the same thing is true of many certification systems, including FSC–they take money from the companies they audit.

How to resolve knotty questions (couldn’t resist!) like these is by no means clear. Perhaps independent ratings systems–like Good Guide, the Sustainability Consortium or UL Environment–will  bring clarity to the debate about what products are environmentally preferable. Maybe responsible retailers should take on the job, as Office Depot seems to be doing. Or maybe consumers will learn to trust only those seals that have earned their own seals of approval, as crazy as that sounds.



  1. Lewis E. Ward says

    A good introduction to a very complex problem of competing certifying systems and an industry that has very different practices West to East, South to North, industrial to small private ownership, the pulp to biomass and the hardwood vs the softwood. Forces that affect the forestry practices are regional history of forestry, local zoning boards and conservation laws, business and environmental ethics of owners and the economy and global markets.
    I have seen environmental activist (EA’s) deplore the cutting of any tree, feeling horses are the only way to log and think nature will take care of itself. While I’ve have heard of loggers offering rural landowners 25% of the true sale value of timber and regularly observed woodlots repeatedly high graded because the owners wanted quick cash and loved improving deer habitat. I, myself see forest from many perspectives that leads to managing sections for the planned outcomes using the best use of conservation ethics. Sections are not logged because of the rare wildflowers, large “Old Growth” hardwoods that favor particular bird species and steep creek banks where logging would destroy those habitats.
    In New York State there is an organization called New York Forest Owners Association that educates forest owners in responsible ownership and management practices and 14 other private organizations assisting regional, industry (maple sugar producers) and professional foresters. New York State has the Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Lands and Forests regional foresters who will assist you to develop a forest management plan. The USDA has the Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Services Agency.Counties have Soil and Water Conservation Districts, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Forest Owners Program (MFO’s) that offers visits to woodlots to discuss sources of information and assistance. We, (Yes, I’m MFO) stress developing a management plan after you have learned enough to make a informed decision and to hire a Consulting Forester. I used the DEC Forester, a Consulting Forester, my own training and experience in woodlot management and finally used a commercial logger who could use lower value wood that the small scale loggers would not cut.
    If anyone wants to learn about responsible forestry and the range of practices and the conservation practices that good foresters and loggers can do the information is out there.
    I question whether the expense to have another regulating organization is necessary and effective to move the whole forest product industry to green standards. These organizations are usually staffed by outsiders who have little understanding of the complex nature of forest growth and good management practices. I’m not convinced that certified wood is the ultimate solution to the problem.

  2. Bob Friend says

    I don’t know as much about this as Lew does, but we’ve been managing our 100 acres in Davenport, NY for almost 25 years now. We are well into our second management plan. We have thinned (twice) had one timber sale, and cut all the wood for the cabin we built (which was milled on site). We have been a “Certified Tree Farm” for all of that time. Much of what I learned about forestry management came from our DEC consultant (on the NY State payroll), and our private forestry consultant, who has his own business. Our woods are in terrific shape, and we plan to give the land to our kids to protect and enjoy long into the future.

    • says

      Thanks, Bob and Lewis. Great to see CHHS alums here. That’s Croton-Harmon High School, for the uninitiated. Bob and I made our television debuts together back in the late 1960s on “The Alan Burke Show,” if memory serves. He went onto an illustrious career at NBC. I’m a blogger. Who would have thunk it?

      On a more substantive note, these comments illustrate an iron law of journalism: Life is always, always, always more complicated than the versions of it that appear on blogs, in your local paper, even in The New York Times. Lewis points out the limits of certification systems–that they create a burden on small farmers, that they are a one-size-fits-all model that doesn’t apply in the same way to different regions, that the certifying organizations may be centralized and unfamiliar with local conditions.

      I’m glad to hear that good work is being done “on the ground,” I hope SFI continues to work with local foresters and I will continue to look for the FSC label.

  3. says

    Great post on certification! GoodWeave joined ISEAL because it seeks to address some of these key issues. Nina Smith, GoodWeave’s Executive Director, offers some of her thoughts on what makes a good certification here: Clearly there is no simple answer to the “knotty questions” you raised, but actions like fostering transparency and meaningful stakeholder involvement help address these issues, and can give consumers extra assurance about in a given certification. Of course, they’ll still have to do their own research to decide.

  4. says

    When I get off Facebook and back to my website and blog, I’d like to share the URL to your blog, Marc. It’s so important to get the word out.

    My concern is how to know what corporations manufacture store brands of paper products. Trader Joe, Whole Foods, etc. do not share the names of the manufacturers. Suppose I want to avoid Koch bros’ Boise Cascade. I know their own brands, but how can I know details about store brands? Hmmm, maybe there’s a nice soft, leafy plant that I could grow just outside the WC.

    • says

      Good question. Sometimes the identity of store brands is surprising. (I’m told that Stonyfield provides organic yogurt for some store brands.) But you’re right, it’s typically kept secret

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