Is Gibson Guitars Unfairly Bullied or Have They Really Screwed Up… Again?

Last week, for the second time in two years, federal agents raided the facilities of Gibson Guitars, probably the most well-known guitar maker around the world. Although the two raids are the result of different cases, the accusations then and now are similar – violations of the Lacey Act, a law requiring that all wood products and plants imported into the U.S. come from legal sources.

On November 2009, federal agents seized guitars and fingerboard blanks that were suspected to be produced from illegally harvested Madagascan rosewood and ebony. Last week the agents seized several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. From a Reuters report the latest raid is related to a shipment of sawn ebony logs from India that was imported by Gibson illegally, violating the Lacey Act.

Gibson’s CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz was furious this time. According to Gibson’s website he believes the Justice Department is bullying Gibson without filing charges. He also promised in his statement that “we will fight aggressively to prove our innocence.” And the gloves, at least on Gibson’s side, are definitely off. Don’t believe me? Just look at the press release Gibson filed after the raid.

The headline says “Gov’t says wood is illegal if U.S. workers produce it”. The first sentence clarifies it a bit: “The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law in India.”

The combative tone continues all along the release with a clear dichotomy between Gibson, a company that “has a long history of supporting sustainable and responsible sources of wood” and the government who sends armed federal agents to execute search warrants, without any warning or communication of any kind, “causing lost productivity and sales.” It’s very clear from Gibson’s perspective who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story.

It’s no wonder that right-wing online media warmly adopted Gibson’s side of the story. RedState, for example, suggested that “the Department of Justice is under fire for taking the bold step of sending armed agents into the factories of Gibson Guitar”, adding a photo showing a guitar player with a note on the guitar saying “the machine banned by white house.”

Another blogger, Andrew Lawton, even went further and claimed this raid is actually a result of political persecution because Gibson’s CEO is a donor to a couple of Republican politicians. To prove his point, Lawton shows how C.F. Martin, one of Gibson’s competitors, is using the exact same wood but is not raided because its CEO is a long-time democratic supporter. I can only assume Lawton has never attended one of C.F. Martin’s Wood Summits or talked to their vendors, but anyway it’s a nice theory.

These sorts of reactions were expected, but what is less expected is the silence coming from environmental organizations that are very passionate about these issues, such as Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Greenpeace, or Rainforest Alliance, which has been working with Gibson since 1996 and whose SmartWood program has issued FSC Chain-of-Custody certificates to three Gibson manufacturing facilities. How come they have nothing to say?

One of the main pierces of evidence Gibson brings to prove its case is the fact that although 21 months passed since the first raid in 2009, criminal charges have not been filed. At the same time, they add, “the Government still holds Gibson’s property”. Both facts are truth and indeed it is not clear why no charges have been filed so far. Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. According to Sound & Fair, Gibson filed a motion to overturn the US Fish and Wildlife Service charges, but the agency successfully overturned the motion.

This is not the only detail Gibson fails to mention regarding the 2009 raid. Gibson claims on its press release that it “has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government and these materials, which have been filed in federal court, show that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated.” Now, we’ll leave the compliance with the law to the court to decide on, but it is clear that Gibson does not believe there was any wrongdoing on their side in this case.

Yet, on July 2010 Rainforest Alliance announced that Gibson is working with them on a new wood sourcing plan following the 2009 raid. The new plan had six key elements and the first one was: “Gibson is eliminating risk in its supply chain by identifying potentially illegal or unsustainable sources, banning future purchases of ebony or rosewood from Madagascar, and requiring all future purchases are from documented legal sources”. So apparently Gibson understood that there was something wrong with the purchase of these sorts of wood from Madagascar and that even if it complies with the law (which is yet to be seen), this sort of action does not meet the sustainability standards they claim to employ.

Another important point made by Rainforest Alliance was that “securing FSC-certified supply is critical for Gibson, but also must be accompanied by a clear commitment to eliminating any volume, no matter how small, of illegal wood that may contaminate its supply chain.” This statement shows that FSC-certification is not the end of the journey, but only part of it. So even though Gibson claims now that “the wood the Government seized on August 24 is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier and is FSC Controlled”, it still does not mean it is kosher.

Another consequence of the 2009 raid was that Gibson’s CEO has taken a leave of absence as a board member of the Rainforest Alliance. It’s not clear what the consequences of the latest raid will be, but one thing is sure – even if Gibson will prove its innocence at the court of law, it has now a much larger burden of proof to show it is really committed to sustainability. If Gibson wants to save and strengthen whatever is left of its green credibility, it better start being more transparent and ready to address criticism and a bit less occupied with putting on the blame on the big bad government.

Image credit: jacksonpe, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.