When you see a headline about a new batch of companies moving away from something, you usually can bet it’s either APP, the paper company operating in Indonesia, or SFI, the forestry certification. This time it’s SFI, and the list is of seven companies, including Pitney Bowes, Ruby Tuesday, Phillips Van Heusen, and US Airways that are taking action to avoid the use of the SFI label. Ruby Tuesday, for example, has made a commitment to avoid any use or promotion of the SFI logo and name in conjunction with its brand, products or services, and US Airways has committed to avoid any use or promotion of the SFI logo or SFI certified products.
The news comes from ForestEthics, an organization leading the campaign against the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which ForestEthics describes as an enabler of “business-as-usual forest destruction.” This is not the first time that ForestEthics has won such a battle against SFI. Last November, we reported that another list of seven companies, including Sprint, AT&T, State Farm, U.S. Bank and Comcast that decided to stop using SFI-certified products. Just like in the case of APP, the growing number of customers that become former customers hasn’t made a dent yet in SFI’s approach, so what are the chances that the new list will make any difference?
Let’s refresh our memory as to what the controversy about SFI is all about. Basically, ForestEthics claims that SFI is funded, promoted and staffed by the very paper and timber industry interests it claims to evaluate (see its report SFI: Certified Greenwash) and as a result “behind the green paint on SFI’s brand is business-as-usual forest destruction.” SFI, of course, denies the accusations (see SFI’s replies to ForestEthics on its page ‘Setting The Record Straight’). In the battle of who’s right and who’s wrong, SFI seems to be the losing side as evidenced by the growing number of companies halting use of this certification. If there was no substance to ForestEthics’ accusations, I doubt we would see so many corporations voting with their budgets against SFI.
I asked Aaron Sanger, Director of U.S. campaigns at ForestEthics, to help us understand what these steps mean for SFI.
TriplePundit: How many companies in total have decided to stop using SFI certified products since you started campaigning against SFI?
Aaron Sanger: Over the past year, 21 of some of the most well-known and respected brands in the world – like Allstate, AT&T, United Stationers and Pitney Bowes – have moved away from SFI.
3P: Do you feel these decisions making any impact on SFI? Do you feel we’re reaching any tipping point?
AS: The big brands that are now turning against SFI have been a big part of SFI’s marketing scheme. By taking SFI’s logo off their products or removing references to SFI from their environmental communications, these 21 companies are saying public association with SFI is not helpful. This is a message that many other Fortune 1000 companies are now considering.
3P: How many companies do you think will need to move away from SFI before it will change its approach or practices?
AS: We believe 21 major companies moving away from public association with SFI is already enough motivation for SFI to change its approach and practices. And we’ll keep that number growing to make sure SFI’s motivation to change grows.
3P: What about consumers – are they aware of these issues? Are they pressuring companies as well about SFI or is it just ForestEthics that fights this war?
AS: As yesterday’s New York Times green blog pointed out, consumers are now being advised to ‘beware of green logos’ like SFI’s. Consumers help us fight greenwash simply by avoiding products with phony eco-labels like SFI’s.
3P: Are you monitoring these commitments?
AS: A big part of holding companies accountable for their environmental commitments is requiring them to go public with them. And we are regularly monitoring each company’s progress on its commitments. If any company shows signs of not keeping its commitment, we will bring that to the attention of our supporters and others who love forests and ask them to help us make sure that company does what it has promised to do.
SFI however doesn’t seem to be bothered too much, at least officially, about the news of the seven new defectors. Kathy Abusow, president of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, told the New York Times that “at the end of the day, S.F.I. promotes responsible forestry and works with a range of conservation groups, government agencies and landowners and others to do so.” She also noted that many companies accept multiple standards when sourcing forest products. “There are several credible forest certification standards in the marketplace, and we respect businesses making choices,” she said.
This reply might reflect SFI’s self-confidence (after all SFI also wins some battles with the help of political allies), but it also might reflect some sort of change in SFI’s approach, given the difference between this response and Abusow’s response in April 2011 following similar news. Then she argued that the companies that rejected SFI on March 2011 did so because they “were caught in the unfortunate position of managing ForestEthics pressure tactics and had no desire to take such a public stance.” Who knows, the tipping point after all might be closer than we think.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.