ForestEthics Issues Scathing Review of SFI Practices

ForestEthics has never minded punching above its weight.

The forest advocacy group is taking on the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and it shouldn’t be a fair fight. After all, the SFI is the world’s largest forest certification standard, having certified more than 181 million acres of land. The group promises that it’s concerned with the most important issues of the day, including biodiversity, sustainability, and protecting water quality.

But ForestEthics isn’t impressed by SFI. They’ve released a new report called SFI: Certified Greenwash, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. According to ForestEthics, SFI is funded by the very timber companies that it purports to oversee, with the result that oversight is negligible. In an article in The Huffington Post, Todd Paglia, Executive Director at Forest Ethics, likens SFI to the snake oil salesmen that visitors saw at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

“Using the very same branding and marketing tools pioneered by the Rattlesnake King and his cronies, the SFI is peddling an environmental seal of approval with about as much credibility to protect forests as snake oil had to cure rheumatism,” writes Paglia.

He claims that the SFI has invented an “independent” eco-friendly, certified-green label for the timber industry that makes consumers feel good about their purchases, but it’s mostly greenwashing.

That’s a pretty scathing claim, but is is true?

Well, it’s easy to doubt a nonprofit group that won’t release information about what groups or corporations provide funding for its various initiatives. Consumers are becoming wary. Greenwashing and astroturfing are serious issues, and corporations and nonprofits that aren’t forthcoming can’t fault the public for not giving them the benefit of the doubt.

But that’s just the opening jab, and it’s followed by a stinging right cross. ForestEthics also suggests that SFI’s board is comprised of timber industry execs, and others with close ties to the industry.

But Paglia and ForestEthics save the harshest criticisms for SFI’s auditing process.

“Well, at least the audits conducted by SFI are rigorous, right? Think again. SFI’s audits are actually so friendly to forest destruction that in a survey of 543 audits since 2004 only eight found any significant problems — and of these, seven were approved within a year. In other words, the chance of being denied the SFI eco-label, if a company’s logging practices are even audited, is .0018%. Not quite as rigorous as, say, the IRS’ auditing standards.”

As you might have guessed, the SFI tried to land a few body blows of its own, suggesting that ForestEthics is spending “energy and resources on well-funded attacks to discredit SFI, often citing outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information.”

SFI also argues that its audits are independent, and often conducted by the same firm that conducts audits for the Forest Stewartship Council (FSC), which ForestEthics believes to be more independent, transparent and rigorous organization.

SFI is huge, and its certification process will continue to dominate the marketplace for sustainable forestry products. We’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves if they pass muster, but one point should be clear. Don’t take eco-labels at face value. Do your research. These decisions are too important to leave to marketers and savvy media campaigns.

Oh, and caveat emptor.

Richard is a writer and editor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia who specializes in clean technology and climate change. He's the founder of One Blue Marble, a climate change activism blog and web site.

3 responses

  1. In my opinion, the FTC should hold groups like Forest Ethics accountable to be able to back up their claims to the same degree that they want to hold marketers accountable for their product claims. Where is their data/research that validates what they are alleging against SFI? They use that claim to raise money to do their campaign work, and the time has come to hold them to a higher standard.

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