Here’s a quick green test: What is the eco-label that generates the most controversy? If you answered SFI give yourself an A. Now the controversy around the Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification (SFI) is reaching new levels as seven companies, five among the Fortune 500, decided to reject it. This group includes Sprint, Norm Thompson Outfitters, King Arthur Flour, AT&T, State Farm, U.S. Bank and Comcast. Has SFI just lost another battle in a long war on their credibility, or is it more than that and they’re about to lose the war?
The news on the new defectors from the SFI camp came from ForestEthics, an environmental organization that leads the fight against SFI. To get a better sense of the way ForestEthics feels about SFI, here are just two examples of how they describe the SFI certification on their press release about their latest victory: “a controversial industry-sponsored ‘eco-label’ that greenwashes environmentally damaging products.. “SFI’s greenwashing of business-as-usual forest destruction is toxic for companies with strong environmental values and commitments,” said Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics.
The NGO can afford to use strong language against the SFI certification, while companies are more likely to simply take their business elsewhere. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Here is a summary of actions or commitments by these seven companies as provided by ForestEthics:
- Sprint will shift all billing statement paper from SFI to Forest Stewardship Council, a more rigorous label, and will phase out use of the SFI logo on billing envelopes. Finally, Sprint has committed to give purchasing preference to FSC-certified paper.
- Norm Thompson Outfitters removed all references to SFI in print materials and websites and committed to avoid promotion of SFI.
- King Arthur Flour stopped using the SFI logo on its catalogs and switched to FSC certified paper.
- AT&T committed to avoid using the SFI logo and name in its materials, and to give purchasing preference to FSC certified products for all new paper purchases.
- State Farm changed the paper for its biggest promotional item, the State Farm Road Atlas, from SFI to FSC – and committed to state a preference for FSC when the company revises its comprehensive paper policy.
- U.S. Bank committed to avoid using the SFI name and logo on printed materials and other company communications, and to use only the FSC seal when a forest eco-label is used.
- Comcast committed to steps that will avoid future company promotion of SFI.
This is not the first time ForestEthics has presented such an impressive list of businesses that decided to stop using the SFI certification and in some cases to switch to FSC-the competing forest certification. Last March seven other companies: Aetna, Allstate, Garnet Hill, Office Depot, Performance Bicycles, Symantec, and United Stationers, acted in a similar way, rejecting SFI.
ForestEthics’ accusations against SFI are detailed in a report they released last fall, entitled SFI: Certified Greenwash. In this report, ForestEthics writes: “Among the worst of these marketing schemes is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, which is funded, promoted and staffed by the very paper and timber industry interests it claims to evaluate.”
What about SFI’s claims about being independent, backed by rigorous third-party audits, enabling companies to better track the contents of certified products at each step of their manufacturing processes and practicing sustainable forestry? ForestEthics replies to these claims can be best summarized by the unforgettable words of Elaine Benes: Fake, Fake, Fake, Fake.
SFI responds to ForestEthics’ accusations through a webpage entitled ‘Setting The Record Straight’ where they address each and every claim. ForestEthics’ countered with a webpage of their own: “Re-straightening the record.” I guess the battle on the truth is not be over yet, so don’t be surprised to find more pages on both sites with titles like ‘setting the record straight once and for all’ or ‘the truth and nothing but the truth.’
ForestEthics went another step further last year and filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the IRS alleging that SFI misleads the public through deceptive marketing and operates as a nonprofit charity even though it primarily serves private, for-profit interests. SFI, on the other hand, didn’t make any attempt to file a libel suit against ForestEthics, which actually could help clarifying the truth in this controversy. To their defense SFI President and CEO, Kathy Abusow, argued that the companies that rejected SFI on March 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.”
I guess SFI would have similar claims about the current rejection round, but here’s something they should think about: They’re losing their credibility with every round of rejection and credibility is the most fundamental asset of any eco-label. If they want to stop this trend and restore their credibility, they need to choose a new approach – either work with ForestEthics to improve their standards and practices or prove ForestEthics are wrong. Otherwise, few more rounds and they might find themselves out of the game.
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.