According to their website, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is an independent, charitable organization that promotes sustainable forest management. It’s a certification body that labels products and companies that have met a set of carefully considered standards.
SFI is one of many forestry certification bodies operating around the globe. While these certification labels are a critical component for informed consumer choice, how does the average consumer navigate the complicated landscape of eco labelling?
In other words, how do we separate the greenwashers from the greendoers; companies making false or inaccurate claims about their environmental standards versus those truly dedicated to working toward sustainable forestry practices?
Here are five questions to ask when researching an eco-certification label such as SFI. Let’s go through the questions first, then we’ll see how SFI stands up.
What are the standards behind the label? Do they push the industry, in this case forestry, to step up their game and take serious steps toward achieving environmental, economic, and social sustainability? Or do they simply allow business to be conducted as usual? Are the standards based on rigorous, independent scientific studies or is their basis ambiguous and unsubstantiated?
Who is involved in setting the standards? Were independent scientists and other knowledgeable people consulted? Was there open consultation with stakeholders? Are the standards primarily driven by industry experts with conflicting interests?
What is the certification process? Does certification include site visits by independent assessors? Is assessment all done through paperwork? Are there site visits and auditing beyond the initial certification assessment?
Is the label transparent? How much information in answer to the previous three questions is provided by the certification label as well as the companies and products it certifies?
Is the label honest and trustworthy? A quick internet search of the label with search terms such as ‘complaints’, ‘false claims’, or ’greenwashing’ will help you establish the label’s reputation.
Though this article is about a forestry label, I consider this to be good general advice for all eco-labels and green marketing claims quite frankly.
How does SFI stand up as an eco-label?
So, as a consumer looking for more information behind a label, I put the Sustainable Forestry Initiative through these five questions and this is what I found out:
Quality of standards: According to a report by the international non-profit organization, FERN, SFI’s standards are ‘very weak with regard to most ecological issues’. This means that some SFI certified companies log old growth and endangered forests as well as have other detrimental impacts on the environment. The other notable concern was that participants in the program have significant flexibility to craft the standards to their needs. However, the report also states that SFI’s standards have improved over the years.
Who is involved: The standards have largely been developed by industry for industry. FERN stated that there was not balanced representation from social, economic and environmental interests. However, again, the report notes that SFI has taken significant steps to have balanced representation from economic, social and environmental interests, on their Board of Directors. Though some suggest there have been challenges keeping credible environmental representation on the Board of Directors (source).
The certification process: Certification is done through an approved certification body. The certification body does an initial assessment and then conducts re-assessments in subsequent years. There is no stakeholder consultation required as part of the process. In other words, there is no need to speak with scientists, conservation groups, community groups, or the people who live there.
Transparency: Certification reports are the property of the participating company and they are not required to make these reports public. However, a public summary of the report must be available if the company is making public claims regarding their certification.
Honest and trustworthy: A battle between conservation groups and SFI has been happening for years. In 2009, Forest Ethics contracted the Washington Forest Law Centre to file complaints against SFI with the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. The complaint alleges that ‘SFI engages in deceptive and misleading national advertising; the IRS complaint reports SFI for potentially inappropriately using a tax-exempt ‘public charity’ for funding, operating and marketing its private forest certification label.’ In March 2011, seven major companies, including Office Depot, dropped their SFI labelled products.
As you’ll see from the comments below, SFI responded promptly to this article when it was first published, both here and to me personally. I thought it was only right to update the article and include some of the information they provided. SFI stated that their
“…certification standard is based on science, governed by an independent board representing economic, social and environmental interests equally, and is backed by third-party audits (many of whom audit more than one standard, including FSC).”
They also pointed out that TerraChoice lists SFI as a legitimate environmental standard in its report The Seven Sins of Greenwashing, which is an authority on greenwashing.
I am very glad to see that SFI is committed enough to respond and that it is clearly committed to responsible dialogue.
When I did my research on SFI, I went through their web pages thoroughly and they have a lot of great information. However, I approached it as I would any consumer exploring an ecolabel on the internet and I also took into consideration information available from conservation groups and third party reports, such as that from FERN, which raised flags for me, as a consumer. So this again leads to the question:
Should we trust ecolabels?
I think the answer to this is, as usual, do your research – this experience in particular has exemplified this for me. Eco certification is really important as it is helping improve industry standards and it is helping consumers stay informed. Yet it seems that some labels may be too closely linked with industry to give them much credible clout.
Scott McDougall, President of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing has three pieces of advice regarding ecolabelling:
1 – Don’t be put off by green washers, continue to support green products as it sends a signal that there is a demand for eco friendly products.
2 – Look for reliable eco labels (go to those five questions I mention above to help you determine that).
3 – If you are comparing two products (or two labels) and all else appears equal, always choose the product that provides more information. This sends a signal to industry that consumers are looking for transparency in the production of their goods.
McDougall has more to say regarding green washing in general here:
Which label can we trust in terms of forestry products and practices?
According to conservation groups like FERN, the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics, the Forest Stewardship council (FSC) remains by far the most independent, rigorous and therefore credible certification of sustainable forestry. The Alliance for Credible Forest Certification provides a detailed comparison between the SFI and FSC labels with a long list of resources and information to help you with your research.
Sustainable forestry initiatives, as a concept rather than a brand name, are out there everywhere and as we are all consumers of timber in some form or other, we need to support good industry practices. There are examples throughout the US and throughout the world of collaborative projects that are managing forests for timber harvest as well as strong biodiversity and wildlife objectives. It’s heartening.
One of my favourite examples of a sustainable forestry initiative comes from the west coast of Canada. Merve Wilkinson harvested wood from his property Wildwood for sixty years. He supported his family and kept over 20 other people busy with his wood products, including a couple of local millers. He got top price for his products and he pulled out far more wood from his 137 acres over his lifetime than he ever would have had he clearcut it. He set a wonderful example for sustainable forestry: