Lawyerly Greenwashing from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative

Accept No Substitutes

A few weeks ago, I argued that only wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council really should be called a sustainable product.  Much to my surprise, the post got a robo-comment from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the paper industry’s group, claiming that it, too, was a legitimate certification organization.  Given SFI’s pretty shameful track record, I was skeptical, but promised to follow up with more detail on the contrasting standards and policies of both organizations.

Well, here’s a first installment, and SFI still isn’t looking too good.  Let’s do a quick comparison of general principles — a category that stands to favor SFI because it does not require the sort of detailed, scientifically-based practices that more precise standards would demand.  What we find is a rather slippery use of language on SFI’s part.

Consider the idea of preserving biological diversity, which lies at the heart of any sustainable forestry program.  The Forest Stewardship Council’s Principle #6 demands that

Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and, by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and the integrity of the forest.

We can contrast this with SFI’s Objective 4, “Conservation of Biological Diversity including Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value.”  This Objective and Performance Measure 4.1 require that forests “have programs to promote biological diversity at stand- and landscape-levels.”

The first thing that jumps out about this is that FSC’s policies insist on results, and SFI’s merely insist on an unidentified process.  FSC wants forests to “conserve biological diversity” while SFI only wants programs that promote it, “promotion” being wholly undefined (unlike, as I note below, most other SFI words).

Another example is found in FSC Criterion 6.3, which mandates that

Ecological functions and values shall be maintained intact, enhanced, or restored, including: a) Forest regeneration and succession; b) Genetic, species, and ecosystem diversityc) Natural cycles that affect the productivity of the forest ecosystem.

Nothing like this exists anywhere in SFI’s Policies.

You might also wonder why, when quoting SFI’s policies, I include so many italicized words.  The answer is that SFI does so: its policies are shot through with such italicizations because they are defined terms.  One cannot read any of SFI’s policies without flipping back and forth to the glossary.  SFI has obviously hired some pretty fancy attorneys for them to establish slippery standards.

There are other big differences that come up.  For example, while FSC has strong protections for the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, and labor, SFI merely says that they should be consulted.  And even though both the United States and Canada are signatories to various international treaties such as CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity, compliance with such treaties is nowhere required by SFI.

And remember: this is at the level of general policy.  Once you get to details, more bad news will could emerge.  Of course, the mere fact that FSC might have better policies on paper does not mean that it actually enforces them in practice.  Maybe SFI does so better.  But given how vague SFI’s own policies are, no one should be fooled. 

The bottom line is that the bottom line has not changed, at least for now: if you want sustainable wood and forest products, only the FSC label will do.

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Reader Comments

10 Replies to “Lawyerly Greenwashing from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative”

  1. SFI has a “pretty shameful track record”? “Once you get to details, more bad news will emerge”? Those are pretty bold claims for someone to make without any supporting facts. Surely as a professor of law you know that you need to provide some factual support.

    Heck, even the Sustainable Forestry Initiative does a better job of backing up its claims. Take a look at its response to a recent rant by FSC and its friends at http://www.sfiprogram.org/newsroom/?p=1191 (While you are studying the proper way to cite, note that the references point to some bad news about actual practices on the ground on FSC-certified forests: lack of consultation with Indigenous Peoples, use of highly hazardous pesticides, failure to properly account for high conservation values. . . the list goes on.)

    I’ll give you points for at least reading the standards. No one else does that. But you don’t get full marks because it sure looks as though your mind was made up before you started.
    By the way, my beef is not with the Forest Stewardship Council. My beef is with so-called experts who pick a position and follow it blindly. If you’re like the rest you will tell me “I never said FSC was perfect”. The question is, how much imperfection are people willing to tolerate?

  2. SFI has a “pretty shameful track record”? “Once you get to details, more bad news will emerge”? Those are pretty bold claims for someone to make without any supporting facts. Surely as a professor of law you know that you need to provide some factual support.

    Heck, even the Sustainable Forestry Initiative does a better job of backing up its claims. Take a look at its response to a recent rant by FSC and its friends at http://www.sfiprogram.org/newsroom/?p=1191 (While you are studying the proper way to cite, note that the references point to some bad news about actual practices on the ground on FSC-certified forests: lack of consultation with Indigenous Peoples, use of highly hazardous pesticides, failure to properly account for high conservation values. . . the list goes on.)

    I’ll give you points for at least reading the standards. No one else does that. But you don’t get full marks because it sure looks as though your mind was made up before you started.
    By the way, my beef is not with the Forest Stewardship Council. My beef is with so-called experts who pick a position and follow it blindly. If you’re like the rest you will tell me “I never said FSC was perfect”. The question is, how much imperfection are people willing to tolerate?

  3. Read my previous posts: the shameful track record comes from Jared Diamond’s work. SFI’s response makes claims about their standards, for example saying that they protect biodiversity: but their policies make no claim to do so. They only say that they will “promote” biodiversity, a term which, unlike seemingly everything else they use, they do not define.

    In terms of my mind being made up, I was quite clear of my biases going in: I was very suspicious of SFI based upon Diamond’s research. But that’s why at this stage I am simply comparing language in their own standards. It also makes my analysis more transparent: if people think I am reading their standards wrong, they can argue with me on my reading, instead of accusing me without any evidence that I have already made up my own mind. if your real beef is with those who pick a position and follow it blindly, I’d suggest looking in the mirror.

  4. Read my previous posts: the shameful track record comes from Jared Diamond’s work. SFI’s response makes claims about their standards, for example saying that they protect biodiversity: but their policies make no claim to do so. They only say that they will “promote” biodiversity, a term which, unlike seemingly everything else they use, they do not define.

    In terms of my mind being made up, I was quite clear of my biases going in: I was very suspicious of SFI based upon Diamond’s research. But that’s why at this stage I am simply comparing language in their own standards. It also makes my analysis more transparent: if people think I am reading their standards wrong, they can argue with me on my reading, instead of accusing me without any evidence that I have already made up my own mind. if your real beef is with those who pick a position and follow it blindly, I’d suggest looking in the mirror.

  5. You are right, however, about “more bad news will emerge.” That was a misprint: I meant to say “could emerge.” I’ll update.

  6. You are right, however, about “more bad news will emerge.” That was a misprint: I meant to say “could emerge.” I’ll update.

  7. You might want to step back from some of your misconceptions about the SFI program and focus on the facts.

    Our standard has solid backing from many respected individuals and organizations. The conservation leaders on our board posted an open letter earlier this year (www.goodforforests.com/archives/1038) that said: “It is precisely the power of SFI to sustain fish and wildlife, biodiversity, water quality and ecosystem functions (including mitigating and adapting to climate change) on 180 million acres of forest throughout North America that motivates us to serve on SFI’s board. By serving, we help SFI continue to improve an already strong mechanism to conserve forests and their environmental values.”

    If you really took the time to get to know SFI you would soon learn that our program is valued by family forest owners, conservation organizations, academics, government agencies and community leaders for its many contributions, including unique requirements for landowner outreach, research and training. In fact, more lands held or managed for Aboriginal communities are certified to our standard than any other in North America.

    There’s plenty of evidence that SFI and its many partners are improving forest practices – for anyone who wants to find it. We encourage you to start here http://www.sfiprogram.org/facts

    – Jason Metnick, SFI Inc.

  8. You might want to step back from some of your misconceptions about the SFI program and focus on the facts.

    Our standard has solid backing from many respected individuals and organizations. The conservation leaders on our board posted an open letter earlier this year (www.goodforforests.com/archives/1038) that said: “It is precisely the power of SFI to sustain fish and wildlife, biodiversity, water quality and ecosystem functions (including mitigating and adapting to climate change) on 180 million acres of forest throughout North America that motivates us to serve on SFI’s board. By serving, we help SFI continue to improve an already strong mechanism to conserve forests and their environmental values.”

    If you really took the time to get to know SFI you would soon learn that our program is valued by family forest owners, conservation organizations, academics, government agencies and community leaders for its many contributions, including unique requirements for landowner outreach, research and training. In fact, more lands held or managed for Aboriginal communities are certified to our standard than any other in North America.

    There’s plenty of evidence that SFI and its many partners are improving forest practices – for anyone who wants to find it. We encourage you to start here http://www.sfiprogram.org/facts

    – Jason Metnick, SFI Inc.

  9. Appreciated, but it doesn’t really address the issue. My analysis is of the contrasting standards between SFI and FSC. My reading of the standards is that SFI’s are substantially less stringent than those of FSC. SFI might argue that this is actually a good thing, or that I am misinterpreting the stringency of the standards. Citing a letter written by SFI board members in response to a campaign having nothing to do with the standards is thus inapposite.

  10. Appreciated, but it doesn’t really address the issue. My analysis is of the contrasting standards between SFI and FSC. My reading of the standards is that SFI’s are substantially less stringent than those of FSC. SFI might argue that this is actually a good thing, or that I am misinterpreting the stringency of the standards. Citing a letter written by SFI board members in response to a campaign having nothing to do with the standards is thus inapposite.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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