Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Misleading Labels and Greenwashing: What’s A Consumer to Do?

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

FSC sustainable logging being carried out in the natural forest of Cameroon.

Woe is the eco-conscious consumer. Just when they think they’re buying green, something screws it all up. The latest group allegedly mucking things up is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which is losing corporate sponsors amid allegations of “green-washing.”

First, some background. SFI officially started as a division of the the industry group American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA). Although it officially broke away and turned non-profit in 2001, the now-separate organizations remain closely associated. SFI continues to be funded by AF&PA in the form of tax-deductible donations, according to a new report by the watchdog group (and, in a sense, competitors of SFI) ForestEthics. They allege that those timber industry funds given to SFI “support advertising and brand enhancement for the AF&PA-represented paper and timber industry.”

ForestEthics says that “out of 543 audits of SFI-certified companies since 2004, not one acknowledges any major issues—such as soil erosion, clearcutting, water quality, or chemical usage—that are known to be problems with large-scale timber operations.”

While ForestEthics is the leader of this movement, it isn’t alone. Between March and September of last year, several major companies — including Aetna,  Allstate, AT&T, Office Depot, State Farm, and Sprint — publicly announced their intention to remove the SFI label from their products and/or to avoid the use of SFI-labeled products in the future. Just last week, according to ForestEthics, several more big brands — including Philips Van Heusen, Shutterfly, and U.S. Airways — decided to let go of SFI as well.

President and CEO of SFI, Kathy Abusow, was quick to rebut the allegations put forth by ForestEthics and said that “ForestEthics’ malicious campaigns and bullying tactics will not deter us from [our] focus of responsible forestry and conservation collaboration.”

“Behind the green paint on SFI’s brand is business-as-usual forest destruction,” says Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics. “Today’s leading companies want environmentally responsible partners, not the seal of a timber industry-supported organization that leading environmental groups believe is irresponsible.”

Many of the companies trending away from SFI have instead chosen to become certified by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the regulatory foresting agency that ForestEthics supports. And caught in the middle are consumers, who still aren’t sure of a “green” label’s worth.


  • The group doing the misleading is ForestEthics, which
    continues to plant the same old inaccurate information about SFI, which is
    confusing consumers. As
    a media organization, you have a responsibility to the public to check the
    facts instead of just reprinting press releases. For example, SFI gets
    absolutely no funding from AF&PA and yet your organization has added to the
    misinformation by conveying inaccurate information. The truth is, like
    other third-party forest certification programs, SFI receives funds from those
    that use its standard, which include landowners, forest product companies;
    state, provincial and county agencies; colleges and universities; as well as
    conservation and other non-profit organizations. These funds are used to
    strengthen forest practices and increase knowledge by supporting conservation
    partnerships and outreach across North America and beyond. SFI is strong
    and growing – more and more companies accept and recognize SFI and many have
    inclusive policies, recognizing all credible standards. Please, don’t trust
    Forest Ethics to do your critical thinking for you.  Please turn to
    trusted forestry experts such as the USDA, National Association of State
    Foresters, and the Society of American Foresters to get your facts and
    impressions about SFI – all of these organizations represent experts in this
    field and they all recognize all forest certification standards including SFI. See
    what others are saying about SFI at http://www.sfiprogram.org/others-saying.php,
    and learn the truth about SFI at http://www.sfiprogram.org/facts. 

  • Dale096

    This is the type of controversy the green movement needs to keep it clean and truly green.   Keeps everybody on their toes, and hopefully…. true quality will rise from the debate. Information, statistics can easily be distorted by big bucks that wish to cash in on sustainable realities that are shaping the marketplace.  Public policy can be swayed by, and research dollars can be funneled by misinformation…. money at work.   Keep asking questions; keep demanding transparency and accountability from the “Green advocacy ” groups. Many of them are no more than shills for special interest groups, and money pits that sell a green label… all the while claiming that golden virtue of “non-profits”

  • Aaron Sanger

    Here are the facts, which are sufficiently damning without any additional commentary:

    is controlled by more than 100 direct and indirect (mostly financial)
    relationships between big paper and timber companies and SFI’s board.  Many of these benefactors of SFI are some of the most influential members of the AF&PA (American Forest & Paper Association), so it is not necessary for SFI to get $ directly from AF&PA to be dominated by the AF&PA.

    audits are not effective. The only ones that SFI will make available to the
    public are those that ostensibly showed no major problems. SFI wants us
    to believe that its audits have found major problems, but SFI has made a
    decision not to publish any report about these major problems. SFI wants us to believe its audits are
    rigorous—without giving us any evidence to back it up.

    Twenty of North America’s
    leading environmental groups, including NRDC, Sierra Club, Friends of
    the Earth and Center for Biological Diversity, have come to the same
    conclusion as ForestEthics: SFI greenwashes business as usual forest destruction and
    has no environmental credibility. Here’s the link to the letter those
    environmental experts (plus ForestEthics) wrote to SFI:


    And here’s a link to a comprehensive report full of facts that SFI has never even attempted to challenge:


  • Glenn Hughes

    As a university forester conducting landowner education programs
    in the US South, I cannot take ForestEthics seriously. They trash SFI, but
    their favored alternative, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), is a
    non-starter in the South. Of over 200 million acres of forestland in the South,
    only 3 million acres are FSC certified, mostly in large holdings. SFI, with
    about 20 million acres, and the American Tree Farm System, with about 15
    million acres, dominate and are sensitive to the needs of individual and family
    landowners.  These individuals and
    families hold 70% of the forestland in the South.


    I’ve conducted logger education programs for SFI certified
    loggers (without compensation), but FSC is a no-show in logger education. We
    recently completed a thorough 3rd part audit of the Tree Farm program in our
    state as well.


    Several years ago I was talking to a friend who worked for a
    company that conducted FSC certification. When I complained about their inability
    to reach private landowners, his response was “there’s no money in


    Individual landowners have invested time, effort, and money in
    land and timber in the South, and other regions as well. Many have practiced
    sustainable forestry for decades. They are proud, justifiably, of what they
    have accomplished. ForestEthics is advancing an agenda, and one that is harmful
    of many individuals and families that own forestland.


    Finally, the National Association of State Foresters developed a
    policy statement on forest certification. 
    They concluded that SFI, FSC, and ATFS are all credible certification
    systems.  They stated that “no
    certification program can credibly claim to be “best”, and no certification
    program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain

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