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Battle rages for eco-minded buyers

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Many paper products sold at an East Portland OfficeMax have this label suggesting the goods were produced in an environmental responsible fashion. Critics say the label amounts to greenwashing.  Portland General Electric sells more renewable energy under its voluntary “green power” options than any utility in the nation. And when it sends out monthly bills, it uses paper and envelopes certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

Tigard-based Stash Tea boasts on its website that it’s always looking for a “greener option.” It eliminated plastic wraps on its tea boxes and notes that all its packaging is now 100 percent recyclable and certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

PGE and Stash Tea are among many local companies using the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s SFI label to establish their green bona fides.

But many environmentalists charge that SFI amounts to

greenwashing, part of a timber industry marketing campaign to woo green-minded customers without significantly changing forest practices.

“This is a case of the logging industry pulling the wool over companies’ and consumers’ eyes,” says Jim Ace, who is leading a campaign against SFI for ForestEthics, a nonprofit in Bellingham, Wash. 

ForestEthics and many of the nation’s biggest environmental groups support a rival green certification system for wood products run by the Forest Stewardship Council or FSC.

Kathy Abusow, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative, says ForestEthics is the one guilty of misleading consumers. “They oversell FSC and they mislead totally on SFI,” she says.

Abusow disputes that FSC criteria for sustainable forest practices are more rigorous than SFI’s. “I think they have stronger language on certain things,” she says, “but they don’t deliver on what they say.”

Playing copycat

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative was created in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association, a timber trade group, as a more lenient, industry-friendly alternative to the Forest Stewardship Council certification introduced the prior year. The FSC was developed and nurtured by European timber companies and nonprofits like the World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club and Greenpeace

to certify that timber was harvested in an environmentally responsible manner.

The SFI became legally independent of the timber industry trade group in 2007, but that didn’t halt the war between industry and environmental groups over the competing labels. It’s essentially a battle for market share among green-minded consumers.

ForestEthics, using gentle persuasion, media campaigns and email blitzes from supporters, pressures companies to stop using the SFI label, and hopefully switch to FSC-certified wood and paper products. So far, it counts 24 success stories, including corporate giants Office Depot, AT&T, Comcast, Aetna, Hewlett-Packard, Sprint and Southwest Airlines. 

In August, Office Depot went beyond its earlier commitment and announced a “greener paper purchasing policy.” Its prior policy granted equal consideration to stocking SFI- and FSC-certified paper products, but the new policy establishes a preference for FSC. In a news release, the company says its policy change came after consulting with the World Wildlife Fund and other nonprofits, “but also reflects Office Depot analysis of the principles and on-the-ground practice of forestry in FSC-certified forests.” 

The lone local company among ForestEthic’s list of success stories is Norm Thompson Outfitters, a Hillsboro-based retailer that relies on Internet and catalog sales. CEO Martin McClanan declined an interview, but released a brief statement saying his company “will continue to explore opportunities to utilize FSC-certified recycled papers in our catalogs.”

Another local company targeted by ForestEthics is Hanna Andersson, a Portland-based retail chain inspired by Swedish fashion styles and known for its progressive management. Despite multiple contacts from ForestEthics and an email blitz from its supporters, “Hanna Andersson has completely stonewalled us,” Ace says. 

Hanna Andersson and Stash Tea didn’t respond to interview requests. 

PGE spokesman Steve Corson says it’s the first his staff have heard of greenwashing allegations against SFI. PGE procurement staff looked into ways to make the utility’s business practices more sustainable a couple years ago, Corson says, and “found it to be a reputable program.”

They also looked into FSC, he says, but found it didn’t certify the bulk paper in huge rolls that the utility uses for bills and envelopes. “One reason they went with SFI is that it did cover the part of the market we were looking for,” Corson says. 

The utility also researched the origin of the paper it uses, he says, and found that a high percentage of it came from poplar fiber farms, as opposed, for example, to clear-cut forests. “We’re not just looking at a bug and saying ‘we’re good,’ “ Corson says.

Different notions of

sustainability

FSC and SFI backers both claim their certification systems promote sustainability of forests, though they have different notions of what that means. 

In Oregon, analysts say FSC provides more robust ecosystem protections during timber-cutting, while SFI is geared toward assuring continued use of forests as plantations for timber production. 

FSC restricts clear cuts here to an average of 40 acres, with no single one exceeding 60 acres, and anything more than six acres must preserve at least 10 percent of the trees, Ace says.

SFI allows clear cuts that average 120 acres, the same as the legal limit under Oregon law.

FSC generally bars the use of persistent and hazardous pesticides and herbicides, while SFI encourages logging companies to use the minimum amount deemed necessary. 

In Western Oregon’s rich Douglas fir forests, the SFI rules mean loggers can continue using the maximum clear cuts allowed by law, then replant and spray herbicides to keep new foliage from crowding out the sun, so new seedlings can grow.

FSC forbids converting an Oregon forest from a diverse ecosystem into one planted with a single species such as Douglas fir, while that is permitted by SFI.

FSC also bars the use of genetically modified organisms, which are allowed by SFI.

Both systems have many common features, such as required third-party audits to verify their standards are met. SFI, mimicking the FSC, switched to a board with an equal number of industry, environmental and social sector leaders.

SFI’s board includes leaders of The Conservation Fund and Ducks Unlimited Canada. Until recently, it also included the CEOs of Northwest timber giants Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek Timber. Now there’s only one board member whose company is connected to the trade group that founded SFI, Abusow says. 

Abusow dismisses the agreements ForestEthics wrested from the 24 companies as hollow victories.

“They have not changed their buying practices,” she says. “They’re just asking them not to show the SFI label on their products any more.”

The SFI website says the nonprofit has now approved the use of its label on more than 6,000 wood, paper and packaging products, up from 50 in 2007. It gets about 25 requests a day to use its label, Abusow says. 

Critics concede SFI raises the bar in some parts of the country, but say it hasn’t significantly improved forestry practices in Oregon because its guidelines closely parallel what’s allowed under state law.

“It’s really hard to say definitively what they are requiring above the law,” says Robert

Hrubes, executive vice president of SCS Global Services, who has conducted independent audits for several state forestry departments seeking dual FSC and SFI certification. “The most substantial contribution that SFI makes is on the area of logger training,” Hrubes says.

A typical dual audit will result in 15 to 17 findings that corrective actions are needed to meet FSC standards, such as for streamside buffers and protecting wildlife, Hrubes says. That same audit will find only two to three relatively minor issues to meet SFI standards, he says.

The strategy of the timber industry and SFI is to get the public to think choosing between the two green lumber certification systems is like choosing between Coke and Pepsi, says Peter Goldman, founder and director of the Washington Forest Law Center, a public interest law firm. Yet many loggers complain they can’t afford FSC’s stricter environmental standards, Goldman says, which is why FSC-certified wood can cost 15 percent more at the lumber yard.

FSC isn’t perfect, he says, but it requires improvements in standard forest practices.

“We’re talking about seizing the green marketplace,” Goldman says, “and can we have an impostor like SFI put a green label on standard industry practices.”