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The Sustainable Forestry Initiative's Greenwash: Snake Oil for the 21st Century

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This week ForestEthics released "SFI: Certified Greenwash", a report that exposes the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's (SFI) industry-sponsored greenwash of wood and paper products.

If you were in Chicago at the 1893 World Fair you couldn't have missed the shrieks and groans at one of the fair's most sensational displays of hucksterism: the peddling of snake oil by the Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley. Claiming it was good for "man and beast" and that it would provide relief for all kinds of ailments, Mr. Stanley made a killing, literally and figuratively, with his product.

This week in Chicago at Greenbuild, the worlds' largest green building conference, a different type of snake oil is being peddled, one even more dubious and with far more deleterious effect: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) eco-label for wood and paper products. Think "good housekeeping seal of approval," except for forests.

Using the very same branding and marketing tools pioneered by the Rattlesnake King and his cronies, the SFI is peddling an environmental seal of approval with about as much credibility to protect forests as snake oil had to cure rheumatism.

Why is an eco-label the snake oil-du-jour? Combine tremendous marketing value in 'going green' with little-to-no oversight on how 'green' is defined, and one can start to get the idea. In the past few years, the global market for green goods has expanded to $500 billion, and the number of eco-labels has jumped up to more than 300 worldwide, all of them clamoring to become the official seal of green approval.

Some of these eco-labels trace their methods straight back to the Rattlesnake King. In the case of snake oil, "the shill," a supposedly free-willed person from the crowd, steps forward to sing the praises of the Rattlesnake King's potion. This "independent endorsement" was a critical element in snake oil sales -- a simple ploy, and now deep-seated cliché. Coupled with mass market branding, the shill's independent verification was discovered to be a more potent tool than anyone could have suspected. Many industries adopted this method in the years to come.

This week at Greenbuild, you will find the SFI peddling the wares of the forest industry as certified "green" products. And while posing as an independent body -- the SFI claims it is "fully independent" -- the organization couldn't be more closely linked to the logging industry. The SFI won't actually release detailed financial information on its donors, but it appears that virtually all of its income comes directly from logging companies, wood and paper product companies, and land developers. A report released by ForestEthics this week finds that the majority of the SFI board of directors has significant links to the logging industry through direct financial donations, joint business deals, and interlocking boards.

SFI does tout that a portion of its board members hails from non-profit environmental or conservation organizations. But some of the board members who appear to represent legitimate environmental non-profits have resumes as shaky as the Rattlesnake King himself. For example, Michael Zagata, a longtime SFI board member, was labeled the "most controversial agency head" of former New York Governor George Pataki's administration. As Pataki's Environmental Conservation Commissioner, he resigned under pressure due to what The New York Times called "countless troubles", including "a series of actions favoring industry over the environment."

Just last month, SFI board president Marvin Brown resigned his position as Oregon State Forester following a controversial tenure in which his department was accused of conducting and tolerating environmentally harmful forestry practices, including violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Both of these gentlemen continue to sit on SFI's board. Meanwhile, the board members that were associated with independent environmental organizations -- the directors of Trout Unlimited and the Trust for Public Land -- both resigned within a year of joining the SFI.

Well, at least the audits conducted by SFI are rigorous, right? Think again. SFI's audits are actually so friendly to forest destruction that in a survey of 543 audits since 2004 only eight found any significant problems -- and of these, seven were approved within a year. In other words, the chance of being denied the SFI eco-label, if a company's logging practices are even audited, is .0018%. Not quite as rigorous as, say, the IRS' auditing standards...

And what qualified as a 'significant problem' in SFI's audits? Excess garbage on a work site, failure to join the timber industry's largest trade association, and failure to join an SFI subcommittee, among other modest infractions. What are largely missing from these inspections are any concerns about the major issues that affect the sustainability of forests: soil erosion, clearcut procedures, watershed issues, and herbicide usage. It is telling that a two-person SFI audit team spent only five days inspecting a logging area the size of Pennsylvania and found not a single area for improvement. Really?

Some logging companies, even those that are part of SFI, are beginning to clean up their act. They are adopting higher standards in some cases and seeking truly independent certification through the far more rigorous and not industry controlled Forest Stewardship Council eco-label. This is important progress and these companies should be encouraged to continue down that path. Using SFI to greenwash business-as-usual logging is a distraction to the more laudable work that some environmentally responsible companies are doing. And more importantly in many ways, use of the industry created SFI label is just dishonest.

The SFI is shilling for Big Timber but this is a shill on steroids. If only the Rattlesnake King's snake oil sales benefited from a multi-million dollar advertising budget: full-page ads in The New Yorker and Fortune Magazine, slick branding materials, a sophisticated website, and more. We might all still be buying snake oil. But we don't have to -- its time to call a shill a shill: Don't buy SFI.

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