If you thought the war of the woods was over, think again. Paper is the new front in the ongoing battle between the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The advocacy group ForestEthics recently announced that seven major companies would stop using the SFI label on their paper products.

Allstate Insurance Company
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Seven major companies, including Allstate Insurance Company (above) and Office Depot, recently announced that they will stop using the SFI label on their paper products.

According to a ForestEthics press release, the following companies (including five from the Fortune 500) have moved away from use of the SFI label:

  • Aetna: Committed to phasing out use of the SFI logo on printed marketing materials.
  • Allstate: Will shift all office paper in Allstate facilities nationwide from SFI-certified to FSC-certified.
  • Garnet Hill: Will no longer print its catalog on paper labeled with the SFI seal.
  • Performance Bicycles: Will no longer print its catalog on SFI-certified paper.
  • Office Depot: Will phase out use of the SFI logo on Office Depot brand papers.
  • Symantec: Removed SFI language from website and committed to integrate this position into internal practices for paper marketing materials and packaging.
  • United Stationers: Committed to using FSC as its benchmark for acceptable forest certification in procurement and marketing.

“We [shifted] after learning key distinctions about paper certification practices from environmental organizations, especially ForestEthics,” explains Allstate spokeswoman Meghann Dowd. “We were already using nearly 50 percent FSC-certified paper in our office printers, copiers, and fax machines, so the transition has been seamless.”

Getting clear, objective information on these “key distinctions” between SFI and FSC can be tricky—in part because sustainable forestry practices vary from region to region, and even from ecosystem to ecosystem within the same forest. Additionally, SFI and FSC prefer to talk around their differences. “You should feel good about choosing either,” says Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. When pressed repeatedly about the disparity between the two standards, Abusow did not offer any specifics, instead pointing out that only 10 percent of forests on earth are certified to any standard, so having a choice between FSC and SFI is “a luxury.” She adds, “It’s not like the supply chains are totally clean. There’s not one SFI pipe and a separate FSC pipe.”

FSC spokesman Brad Kahn asserts that the differences are more clear cut. “FSC is the gold standard,” states Kahn, pointing out that there are substantive reasons that FSC is currently the only sustainable forestry certification accepted by the LEED rating system, including FSC’s more democratic governance as well as its more rigorous standards for water quality, habitat protection, pesticides, and protecting old-growth forests and indigenous people. “Our goal is to make sure we understand the ecological functions and then say the harvest can be tied to those,” Kahn explains. By requiring forestry practices that mirror natural processes, the FSC standard prioritizes forests rather than paperwork, he says. According to Kahn, sustainable forestry “is an art as much as a science.”

Both SFI and FSC say they welcome competition from other systems. “We completely support other approaches to certification, as long as consumers understand what they are getting,” Kahn says, adding, “If someone wants to develop a more rigorous standard, we would support that.” However, he says, no program has so far prompted FSC to raise its own standards. Abusow says competition has in fact made SFI increase its rigor. “SFI is stronger because it has FSC to compete with,” she said. “Competition drives continual improvements.”

While welcoming this competition, Abusow speaks out against the efforts of ForestEthics, Greenpeace, and other groups that undermine SFI’s work. According to Abusow, competition goes awry if consumers are “pressured into having a preference due to misinformation.” She adds, “Our program does more to promote responsible forestry than ForestEthics.”

When asked whether any certification was better than none at all, Kahn was not so sure. “At FSC we’re trying to say that our brand stands for exemplary forestry management—not just on paper, but in the forest,” he says. “When a consumer picks up a product and sees an FSC label, they can be confident” that it came from a well-managed forest. Kahn did not mention any other labels by name, but like Abusow he said misinformation is the real enemy. “I think that if the certification confuses consumers, then it’s doing harm,” concludes Kahn.

For more information
Forest Stewardship Council

Sustainable Forestry Initiative