Forestry labeling war turns ugly as Greenpeace bungles logging industry attack

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Article Highlights

  • Canada’s boreal forest is a key source of forestry and mining products but also has a thriving tourist industry.

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  • The Canadian boreal forestry mêlée is really a skirmish between the 2 major forestry eco-label schemes.

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  • Policies regarding the procurement of timber should be informed by facts and science, not scare tactics.

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Three years ago, executives from a variety of groups that can’t stand being in the room with one another—forest companies, corporations that use forestry products and anti-big business international non-government organizations (NGOs)—forged what was hailed as a breakthrough deal. The 2010 boreal agreement brought together nine environmental groups, many of them openly hostile to loggers, and 21 members of the Forest Products Association of Canada with a goal of increasing protections of 75 million hectares of forest in Canada. Essentially it was a truce between the logging industry and environmental groups, which have been at odds for decades.

Canada’s boreal forest, which remains largely untouched, rings the northern hemisphere, covering more than 60 percent of the country’s landmass. It’s dominated by coniferous forests, intermittent wetlands, small villages and wildlife. It’s an area of genuine contradictions: the boreal is a key source of forestry and mining products but also has a thriving, if limited, tourist industry, and the vast woodlands serve as one of the world’s primary carbon sinks. No wonder it has been the focus of the never-ending tensions between the Canadian government, aligned with commercial interests, usually at loggerheads with hard-core environmentalists, who oppose commercialization in principle regardless of the potential tradeoffs.

Under the agreement, the companies agreed to stop logging in certain areas, including valuable regions for caribou habitat, while the environmental groups agreed to back off from their anti-logging campaigns. They agreed to work together on the details of how to set aside valuable habitat for conservation while still allowing forestry companies limited harvesting in other areas.

It’s been an uneasy deal. This tension strikes a familiar chord in the classic battle between developers and protectionists, between those in government and industry who see nature as a resource that can be sustainably developed versus those who believe that vast land areas have inviolable “rights” and should not be subject to commercial use regardless of (or even in spite of) the potential economic bonanzas they might yield.

FSC v SFI

The Canadian boreal forestry mêlée is actually a skirmish in the an ongoing battle between the two major forestry eco-label schemes: the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), a favorite of campaigning greens, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which was launched by a range of parties independent from but with the financial support of the American Forestry & Paper Association. The SFI has since broken off and currently operates as a fully-independent non-profit organization.

The two schemes have different roots and practices but converging philosophies—although one would never know that from listening to the high decibel rhetoric when forestry labeling initiatives are debated. Both plans arose in response to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that called for a focus on “sustainable” and “smart growth” development. While both are legally “voluntary”, meaning that they were not created by governments but by private firms, NGOs or coalitions of producers and consumers, in reality they have evolved into mandatory seals of approval in global markets. Key commercial actors, such as large retailers, traders or processing companies, now require their implementation.

Some voluntary standards are also referenced in government regulations. In fact, the US government is currently in the crosshairs of a contentious exchange between SFI and FSC supporters as to what the government should require in construction projects to meet federal sustainable guidelines. Many projects receiving taxpayer subsidies favor FSC-certified wood.

The FSC was formed by a coalition of advocacy groups including Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Foundation. It now represents more than 800 groups, mostly outside the United States where it certifies more than 90% of its land. Organizations other than FSC certify 75% of North American forests.

More aggressive FSC members like Greenpeace, ForestEthics and the Dogwood Alliance see themselves as ‘white hats’—unabashedly and aggressively campaign focused, anti-corporate, opposed to fossil fuels at all costs and dismissive of the role of biotechnology and pesticide management in sustainable forestry. To them, SFI represents ‘black hat’ “Big Timber” and is nothing more than a “greenwashing scam.” They launch attack campaigns when they don’t get their way.

“Sometimes companies need a little encouragement,” brags ForestEthics on its website. “When companies refuse to change their harmful practices, ForestEthics holds them publicly accountable. We get creative with online and offline actions, including protests, websites, email campaigns and national advertisements. No corporation can afford to have its brand be synonymous with environmental destruction.”

Because it was cobbled together over years and is dominated by an anti-development bias, FSC’s rules vary across countries and regions. In fact, FSC labels do not disclose under which standards a wood product may have been certified. That means that product claims can’t be verified in many cases.

There are other anomalies, especially when it comes to set aside standards. For example, supposedly green Sweden has to protect only 5% of its forests while the United Kingdom has a 15% requirement; certain areas in the U.S. are required to restrict 10-25% of a given property. In countries without national standards, FSC permits certification authorities to use “interim” clear-cut limits and so-called “green up” requirements for new growth tree height that don’t necessarily reflect standards backed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and other global initiatives.

These anomalies irk some early FSC supporters, such as Simon Counsell, who has set up a website, FSC Watch, to monitor the problematic practices of the green group. The monitoring group recently attacked the FSC for its policies in Sweden, charging that there is a growing consensus that the “’Swedish model’ of forestry is failing to protect biodiversity, and old growth forests continue to be clear-cut, including those with FSC certification.”

The FSC is also controversial in the developing world. When it was first formed, there was widespread concern that pristine forests were being “raped” by developers in cahoots with corrupt governments. Its response was to set up a standard that denied certification to any operations undertaken on land converted after November 1994. Although the motive for the action was understandable, it’s proven a crude and unworkable tool. It has limited application in many countries pursuing reasonable policies, in effect favoring the developed world, which long ago started converting its usable timberlands. Understandably, many developing countries, like Indonesia, feel constrained by restrictions imposed on them by what they consider anti-development campaigners.

What about the SFI? Its founding in the mid-1990s led to immediate charges of cronyism. In 2005, it linked with European forestry groups, such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the world’s largest forest certification umbrella organization. While the FSC has over 30 different standards around the world —which makes it more fractured and confusing—SFI has one single standard.

LEED and the schism in the United States

Green groups remain adamant that the differences between the labeling initiatives are vast and unbridgeable, dismissing SFI as a “creature of vested interest”. One would think by listening to them that only businesses and loggers support SFI. In fact, groups like the Conservation Fund, National Association of Conservation Districts, National Council for Air and Stream Improvement and the Wildlife Society vouch for the certification program’s commitment to sustainability.

ForestEthics and the Dogwood Alliance have emerged as the FSC’s pit bulls, going so far as threatening and bullying companies they consider “weak links,” susceptible to consumer campaigns. They’ve targeted Kroger’s, KFC/Yum Brands, and even high-end brands such as Louis Vuitton for using SFI certified packaging and have convinced at least 21 prominent brands, including Kimberly Clark and Office Depot to phase out the SFI label, and Target into adopting FSC-friendly policies.

Are there significant differences between the competing schemes? Independent observers see a convergence of standards as pressure for transparency on both groups has grown. Canada’s EcoLogo and TerraChoice, part of Underwriters Laboratories Global Network, each rate SFI and FSC identically. A United Nations joint commission recently concluded: “Over the years, many of the issues that previously divided the systems have become much less distinct. The largest certification systems now generally have the same structural programmatic requirements.”

University-based researchers who have scrutinized the two labeling programs have found few meaningful differences. For example North Carolina State professor Frederick Cubbage, North Carolina State University Forest Manager Joseph Cox and a team of researchers concluded that while SFI and FSC “have a slightly different focus, both prompt substantial, important changes in forest management to improve environmental, economic, and social outcomes.”

The convergence in standards has not stalled the politicization of the labeling competition. The two systems are currently going head to head in the US. The FSC has been entrenched because of the support from the US Green Building Council. USGBC adopted FSC standards in the mid-1990s, when it was the only game in town, for its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. It’s remained loyal because of fierce lobbying by green activists. Hundreds of cities and agencies in the US now mandate LEED standards, which means that FSC receives preferential treatment in building projects across the country.

This has created some unintended consequences. Because FSC label accounts for just one quarter of North American’s certified forests, three quarters of the wood from the continent’s certified forests are not eligible for LEED sourcing credits. As a result, LEED creates incentives for green building projects to import wood from overseas, resulting in the browning of the supply chain from excess carbon emissions generated by shipping costs. Nonetheless, activist greenies have dug in their heels, determined to do everything in their power to delegitimize competing systems.

The USGBC has never explained why only FSC forests can receive LEED credits. Michael Goergen, Jr., CEO of the Society of American Foresters, has criticized the USGBC for not including other standards, stating, “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific, especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices.”

Some believe LEED’s FSC-only framework has led to a loss of jobs. Union leader Bill Street of the International Association of Machinists stated that the “ideological driven ‘exclusivity’ of FSC means that systems such as LEED contribute to rural poverty and unemployment while simultaneously adding economic pressure to convert forest land to non-forest land uses.”

Growing concern about the rigidity of the LEED program has led to the emergence of a competing green building initiative in the US. Green Globes, run by the Green Building Initiative, recognizes the SFI and is now in the running along with FSC to be the preferred federal certification program. The Defense Department, one of the earliest LEED adopters and a huge source of new construction, is currently not allowed to spend public funds to achieve LEED’s “gold” or “platinum” certification because of questions about whether the added costs are justified by the benefits.

War breaks out in Canada

These schisms have played out in Canada, where Greenpeace launched its rogue campaign to bring down the fragile sustainability coalition, which it had only tepidly embraced. The CBFA clearly stipulates that Canadian forest managers can certify their practices to certificate programs run by FSC or by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and its ally, the Canadian Standards Association. That has rankled the extremist NGOs, like ForestEthics and Greenpeace, which advocated a more adversarial stance, convinced that the SFI and the Forest Products Association of Canada was secretly undermining the agreement. They registered their disapproval of the CBFA from the beginning and have been threatening to undermine it. Finally, late last fall, they did just that.

In December, Greenpeace pulled the trigger, claiming it had proof from GPS-tagged video and pictures that one of the coalition industry members, Resolute Forest Products, was building logging roads in areas forbidden by the agreement. It released pictures it said were taken in August 2012 in Quebec’s Montagnes Blanches region, and it promptly resigned from the CBFA.

“This is a deal breaker for us,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Stephanie Goodwin. “There is no agreement left to uphold. With the boreal forest under threat, the only responsible decision for Greenpeace is to pursue other pathways to obtain results in the forest.”

Greenpeace’s action reflected the general sentiment of the radical wing of FSC supporters. They’ve long viewed the forestry industry as a whipping boy to demonstrate the clout of environmental greenmail—threatening corporations with public campaigns to get them to capitulate to their demands, which often include economic payoffs in the form of contributions to their campaigns. In essence, that’s how CBFA came into existence. Canadian foresters reached the truce only after a vicious “Do Not Buy” campaign launched against its members that claimed that the boreal was under imminent threat—although no independent Canadian government or international agency agreed with those hard-edged NGO allegations.

Unlike Kimberly-Clark and Quebec-based hardware and lumber retailer Rona, which buckled under harsh criticism and paid greenmail, Resolute fought back, providing documentation that the allegations were untrue. It supplied “concrete milestones” that it had reached for caribou protection and the implementation of best practices.

When its prey did not drop, Greenpeace reloaded and fired again. Spokesperson Shane Moffat trumpeted “Greenpeace’s science-based advocacy for responsible forestry” as the group issued a report, Boreal Alarm that threatened to wreak havoc on Resolute’s brand if it didn’t junk its logging practices, already approved under the terms of the CBFA coalition, in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

Greenpeace and its key allies were surprised at Resolute’s resoluteness. But the company believed it was standing on firm factual ground and refused to be bullied. Finally in a huge embarrassment, on March 19, the activist group admitted it had bungled its “investigation” and that the unimpeachable videos and photos were just plain wrong. Even as it crowed about its 40 years of commitment to “best available science and research,” Greenpeace admitted it relied on “inaccurate maps” before launching its highly public and damaging attacks.

“We felt it was imperative to own up to our error,” said spokesperson Goodwin. Yet, Greenpeace continued to oppose the CBFA, saying it would have quit the organization even if it hadn’t fumbled its campaign.

What do we make of this? As Peter Foster points out in an analysis in the Financial Post, Greenpeace’s “take no prisoners” strategy is hardly unique—it mirrors the aggressive tractics used by the FSC in establishing itself as a powerful voice in the forestry eco label movement. Organizations that are openly hostile to industry and often ignorant of basic business practices demand payoffs from companies who usually fork over their “dues” in fear of being the target of highly public smear campaigns. Its greenmail—blackmail at the hands of so-called green campaigners.

That’s why it’s so important that there are choices when it comes to eco-labels, particularly in the forestry management area. Many FSC proponents are decidedly anti-development and opposed to controversial technologies, including sustainable biotechnology; the SFI does not resort to or encourage greenmail; it’s less confrontational, which clearly does not sit well its harshest critics, like aggressive environmental groups, such as Greenpeace.

Policies regarding the procurement of timber, use of building codes and what businesses can sell to their customers should be informed by facts and science, not scare tactics. Greenpeace’s deception is only the latest propaganda effort that has muddied rather than clarified the issues surrounding forestry practices. With a majority of forests lacking certification, we need common-sense incentives and more certification options to achieve sustainable forestry management goals. Consumers and the general public deserve much better than the disinformation campaigns that have shadowed this debate.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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