Last month this blog explored some of the differences and validity of the two main “green” wood certification programs in the U.S. – the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
The FSC bills itself as “an independent, non-governmental, not for profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests” while the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) (which the U.S. timber industry established in 1994) bills itself as “an independent, non-profit organization responsible for maintaining, overseeing and improving a sustainable forestry certification program.”
Yesterday, ForestEthics and Greenpeace filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to investigate the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)’s claim to be a ‘green’ certifier of forest products. The complaint argues that SFI’s claim that it is an independent, non-profit public charity is deceptive and misleading because SFI is substantially governed and financed by the timber industry and because its vague and ambiguous forestry standards are developed and approved by timber industry personnel in a closed process.
The complaint is based on the FTC’s recently revised “Green Guides” and is joined by more than 2,800 individual consumers filing their own complaints, and supported by over 8,000 who signed a petition demanding that the FTC take action. This is the largest number of Green Guides complaints concerning a single scheme that the FTC has ever received.
Here is the opening portion of the complaint filed with the FTC:
On behalf of ForestEthics and Greenpeace, the Washington Forest Law Center (“WFLC”) submits this Complaint because consumers are being deceived by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (“SFI”), a timber industry-funded forest certification system developed for the deceptive “green” marketing of lumber and paper products.
This Complaint provides detailed evidence that SFI is materially not in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) revised “Green Guides,” which were formally re-promulgated on October 11, 2012. As set forth below, ForestEthics, Greenpeace, and allies believe that SFI engages in several unfair and deceptive acts and practices, which detrimentally mislead corporate and individual lumber and paper consumers who rely on certification in making purchasing decisions. Hundreds of millions of dollars in “green” spending are at issue.
We ask the FTC to investigate this Complaint and to take enforcement action requiring SFI to either cease its deceptive marketing practices or to make the necessary disclosures so as to comply with the revised Green Guides.
News of this FTC complaint follows closely on the heels of four more major US companies, Hewlett Packard, Office Depot, Southwest, and Cricket, announcing plans to move away from the SFI.
ForestEthics began its campaign against SFI’s greenwashing of forest destruction by filing complaints with the IRS and FTC in 2009. Since then, 24 companies have moved away from the SFI.
In April, the SFI sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter – a threat to sue – to ForestEthics. But, if sued, ForestEthics intends to vigorously stand by its First Amendment right to challenge SFI with truthful facts and opinion and to report SFI to consumer protection government agencies.
“The Sustainable Forestry Initiative label is the timber industry’s cynical effort to get a piece of the highly valuable green marketplace in the US, which is currently valued at $500 billion dollars annually. We have demonstrable proof that in many regions of the U.S. and Canada, SFI offers virtually no environmental protection beyond that already required by state and federal laws and worse, it offers cover and false marketing for companies trying to take advantage of consumers’ best intentions,” said Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics. “It’s no surprise that the SFI is trying to intimidate ForestEthics with threats of a lawsuit – the green marketplace is growing more valuable by the day. Our Federal Trade Commission complaint today is proof positive that we will not be bullied.”
The complaint submitted by ForestEthics and Greenpeace yesterday centers around the following: The FTC’s Green Guides forbids deceptive claims of independence. The SFI claims that it is independent, but it has direct material connections to the forestry and paper products industry. In 2011, 93 percent of SFI’s funding came from SFI “program participants,” that includes a veritable “who’s who” of the timber and paper industry such as logging giants Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek, and Rayonier.
The FTC works on behalf of consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. The FTC’s Green Guides were introduced in 1992 to provide guidance to companies that want to call their products “green” or “eco-friendly” and help marketers ensure that claims they make about environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive. The Green Guides were last revised in 1998 although the FTC began a comprehensive review of the Green Guides in 2007, which resulted in the 2012 revisions.
ForestEthics’ ongoing campaign to expose the SFI’s certification program in the U.S. marketplace began in 2009. ForestEthics’ work has revealed that the widely-used forest certification program is financed and governed by the timber industry. The SFI misleads well-intentioned companies and consumers into thinking they are making environmentally sound choices, when in reality the program “certifies” forestry practices that wreak environmental harm, including logging that create massive landslides, destroys rare wildlife and fish habitat, pollutes streams and rivers, and contaminates communities with toxic herbicides and fertilizers. By engaging with supporters and allies, ForestEthics is exposing the truth behind the SFI label while persuading regulators like the Federal Trade Commission and market leaders like Fortune 500 brands to take a stand against SFI “greenwashing”.
ForestEthics is represented by the Seattle-based Washington Forest Law Center, which played a key role in preparing ForestEthics’ FTC complaint.