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Sustainable forestry or greenwashing?

Updated: May 11, 2023

One of the largest forest certification programs in North America is under investigation for greenwashing forest products. Ecojustice, an environmental law charity, first filed a complaint in November 2022 against the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) which resulted in this investigation. I reached out to both parties to understand better why exactly the SFI is under investigation.

“I don’t know when the Competition Bureau will release its statement but I believe the bureau will agree with us because we gave compelling evidences,” says Kegan Pepper-Smith, one of the lawyers at Ecojustice.

In February 2023, the Competition Bureau launched an investigation after a complaint filed by Ecojustice and other organizations. For them, it is a key step towards holding the SFI accountable for greenwashing forest products.

However, if the lawyer thinks that the evidence are compelling, the SFI states that their “application has no merit, and in fact, some of the same complainants (and similar groups) filed similar complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States, and after investigation, the FTC found no violation and took no enforcement action.”

If history repeats itself, Ecojustice will increase public awareness about the certification and use public pressure to be heard, according to Pepper-Smith. “Ultimately, it’s an unfair fight for us because there is very limited ways to fight one of America’s largest forest certification. The Competition Bureau is one of the few avenues we have to hold SFI accountable,” he adds.

For the SFI, the main argument of the complaint was based on semantics only which makes it weak and thus very unlikely for Ecojustice to succeed. The complaint that led to the investigation, indeed, states that the “sustainable logging certification is misleading and false” because, as Pepper-Smith explains, “it encourages consumers to purchase wood products sourced from some of Canada’s most at-risk forests.”

On the other hand, the certification organization declares that it has “its own definition of sustainability designed to be used by professionals at certification bodies and certified organizations.”

So what is “sustainable” exactly?

The SFI’s definition of sustainable forestry is: “integrating reforestation and the managing, growing, nurturing and harvesting of trees for useful products” and also “the provision of ecosystem services such as the conservation of soil, air and water quality and quantity.”

“From a scientific perspective, we would consider sustainable a certification that conserves the ecological balance of lands by avoiding creating imbalances in the ecosystem,” says Liat Podolsky, a senior scientist at Ecojustice. As reported by the scientist, the SFI certifies certain logging operations that are not conserving forests but rather depleting ecosystems. For instance, Ecojustice affirms that the sustainability certification allows clearcutting. But if new trees are planted and replace the ones cut, isn’t it a good thing? Not necessarily, points out Podolsky.

“They allow clear cutting and replace the trees that have been cut with young trees. But some forests’ biodiversity are not replaceable, at least not in the short term. Some ecosystems rely exclusively on old forests. You cannot replace old grown habitat by planting new trees. Some species rely specifically on these old habitats and are, thus, at risk. And in general, the productivity and regeneration of a forest is at risk too,” she explains.

The research on intact forest landscape – which are the old forests Podolsky mentioned – shows that these forests have been reduced by 7.2 per cent since the year 2000 (industrial logging, agricultural expansion, fire, and mining being the primary causes of this reduction). Other studies indicate that losing intact forests can “exacerbate climate change effects” and result in “the extinction of many species, harm communities worldwide by disrupting regional weather and hydrology, and devastate the cultures of many indigenous communities.”

If the Competition Bureau agrees with Ecojustice, the SFI may be required to remove sustainability claims from its public communications about the SFI standard, and from the name of the program itself, but also to publicly retract its sustainability claims and pay a fine of up to $10 million directed towards conservation projects. I’ll be keeping my eye on this story. Stay tuned.


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