Sustainable Forestry: Industry-Sponsored Scam?

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is the world’s largest forest certification standard and the fastest growing organization for chain of custody certifications–and it might be a scam.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative ad


The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is the world’s largest forest certification standard and the fastest growing organization for chain of custody certifications. More than 181 million acres of land are certified by the nonprofit, which supposedly takes into account qualities like protection of biodiversity, wildlife habitat, sustainable harvest levels, and protection of water quality when awarding certification. But according to a recently released report from Forest Ethics, the whole thing is an industry-sponsored scam.

The report (PDF), entitled SFI: Certified Greenwash, offers up a number of troubling claims: Nearly all of SFI’s funding is from the paper and timber industries; the Fiber Sourcing Label (SFI’s most popular label) doesn’t require chain-of-custody tracking of a product’s origins or content; and perhaps most disturbingly, audits of 543 SFI-certified companies since 2004 failed to report any noncompliance issues related to soil erosion,water quality, clearcutting, and chemical usage.

According to Forest Ethics, the SFI audit team at one point spent five days evaluating a logging area larger than Pennsylvania–and came back with zero violations and no recommendations for improvement.

SFI’s questionable ties extend to the non-profit’s board. Members include Marvin Brown, a former Oregon state forester who resigned because of
accusations that his department was involved in environmentally harmful forestry practices, and Mike Zagata, a controversial former NY State environmental commissioner who resigned, according to the New York Times, because of a series of actions favoring industry over environment.

This doesn’t mean that every SFI-certified logging operation is a mess. Todd Paglia, Executive Director of Forest Ethics, explains in the Huffington Post:

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.

The problem is, of course, that SFI remains a giant in the certification standard world. So in addition to persuading companies to stick with the Forest Stewardship Council, we hope that organizations like Forest Ethics will force SFI to clean up its act–sooner rather than later.


Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more