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Battle of the Eco-Labels: Controversial Forest Certification Standard Dropped by Aetna, Allstate, Office Depot

Big companies are finally starting to ditch the controversial Sustainable Forestry Initiative eco-label.

clear-cut forest

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Forest certification is a program that ensures that the trees responsible for your paper are treated responsibly. Buy some certified paper and you can rest assured that the trees it came from weren’t clear cut and that there are responsible plans for continuing the growth of the forest. But could it be that the world’s largest forest certification program–Sustainable Forestry Initiative--is a scam? It’s a question we first asked last fall when ForestEthics released its SFI: Certified Greenwash report (PDF), which examines a number of SFI’s misdeeds. Apparently, some major companies also think SFI is bogus. Since ForestEthics released its report, companies like Aetna, Allstate, and Office Depot have begun to phase out SFI-certified paper.

The ForestEthics report on SFI claims that the certification is funded and managed by the world’s largest timber companies, leading to incomplete and useless evaluations. In one particularly damning investigation, ForestEthics discovered that an SFI audit team spent five days examining a logging area bigger than Pennsylvania. The team found zero environmental violations and had no
recommendations for improvement.

These issues are clearly a big deal to big business. A number of leading paper purchasers have modified their use of SFI: Aetna is phasing out the SFI logo from printed marketing materials, Allstate is shifting paper in its facilities from SFI to FSC certification (a competing standard), Symantec is phasing out SFI certification from its paper marketing materials and packaging, and Office Depot has committed to phasing out use of the SFI logo on Office Depot brand paper. United Stationers, Garnet Hill, and Performance Bicycles have also made commitments to ditching SFI certification.

In response to ForestEthics’ press release about paper purchasers ditching SFI, the certification organization posted a statement on its website:

ForestEthics continues to peddle pulp fiction about the Sustainable
Forestry Initiative, repeating the same old inaccurate and misleading
information…While we
respect businesses making choices, the real damage from ForestEthics’
campaign is the uneven playing field that it creates for well-managed
domestic forest practices and products. ForestEthics pushes
organizations to buy FSC only, but the vast majority of FSC’s supply is
offshore. Global trade in forest products is fine, but domestic
products managed to high standards shouldn’t be shut out due to
misinformation campaigns and pressure tactics. That can hurt our forest
communities and cost jobs.

Who should we believe? With so many different eco-labels covering so many different things–SFI, FSC, Fair Trade Certified, Energy Star, to start–it’s difficult to discern which labels are trustworthy and which promote greenwashing. One general rule that companies might try to follow: Avoid using controversial eco-labels to begin with. That way, you don’t have to ditch them later.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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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

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