Submitted: The Two Sides Team April 11, 2013
As Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project reports, Greenpeaces embarrassing public apology last month for its botched attack against Canadas largest forestry company and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) it helped birthwell get to the details of that story soon enough underscores the growing tensions over the forest certification programs designed to protect North Americas woodlands.
Canadas boreal forest, which remains largely untouched, rings the northern hemisphere, covering more than 60% of the countrys landmass. Its dominated by coniferous forests, intermittent wetlands, small villages and wildlife. Its 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 worlds 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.
Its 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 philosophiesalthough 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 hatsunabashedly 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 dont 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, FSCs 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 cant 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 dont 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, its 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 worlds largest forest certification umbrella organization. While the FSC has over 30 different standards around the world which makes it more fractured and confusingSFI 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 programs commitment to sustainability.
Are there significant differences between the competing schemes? Independent observers see a convergence of standards as pressure for transparency on both groups has grown. Canadas 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. Its 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 Americans certified forests, three quarters of the wood from the continents 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 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 LEEDs 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 Quebecs 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.
Greenpeaces action reflected the general sentiment of the radical wing of FSC supporters. Theyve long viewed the forestry industry as a whipping boy to demonstrate the clout of environmental greenmailthreatening 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, thats 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 threatalthough 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 Greenpeaces science-based advocacy for responsible forestry as the group issued a report, Boreal Alarm that threatened to wreak havoc on Resolutes brand if it didnt 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 Resolutes 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 hadnt fumbled its campaign.
What do we make of this? As Peter Foster points out in an analysis in the Financial Post, Greenpeaces take no prisoners strategy is hardly uniqueit 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 greenmailblackmail at the hands of so-called green campaigners.
Thats why its 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; its 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. Greenpeaces 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.