The collaboratively-established Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is widely considered by to be the strongest forest certification body in Canada. While FSC is not perfect, it is far superior to its key competitor, the industry-created Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which has been roundly critiqued as permitting harmful logging practices that fail to protect forest ecosystems and Indigenous rights. But over many years, a troubling dynamic has persisted, wherein actors in the Canadian logging industry, the companies that purchase wood products from these actors, and even the Canadian government, broadly claim logging in Canada is sustainable simply because so much of it is third-party certified. This sweeping endorsement of these third-party certification not only misrepresents the sustainability of logging across much of Canada, but also obscures the significant disparities between these systems.
Take Procter & Gamble (P&G) and some of its key wood pulp suppliers, for example. P&G, which purchases over 500,000 metric tons of wood pulp from Canada’s boreal forest each year, has a stated preference for FSC-certified wood in its sourcing. Yet in its public materials, P&G and its suppliers will praise FSC in one sentence, and shortly after suggest that weaker certification bodies provide similarly strong protections for forests and communities. This equivocation legitimizes FSC’s weaker competitors and their inferior sustainability practices, all while the companies purport to be FSC’s staunch supporters.
A particularly egregious example of this harmful messaging is in a recent report P&G filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission. This report was written in order to assure P&G’s investors that the company is demonstrating sufficient action to protect global forests after 67% of shareholders called on the company to address significant gaps in their approach at their most recent shareholder meeting last October.
In this report, P&G notes its preference for FSC, and calls the certification system “one of the world’s most trusted and robust forest certifications.” But the company goes onto to suggest all certification systems are equivalent by claiming that all the third-party certifiers they rely on for pulp “ensure forests are responsibly managed,” and that they all “protect biodiversity,” “preserve water, soil, and air,” “respect [the] right of Indigenous peoples,” and “ensure no deforestation.” For multiple certifications P&G relies on, including SFI, these claims are simply not true.
P&G is not alone in characterizing SFI as a sustainable source of wood; it’s a stance shared by some of its key pulp suppliers operating in Canada’s boreal forest. Domtar, for example, one of the world’s largest producers of market pulp, claims on its website that the company has a preference for FSC certification. Yet the same webpage indicates that SFI certification ensures “preservation of wildlife, plants, soil, water, and air quality.” Similarly, Aditya Birla states that SFI is “designed to ensure prevention of environmental damage, continuous improvement in environmental performance and promote best forest management practices.” Yet environmental experts have highlighted that SFI’s requirements for companies are broadly either too weak or nonspecific to prevent logging practices that threaten wildlife and broader ecosystems.
In terms of SFI’s approach to Indigenous rights, Resolute Forest Products recently claimed, “Both SFI and FSC forest management standards include requirements for Indigenous engagement, consultation, relations and respect of rights.” This obscures the fact that Indigenous experts on forest certification have determined that SFI’s requirements around protecting Indigenous rights are far weaker than FSC’s.
The impacts of these corporate statements are significant. First, they legitimize the companies’ sourcing of non-FSC wood with much weaker environmental safeguards. Second, by characterizing both SFI and FSC as having strong environmental protections, companies confuse consumers and investors, who are told that both certification bodies are robust even though environmental experts, Indigenous experts, and even various companies have expressed strong concerns with SFI.
These statements ultimately provide cover for any forest managers and companies that might wish to maintain their reliance on unsustainable logging practices, by dramatically reducing any reputational benefit companies would get by going through the effort of certifying forests under FSC. Why would they bother requiring the more sustainable logging practices mandated by FSC if they can rely on SFI and still be publicly praised as logging wood responsibly? FSC certification, with its more robust safeguards, is harder for companies to obtain and maintain, and FSC currently certifies a fraction of the certified areas in Canada that SFI does. Meanwhile, companies’ ongoing praise for SFI as a strong certification system threatens to widen this gap even further.
This is a situation where words very much matter, and it’s time for these companies to end the double-talk. If companies are actually committed to sustainable forestry, they must be clear about which systems are robust, and which are not. If these companies support FSC, they should publicly say why weaker certifications are inadequate, and ultimately require all of their wood to meet the highest sourcing standards. Otherwise, greenwashing unsustainable logging practices could have dire consequences for the earth’s forests and all that depend on them.