More Conflict Over Sustainable Forestry

June 2, 2013

An earlier post talked about the conflict over sustainable forestry practices behind House Bill 628.

The bill would prevent any new state building project from seeking certification under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for “green” buildings. The reason — few North Carolina timber producers meet the LEED standard for wood, making their  wood products less competitive for projects seeking LEED certification.   The unusual thing about the conflict is that it has nothing to do with laws or rules.  The decision to seek LEED certification as a “green” building is voluntary on the part of the builder.  A timber operation can decide  to follow the forestry practices necessary to meet the LEED standard for wood products — or not.  House Bill 628 is part of a larger effort by the timber industry to be more competitive in supplying wood for  “green” building projects, but under  a competing set of forestry practice standards developed by the Sustainable Forest Initiative — a program  created  by the forest products industry.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that ForestEthics  and Greenpeace have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charging that the Sustainable Forest Initiative  defrauds the public by  certifying wood and paper products as environmentally sustainable.  The FTC has responsibility for enforcing truth in labeling standards and has found itself in the middle of a number of controversies over “green” product claims. In October 2012, the FTC  released new  guidelines for  “green” product labeling that for the first time include recommended standards for certification programs.

The ForestEthics/Greenpeace complaint  argues that wood products from operations following  Sustainable Forest Initiative standards  are no more environmentally sustainable than other wood products. The two organizations particularly criticize the standards  as allowing overuse of pesticides and clear-cutting and providing too little protection for endangered species. The complaint also claims that the Sustainable Forest Initiative board cannot be considered an independent “green” product certification agency under the  new FTC guidelines because of the  influence of the timber industry.  You can find the full New York Time article here.

The FTC complaint is just the most recent in a series of  skirmishes involving ForestEthics and the Sustainable Forest Initiative. There is no question that the  forest products industry started the Sustainable Forest Initiative; it  began  as a program developed by  the American Forest and Paper  Association.  The Sustainable Forest Initiative certification program now operates as separate nonprofit organization with a governing board that includes representatives of environmental organizations.  ForestEthics argues  that organizational separation from the industry association did not  eliminate  timber industry  influence over the Sustainable Forest Initiative, citing the makeup of the board and its reliance on industry funding. You can find a list of current Sustainable Forest Initiative board members here.

The New York Times reported that it could be months before the public learns whether the FTC has opened a formal investigation of the ForestEthics/Greenpeace complaint.

In the meantime, House Bill 628 has passed the House.  On the Senate side, the bill has been referred to the  Agriculture and Environment Committee.