SFI Offers Greenwashing of Unsustainable Logging

As the climate crisis intensifies, scientists stress that conserving never-logged primary forests must be a global priority for protecting carbon stores.

Photo by Jennifer Skene

As the climate crisis intensifies, scientists stress that conserving never-logged primary forests must be a global priority for protecting carbon stores. Yet a chance at protecting these forests is being undermined by the so-called Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a forestry certification system created by the logging industry to give consumers the impression that particular operations were sustainable, as an alternative to the more widely-respected Forest Stewardship Council. For years, environmental and human rights experts have widely lambasted SFI for greenwashing: misleading the public about the true costs of its certified logging operations.

SFI claims that its new standards, launched January 2022, “support SFI’s leadership in offering solutions to some of the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges.” But the public, and large companies that purchase SFI-certified wood products, should not be fooled. SFI’s requirements for logging operations continue to be weak, vague, and risk certifying operations that may have violated Indigenous rights and destroyed large areas of primary forest.

SFI in Canada

Canada has one of the world’s highest levels of industrial clearcutting of large areas of primary forests: places that have never before been logged. Primary forests contain critical stores of carbon, which will need to remain undisturbed in the fight against civilization-destabilizing climate change. Primary forests encompass the traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples, and offer vital habitat for threatened forest species. They are irreplaceable in their values and are rapidly shrinking from industrial disturbances. Yet Canada’s government and industry actors allege that industrial logging in these areas is sustainable in large part because much of Canada’s forestlands are certified by third-party organizations.

Yet certification is poor justification for clearing some of the world’s last primary forests. Not only does over-reliance on certification allow Canada to shirk responsibility for legally-binding forest protections – Canada has the lowest percentage of protected lands of the G7 countries, for example – but it also legitimizes weak forest certification schemes, whose requirements are too weak and/ or nebulous to prevent harmful logging practices. SFI, in particular, is a notoriously weak forest certification scheme which nonetheless is the most widely-adopted forest certification in Canada (with far more forest area certified than FSC). SFI promises that its revised new standards include important safeguards, yet a close look at its requirements largely reveals more weak and inconsequential requirements for logging companies. While the Sierra Club has done an excellent in-depth analysis of many of its deficiencies, below is a snapshot of some of its most concerning weaknesses:

SFI Fails to Require Free, Prior and Informed Consent from Indigenous Peoples

Securing the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from Indigenous Peoples who could be impacted by industrial operations is one of the bare minimum rights that any company operating in Indigenous Peoples’ traditional territories should uphold. And yet, many of Canada’s most powerful logging companies fail to guarantee that FPIC has been obtained for their operations. Rather than hold these companies to a higher standard, SFI lets them off the hook, risking the SFI-certification of operations that disregard the rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

For example, the SFI 2022 standard says certified forestry operations “shall recognize and respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights,” and “shall develop and implement a written policy acknowledging a commitment to recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Yet it is entirely vague about what these specific rights are, and the words “recognize” and “respect” fail to actually require any adherence to upholding specific rights. SFI also fails to require that companies collaborate with potentially impacted Indigenous Peoples on their “written policy,” meaning this policy risks being little more than whatever a logging company wants it to be. Loggers are expected to vaguely “confer” with, and “are encouraged to communicate with,” Indigenous Peoples whose very rights may be affected by logging operations on public and private lands respectively. Shockingly, the forest management standard does not mention FPIC or “consent” at all. This represents a failure to require adherence to specific bare-minimum Indigenous rights.

SFI Fails to Protect Primary Forests

Primary forests contain vital carbon storage, offer refuge for threatened species, and have other critical ecosystem values. In recent years Canada has had the third highest level of declining intact forest landscapes (large connected areas of primary forest) globally, meaning protections for these areas is urgent. Yet SFI’s standard requires no protections for primary forests and/ or intact forest landscapes vulnerable to logging. In fact, neither “primary forests” nor “intact forest landscapes” appear at all in the standard, despite the fact that the unique value of these undisturbed areas is a widely recognized concept by scientists, environmental groups, and even FSC. This gaping lack of protections could allow logging companies to tout SFI’s approval of their operations while they simultaneously clearcut some of the world’s most important natural carbon stores. 

SFI Fails to Safeguard Threatened Species 

The erosion of Canada’s forests driving alarming species declines and pushing at-risk species close to the brink of disappearing forever. Species threatened by industrial logging include the iconic boreal caribou: a species that requires older intact forest landscapes to survive over time, and a species which is deeply integral to many Indigenous cultures in Canada. Yet SFI, unlike FSC, does not even mention caribou in its forest management standard, and more broadly its references to threatened species are far too vague to require any meaningful protections. For example, the standard states that “Certified Organizations shall apply knowledge gained through research, science, technology, field experience and the results of monitoring of the effectiveness of conservation-related programs to manage wildlife habitat and contribute to the conservation of biological diversity.” However, it then indicates that information guiding a policy could come from virtually any “reputable” organization, with no requirement that this is peer-reviewed science and/ or verified by Indigenous wildlife experts. The standard’s weak language risks a self-regulating dynamic where companies can create extremely weak policies without having to prove their effectiveness, or even that they have a strong evidentiary basis.

SFI's Labels Are Misleading

The “SFI Certified Sourcing” label is one of the most misleading facets of SFI, that allows wood products from logging operations without any SFI-certifications (or stronger certifications) to bear an SFI logo, as long as certain vague requirements are met. SFI states, “The SFI Certified Sourcing label and claim do not make claims about certified content,” (my italics). This is another way that SFI certification can be deeply confusing to consumers, and SFI’s practice is even worse than competing certification schemes which allow limited volumes of wood to be “mixed” with wood from their own certified operations. SFI’s Certified Sourcing label allows potentially enormous volumes of wood logged by operations with even weaker safeguards than SFI to enter the marketplace with an SFI seal of approval. This logo also gives international corporations that rely on SFI logos enormous leeway to market irresponsibly-logged wood-based products as sustainable to their consumers.

SFI: More of the Same Greenwashing

SFI had the opportunity to take years of criticisms leveled against it, and turn these into meaningful changes in its policies. Instead, it has further entrenched itself as an example of a greenwashing, misleading institution. Sadly, in Canada, federal and provincial governments are complicit; they should stop treating all certifications as equal, and pointing to third-party certification as sufficient evidence of logging operations’ sustainability.  Corporations, too, should stop characterizing SFI as meaningful proof of responsible operations. With climate change and global species loss reaching dizzying heights, we don’t have time for snake oil certifications.

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