Are Campaigners Misleading Consumers?

Phil Riebel, a sustainability advisor to the forest, paper and print sector, recently posted a couple of informative blogs on RISI questioning whether environmental activists are misleading their funders and consumers when it comes to certification and recycling.

Phil talks about the downsides of well-funded campaigns that skim the surface of complex issues, and lead consumers to believe that something as simple as using paper that’s recycled or certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) automatically yields environmental benefits.

In his second blog – Are environmental campaigns misleading the public? Part II – Phil challenges claims that certain certification standards, such as FSC, are more protective of the environment at a global scale. Phil says a 2005 international study (the World Wildlife Fund was one of the study partners) looked at on-the-ground differences between certification schemes in Canada, Finland and the UK, and did not identify any as “destructive and inferior” nor did it identify any as “much better” as campaigners would have us believe.

He says competition has been healthy and improved all certification programs, and this in turn supports responsible forest management as well as price and supply stability. It encourages more certification and is more likely to benefit communities in countries where campaigners and most of their supporters live.

Committing to one scheme could reduce purchasing and negotiating options for buyers, and disadvantage local communities in North America. Phil recalls a campaign where a large U.S.-based corporation was pressured to buy recycled and/or FSC paper, and eventually gave its business to a European mill that received FSC-certified wood from the UK.

Phil’s call to action is simple: Consider the many elements involved in the design and production of sustainable paper to ensure long-term sustainability of business and measurable environmental improvements based on science. “Pressuring the marketplace to use certain fiber types when it doesn’t make sense may not benefit the environment or the economy,” he says. I absolutely agree.

Only 10 percent of the world’s forests are certified so the growing convergence among certification programs is good news for responsible consumers. A recent UN market review says: “Over the years, many of the issues that previously divided the (certification) systems have become much less distinct.”

TerraChoice’s 2010 Sins of Greenwashing report includes certification labels like SFI, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification on a limited list of “legitimate” environmental standards and certifications. It is just one of many respected organizations around the world that accept SFI as a legitimate certification standard.

This reality stands in sharp contrast to misinformation being disseminated by market campaigners. Their tactics mislead and confuse consumers, and do nothing to improve forest management. While SFI and FSC differ in approach and the level of depth assigned to different topics, one thing is for certain: both standards have led to improvements in forestry and conservation.

At SFI, we understand forest management demands a multi-faceted, science-based, and inclusive effort involving people from all walks of life. We have a forest standard with rigorous requirements, and we make sure program participants meet them. But we go a lot further – looking for ways to help our partners improve knowledge and practices related to forest management and procurement, and strengthen communities and build partnerships that support responsible forest management. This is the most honest approach, and it is the best way to benefit the environment AND our communities.  After all, isn’t that the point?


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