How Green is the Paper in Your Holiday Catalogs?

12/21/2010 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Have you noticed those little "green" logos on paper products? They are usually in the shape of a tree or leaf, and don't they make you feel warm and fuzzy? Like you are really doing your part for the environment?

Turn over a holiday sales catalog. See if you can find one. Sometimes they really do have green value and certify sustainable forestry practices, and sometimes they are hardly believable at all when you look a bit deeper.

Here are two. Can you tell which one is a true "green" certification? And which one is not?


I run the Catalog Canceling Challenge at The Park School in Brookline, MA where third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders canceled thousands of unwanted sales catalogs last month to help the environment and to remove clutter from their families' mailboxes.

This year there was a new twist: as the kids were sorting through thousands of catalogs, they were keeping an eye out for these paper certification labels. You see, some of them are accurate, but others have misleading claims for sustainably harvested wood. The misleading ones are here to "greenwash" in the pursuit of cashing in on consumer desire for green. Students are writing letters to these catalog companies to eliminate such labels.

The catalogs themselves, even the ones printed on paper containing sustainably harvested fiber, or those with post-consumer content recycled paper, are a massive waste of natural resources and energy. Two billion of them will be mailed out this December in the US at a rate of 600 per second wasting 5 million trees, 4.5 billion gallons of water, and much energy. I say "wasting," as only 2% of sales catalogs actually illicit a purchase according to catalog industry figures and most go straight to the trash. Because a tremendous amount of energy is used in the production of these catalogs, they are one of the many reasons climate-warming CO2 levels continue to break records.

So which certifications are legit? And which are not? The one true wood certification comes from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). The biggest greenwashing offender is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Its certification and claims are misleading.

-------- GREAT -------------------- MISLEADING ---------

But do you, or even the typical catalog publisher, know this? SFI's logo and name looks and sounds just as green as the others, especially if you go to their website. The use of "Sustainable" in their name is particularly worrisome. It is greenwashing brought to you by the timber industry's biggest players (Plum Creek, International Paper, Weyerhaeuser Co., and others) to inflate their sales numbers. Recently the chair of the SFI board was forced to resign from his Oregon state forestry position due to his un-green practices. Not a good sign.

A friend of mine (who chose not to be identified) who is knowledgeable about the logging industry called SFI a "cynical ploy." He told me that the logging industry watched the food industry let the "organic" label work its way into their markets unchecked, trimming away some of their profits while they put up little defense. The food industry could have created their own organic certification, lowered the standards for attaining such certification, and confused the public while not having to change their practices in any significant way. This is what the largest players in the timber and paper industry have done. As FSC has gained momentum, big timber created SFI to confuse the public and hold on to more of their profits. The board of SFI is primarily composed of big timber and paper players. Their claims to be "independent" and "sustainable" are not believable.

This source told me what all close to the ground on this issue know: that while FSC is "incredibly rigorous with low impact on forests and having phonebook of requirements" to be certified, SFI is the opposite, noting that its certification is entirely too easy to obtain.

According to ForestEthics scathing new report on SFI, their third-party audits of forest "are dangerously relaxed. In one case, two SFI-accredited auditors spent just five days single-handedly assessing more than 46,875 square miles of public forest -- an area larger than the entire state of Pennsylvania. They reported no violations of SFI standards and didn't identify so much as a single opportunity for improvement."

Nick Bennett, Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine told me that, "SFI has absolutely no teeth. The company Plum Creek, for example has SFI certification for its lands in Maine. It has repeatedly violated Maine's environmental laws, but never lost its SFI certification or even received any sanctions or warnings. SFI simply isn't a viable certification system."

Here's a FSC vs SFI system comparison from


What if a catalog company like L.L.Bean has several different certifications including FSC and SFI in their paper policy? It is hard to know where each truly stands as they do not release the percentages of wood they get under each label.

Catalog makers: please go with FSC only (and drop other labels, especially SFI, to preserve your credibility).

Consumers: favor catalogs and companies that have FSC labels.

SFI: stop greenwashing and accurately reflect the nature of your association with the logging and paper industries.

Obviously, I would rather no catalog to show up at my door and that is the focus of The Catalog Canceling Challenge, but if one does land there despite my calls, hopefully its pages came from a FSC certified forest that did not harm the planet with bad forestry practices.

More and more certifications show up each year pushing their green credentials. As a result and it is harder and harder to know which ones are actually credible. For now trust FSC. Better yet, cancel your catalogs. An empty mailbox with no catalogs or tricky labels is the only true green path.