09/20/2011 12:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Hanging The Logging Industry's Greenwash Out To Dry

Last week some of the biggest players in the logging industry met in Burlington, Vermont. The occasion was the annual conference of the Sustainable Forest Industry (SFI,) a creation of Big Timber whose raison d'etre is to cover up all their unsightly and destructive clearcuts with a kinder, gentler "green" label. This year the faux green SFI's conference theme was "The Bigger Picture: Conservation. Integrity. Community."

They got a little more community than they bargained for: more than 70 Vermonters showed up to protest the logging industry's phony and misleading ecolabel.

Meanwhile, all those people - school teachers, students, ordinary people like you and me - are having their power amplified by other voices, all singing the same tune:

  • Five Fortune 500 companies just announced measures to distance themselves from the SFI;
  • 21 environmental non-profits wrote a letter to SFI demanding that the phony ecolabel take five steps away from greenwash;
  • Thousands of citizens across the country have taken action online to call out SFI's deceptive marketing.

Now we at ForestEthics are not a group of druids opposed to any cutting of any tree. We are realists: we live in houses (made from wood), use paper (mostly recycled but some sustainable virgin fiber is good too.) In fact, in places like the Great Bear Rainforest, we have found common cause with some of the largest logging companies in the world. Creating solutions that allow for a real win-win is hard going, but we know it's possible. And more critical than ever. When it comes to forest protection, win-wins are only possible if some big IFs are met: IF we can secure protection for the most important and vulnerable areas, IF logging outside of these areas is conducted with the highest standards possible, and IF all of this is done by truly listening to and heeding the requests of local communities. So extremists we are not - in fact the extremist label should be applied where it really fits: SFI. What's more extreme than a fake non-profit funded by Big Timber to label as "sustainable" some of the worst logging in North America and beyond? That's just not right and no amount of branding, advertisements or money can change those basic facts. Which is why we are taking on SFI in such a big way.

Stories like this one in The New York Times raised the SFI's ire, and also put the concerns about its misinformation on the front burner for many environmentally-minded businesses and individuals. People want to do the right thing and buy truly green products. SFI is abusing these good intentions by trying to attract green consumers to decidedly destructive wood and paper products. This level of cynicism is astounding.

But communities, green-minded companies, and NGOs are fighting back.

Last week it was announced that Sprint, Norm Thompson Outfitters, King Arthur Flour, AT&T, State Farm, U.S. Bank and Comcast have each taken steps to distance themselves from the SFI, either by dropping use of the SFI label or by switching to paper that is credibly certified. Meanwhile, household environmental names like Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity have decried it as a Trojan horse for industry interests. Even so, SFI publicly touts its support from "conservation groups across North America." Though there are some small environmental groups that do support the SFI, they're not exactly a 'who's who' of the environmental movement-- and many of them have financial ties to SFI that raise serious questions about why they are supporting the greenwashing "eco"-label of Big Timber.

Check out our slide show of recent logging operations that SFI considered good enough to be labeled "green". If this doesn't shock you, I'd be surprised. It's not that surprising that this sort of destruction happens - we all know it still does - but that an organization would slap a green label on this kind of logging is still shocking. But you be the judge.

For our kids and grandkids, we need to leave more natural wealth than we received. That is the challenge of our generation and it is a mighty challenge indeed - one that we are just beginning to understand and more importantly take action toward. Schemes like the SFI take us all off target.

It's time to move beyond fake eco-labels and make real change happen in our forests and everywhere else. From that perspective, last week was a great one because ordinary citizens, some of the largest environmental groups in the world and big companies lined up together for a better future. That's a powerful combination and one we need to see more of if we are to create the kind of future we will all be proud to hand over to our children.