The battle over eco-certified coffee cups

Why ‘green’ paper products may not be as environmentally friendly as they claim


Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

It has the green leafy label and the promise of recycled materials or “renewable resources,” but that paper coffee cup may come from virgin forest. In fact, if a handful of environmental groups are to be believed, it may be the product of some of the worst logging practices in North America today. Eco-certified coffee cups, as well as “green” paper napkins, envelopes and two-by-fours from the lumber section—in other words, anything made with wood—are the focus of a battle raging within the green movement over ecological certification.

In May, Greenpeace and the organization ForestEthics filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, with a request to investigate the claim by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) that it’s “an independent non-profit public charitable organization.” ForestEthics says that’s “deceptive” and contravenes anti-greenwashing rules (the Green Guides) revised by the commission last fall; executive director Todd Paglia calls it “one of the most elaborate” of greenwashing schemes. His group believes SFI is too close to the lumber industry. Kathy Abusow, SFI’s president and CEO, demurs. “We are one of the most rigorous, respected, independent organizations out there that cares about responsible forestry,” she says, noting ForestEthics filed a similar complaint four years ago that went nowhere.

SFI is one of two main certification standards for responsibly sourced wood products in North America; the other is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Both programs were set up in the 1990s. In 2007, SFI became a non-profit and has welcomed Aboriginal representatives as well as members of organizations such as Ducks Unlimited Canada to its board of directors. But even if the two acronyms sound similar, a handful of green activists maintain they are worlds apart.

SFI’s critics note it was founded by the American Forest and Paper Association—the industry itself—while FSC’s founders included environmental organizations such as Greenpeace working alongside the lumber industry and Aboriginal leaders. Detractors complain that SFI’s standards aren’t stringent enough. The forestry practices, says Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation, can include “clear-cut logging, helicopter spraying of toxic herbicides and damage to habitats, for example of the boreal caribou, which is in precipitous decline.”

But that’s complicated. “Both programs allow clear-cutting,” says SFI’s COO, Monique Hanis, and she’s right. But FSC forbids the use of many pesticides and, in most cases, the conversion of natural forests to plantations or non-forest land use, according to the Sierra Club of Canada. It also takes a stronger position on working with Aboriginal communities. “SFI says you shall confer with affected indigenous peoples—not get consent to the forestry that’s happening in their territory, as with FSC,” says Catharine Grant, a campaigner for Greenpeace Canada.

Asked about those differences, Abusow responds, “That’s a wonderful example of different approaches.” She argues that both standards recognize Aboriginal rights, and that her organization, like FSC, “is trying to get people to use less and less chemicals.”

Some clients, in any case, are choosing sides. LEED, an initiative to govern new green buildings, only awards credits to wood certified to FSC standards. And ForestEthics says 24 companies, including Office Depot and the Canadian chain Rona, now support FSC materials. Rona stocks both sources of wood, but Sherazad Adib, manager of responsible buyings, said it values “respectful relationships with indigenous communities and the conservation of biodiversity, two points highlighted in the FSC certification,” and so gives preference to FSC.

“We believe we have the most stringent certification in the world,” says FSC Canada president François Dufresne. Still, he adds, he can’t be too negative about SFI: Some certification is better than none. But, for environmentally conscious consumers without a Ph.D. in forestry, it can all be frustrating—a little more tempest than they might like in their eco-certified coffee cup.


The battle over eco-certified coffee cups

  1. I wish the author of this article had taken the time to research forest certification in Canada, for there are THREE schemes in this country – which is the reason why Canada has the largest amount of sustainable certified forest in the world. Ms. Cuthbert fails to mention the Canadian Standards Association Sustainable Forest Management Standard CSA Z808/809 – which has literally certified millions of hectares. Many large land areas also carry certifications to more than one of the three schemes – CSA, FSC and SFI – and sometimes to ALL three at once. (Which should inform the reader that the differences between the schemes are not great). Finally, every green building standard in the world recognizes ALL of these forest certification schemes – but for LEED – whose next version will take under review other certification schemes.

    Maclean’s owes a duty to its readers, to be more thorough in its research. Most of Canada’s forest products – more than 95% – are harvested on land that is publicly owned, i.e. by us, your Canadian readership. Its products are subject to an immense variety of legislation, rules, regulations, standards, collective agreements and treaties. It is completely false and superficial for anyone to state: “We believe we have the most stringent certification in the world” and ignore the operating and legal environment provided by the host and owner. Readers should note that all of the noisy claims being made about certification take place in the U.S., where the forest resource has been alienated, and is almost entirely in private hands. In Canada, there is no longer any contest over certification.

    • The only evidence you’ve offered that SFI is a legitimate indication of sustainable forestry practices is that it is accepted by industries that have a stake in convincing consumers that they have ethical practices. That’s not evidence. That’s not an argument, and you have completely failed to address the concerns raised in the article which you have dismissed as being poorly researched. Your post includes no facts except that loggers pay taxes and that there are rules.

      Considering that Greenepeace, Forest Ethics, and the David Suzuki foundation all operate and in fact began in Canada, your argument that the “noisy claims” originate in the U.S is simply untrue.

      Furthermore, the reasons we have progressed as far as we have in Canadian forestry is not because of the industry is so wonderfully democratic, it’s because people in Canada (including the three organizations cited in this article and the First Nations which SFI fails to meaningfully consut with) have been working for decades to pressure government and industry to adopt sustainable practices. Those “collective agreements and treaties” you talk about would not exist if not for the work of the organizations who are currently claiming that the SFI certification is insufficient and misleading. In fact, those groups are often signatories to those agreements.

      SFI was developed by the industry as their own rubber stamp to sell the same old destructive shit that is responsible for the decline of forest wordwide — including here — while appeasing consumers who hope to ease their consciences by buying ethical products. It’s greenwashing by definition and transparently. The fact that it was set up by the industry is a clear and obvious indication.

      • I agree that MacLeans owes its readers a more comprehensive article on the subject of Forest Management Certification. The picture used to illustrate the article serves only to belittle the subject.

        Canada has approx 400 million ha of forest. 200 million ha are under management. The forest products industry is an important part of the economy in all regions. The management of these forests, largely in public ownership, is very important. All provincial governments regulate all aspects of forest management and operations on publicly owned forest lands. The adoption, audit and certification to a forest management standard adds extra rigour to the management.

        Most trees are harvested to produce lumber and other building products. The raw materials for the Canadian pulp and paper industry are derived 75% from sawmill residues, 10% from recycled papers and 15% from low grade, small-diameter logs that are not large enough for sawmilling. Think about it. 85% of the woodfibre in paper made in Canada is recycled or mill residues. Would it be better to dump it or use it.

        There are 3 forest management certification programs used in Canada- SFI, CSA and FSC. The supporters of one of the programs seems to spend a lot of effort criticizing the other two programs. The other two spend their energy providing a well-organized and rigourous service to clients with the objective of ensuring good management. The CSA forest management standard is a National Standard of Canada, approved by the Standards Council of Canada (SCC).The CSA and SFI both provide auditing services under the supervision of the SCC.

        FSC does have one unique feature that the other programs do not want to copy. In 2011 FSC had certified forests in 80 countries. But only 21 countries had FSC approved forest management standards. About 75% of the total forest area was certified to approved standards. 25% was certified to non-existent standards. Some say it is hard to audit conformity to the requirements of a standard that does not exist.

        FSC the gold standard? No Gold Medal for this abuse of international standards practice.

        Can you imagine the uproar from these “ethical environmental organizations” if SFI and CSA were auditing and certifying to standards that did not exist? Shhh.

        • It is correct that the author fails to note that there are three sustainable forest management (SFM) certification standards used in Canada: CSA, FSC and SFI . The CSA (CSA Group) SFM Standard ,CAN/CSA Z809, is a National Standard of Canada and was also established in the early 1990s. It is a “made in Canada” standard and over 40 million hectares of Canadian forest land’s are certified to it

          The standard has been developed with a Standards Council of
          Canada accredited standards development process, which ensures rigorous consensus decision making and requires a balanced representation of academia, environmental organizations, government and producers. CSA serves a neutral,
          third party facilitator to ensure consensus decision making is followed. You may be aware of CSA as its standards development process has been used to ensure the health and safety of
          many products and services that affect Canadians (e.g. hockey helmets, children’s play spaces, safety shoes, medical devices)

          Furthermore, forest areas certified to the CSA SFM standard requires the establishment of public advisory groups (PAGs), which are composed of local representatives in the area to review the SFM plans and processes. This ensures that the local communities interested and/or affected by the forestry practices are consulted and involved on a regular basis.

          The CSA SFM Standard is endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), an international organization that is dedicated to promoting SFM practices through third party certification. Through the PEFC program, forest products originating from forest area certified to the CSA SFM standard can apply to have a PEFC mark. The PEFC mark provides assurance that the forest product originates from a sustainably managed forest certified to the CAN/CSA Z809 standard

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