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Vast Forests Are at Stake: What Kind of Lumber Is "Nature Friendly"?

Two stamps of approval are competing for the title of "nature-friendly wood." Big timber firms back the one critics call greenwashing.

A contented-looking man stands in front of a posh house in a bathrobe, gripping a morning newspaper and coffee. The caption for this full-page New Yorker ad identifies him as "the new environmentalist."

"These days, a growing number of consumers want the good life, but not at the expense of the environment," reads the copy. "So when they shop for everything from newspapers to building materials, they look for SFI certified wood and paper products."

The year was 2007, and this ad was among the first shots fired in a high-stakes PR war that continues to play out across North America today. The combatants are the two largest rival forestry certification non profit organizations in the world: the industry-created Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was conceived by a coalition of North American environmental activists.

At stake, then and now, is a multi-billion dollar international market for eco-certified wood products, which rewards environmentally-responsible forestry companies with improved access to retail and business-to-business customers.

What both certification programs have in common is that their respective logos -- appearing on books and 2x4s and everything between -- carry a promise of "sustainability;" both indicate that eco-conscious buyers can relax and know they are buying a product that they can feel good about.

What the rivals do not share, is a common vision of what sustainability looks like on the forest floor, and whether the differences between certification standards matter at all.

"We don't believe that consumers are sophisticated enough to have learned at this point what FSC stands for versus what SFI stands for," says Kathy Abusow, President and CEO of SFI Inc. "Most of the large customers….are feeling good about recognizing and awarding that ten percent of the global forest base that is certified, rather than expending energy on trying to decide who is the A+ and A- student."

Battle for hearts, minds and markets

The current certification battle started ramping up in 1999, the year Home Depot announced it would give "preferential treatment" to FSC-certified wood -- a move motivated at least in part by pressure from the environmental groups that created the FSC.

Faced with losing access to the biggest North American markets, the SFI intensified promotional efforts, distancing itself from its parent trade group the American Forestry and Paper Association (AF&PA), even though as late as 2007, the newly "independent" charity was still receiving unspecified "contract services" from this trade group (as disclosed in its tax return).

During this same year, SFI hired Canadian forestry certification expert Abusow as President and CEO, and with her, the U.S. public relations firm of Porter Novelli, which was paid $1.8 in fiscal 2007 to rebrand and rebuild the SFI from the ground up.

"I am committed to growing SFI's recognition and importance among conservation groups, buyers, forest managers, industry, and policy makers," said Abusow of her plans for SFI at the time.

SFI's total 2007 revenue grew to over 5.5 million, from $624,890 the year earlier, and just $344,155 in 2002. With this funding -- of which $3.2 million came from membership dues from member forestry companies -- the SFI waged a new PR campaign in North America, including billboards, full-page consumer magazine and newspaper ads, and a growing presence at influential printing and building trade shows.

What's the difference? SFI vs. FSC

In 2008, forestry company Tembec Inc. was in the unique position of "upgrading" a large swath of mixed aspen and cottonwood near Chetwynd BC from SFI to FSC, shedding light on some of the differences between the competing standards.

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