Take a look at the notepad on your desk, your ATM receipt or the package of disposable plates you bought for your Memorial Day barbecue. Many paper products are labeled as being sourced from sustainable forests, and many consumers make buying decisions based on those labels.
But are the labels trustworthy? An environmental group, ForestEthics, plans to file a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission that says one of the largest organizations that certify forestry practices misleads consumers about the sources of the products that carry its seal of approval.
The complaint argues that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s claim that it’s an independent, nonprofit public charity is deceptive and misleading because it’s "substantially governed and financed by the timber industry."
ForestEthics accuses the Washington, D.C.-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative of violating the FTC’s Green Guides for environmental marketing claims, which were revamped in October. The complaint claims that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative misleads well-intentioned companies and consumers into thinking they’re making environmentally sound choices about wood and paper products, said Todd Paglia, the executive director of ForestEthics, based in Bellingham, Wash. It’s a fake eco label, Paglia said.
"We’re asking the FTC to apply its Green Guides, which speak clearly to an entity like SFI," Paglia said. "Which would mean they either need to disclose in very clear and unmistakable terms that they are funded by the logging industry and that they are not independent. On their website, and on all their materials. And on their label."
Many consumers make purchasing decisions based on such seals, making them a valuable designation for marketers. Advertising Age estimated last year that sales of environmentally friendly products in the United States exceeded $40 billion last year.
ForestEthics has worked to discourage large companies that make major wood and paper purchases from using the Sustainable Forestry Initiative designation or to consider it only at a minimum level in purchasing decisions. Such companies include Office Depot, Southwest Airlines, Cricket Communications and Hewlett-Packard.
Often companies switch to a designation by a separate organization, the Forest Stewardship Council. ForestEthics has pushed both organizations to be more accountable, but it says the Forest Stewardship Council is more independent. The Forest Stewardship Council now certifies all of Hewlett-Packard’s HP Everyday paper products in the Americas, the company said last month in announcing the change.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. The organization said earlier this month in response to a ForestEthics publicity blitz that it was "committed to complying with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides and the guidelines on environmental labeling and advertising issued by the Fair Business Practices Branch of Industry Canada’s Competition Bureau."
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative and ForestEthics have clashed before, and in April the Sustainable Forestry Initiative sent ForestEthics a cease-and-desist letter threatening a lawsuit. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative has a section of its website devoted to disputing the ForestEthics claims, including the environmental group’s assertion that companies are dropping the SFI label.
"ForestEthics is rarely successful at getting companies to stop purchasing SFI products because companies that get informed soon realize that sourcing SFI products from well-managed forests is a great way to support conservation, responsible forestry, communities and jobs," Sustainable Forestry Initiative said on its website. "Most companies also realize domestic forest products are low-risk and they are annoyed by the bullying and the unethical and misleading practices in which Forest Ethics engages."
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative also points out that the FTC didn’t act on a similar 2009 complaint by ForestEthics. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative accused the environmental group of undermining its work and instead promoting the certification process of the Forest Stewardship Council.
"We invite ForestEthics to stop its campaign of misleading attacks and to devote its resources to working with SFI and millions of stakeholders across North America who are improving conditions in our forests day in and day out," Sustainable Forestry Initiative said in a statement on its website.
A spokesman for the Forest Stewardship Council said the organization was unaware of the ForestEthics FTC complaint, and declined to comment Tuesday.
Consumers are increasingly skeptical of green marketing, according to the research firm GfK, which tracks spending on environmental products in its Green Gauge survey. The September GfK survey found that compared with 2008, consumers are less likely to pay more for environmentally friendly alternatives, such as energy-efficient cars and light bulbs.
But consumers file plenty of complaints about false claims. The FTC recently revised its guidelines for environmental marketing claims, which govern what companies may say about recycled content, carbon offsets and other general environmental claims.
Shortly thereafter, the FTC enforced the rules in an action against paint companies that it said had made false and unsubstantiated claims that some of their paints contained zero volatile organic compounds.
In January, four national retailers agreed to pay penalties totaling $1.26 million to settle FTC charges that they’d violated the Textile Products Identification Act by labeling and advertising products sold in stores and online as made of bamboo, though they were made of rayon.