The Rites of Spring

Like robins, Sun Belt baseball and daffodils poking their heads up from the soil, it seems to be a rite of spring for advocates of the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative to go after each other about the relative credibility of each other’s forestry standards. Senior Writer Mark Gunther reports on the latest salvo in the wood wars launched by Forest Ethics and promptly countered by SFI. The script is familiar: The advocates of deeper green call FSC barely adequate and the industry-supported SFI label nothing more than greenwash. The industry counters that they have made significant progress, so the big bad environmentalists should not pick on the poor little industry standard and can’t we all just get along.

As I have written before in this space and various other fora, there is no doubt that since SFI was launched in 1994 in response to the founding of FSC by environmental groups, it has made huge strides both as an organization and in terms of improved industrial forest practice. In essence, SFI has really cleaned up the factory floor. 

While this is a good thing compared with how things used to be, forests are not factories. Forests are living, intertwined ecosystems with 20 times the biodiversity of monoculture tree factories. 

For this and other reasons articulated in Gunther’s blog piece, seven companies, including five Fortune 500 companies, have signaled that they will be giving up use of the SFI label. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is to be commended for the significant improvement in environmental practices across the forestry industry, particularly across thousands of small family farms. However, it has not earned the mantle of a green standard. It remains, in my opinion, exactly as Office Depot has characterized it: “meet[ing-or setting … ] industry environmental standards.” 

It seems somewhat ironic that while leaders in the private sector (the companies jettisoning SFI) are focusing on doing the right things for the right environmental reasons, governments -- supposedly the setters and arbiters of policy -- are retrenching to what USGBC’s Jeremy Sigmon diplomatically calls “the far narrowed view of the single bottom line” in his excellent blog post on the state of state policymaking and green buildings.

Although Sigmon notes that several states are considering additional “leadership by example” steps, the overall mood is one of fiscal and creative austerity. Not surprisingly, perennial leaders in this field -- Maryland and California -- are singled out for their continued progress toward eliminating the concept of green buildings in favor of a regulatory structure where minimum code would not be considered “if you built it any worse it would be illegal.”