The Green Label’s Bait and Switch

American consumers of “sustainable” wood products may be surprised to find out what is labeled “green” could actually be made, furbished or processed in an environmentally unsound manner.  This occurs due to misguided government bias that favors one international certification standard, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), over other credible standards, such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).  All of these certification programs set unique standards that landowners and businesses must meet before they receive formal recognition as certified as promoting good environmental stewardship.

So, what is wrong with the prominent FSC standard? For the most part, FSC sets its standards consistent with the laws of the country where the landowner operates.  So, stricter environmental laws in the U.S. make FSC standards in the U.S. among the strictest in the world, while laws in Russia and elsewhere are very lax and so are their green standards.  Because wood is cheaper to produce in less environmentally strict areas, American consumers who buy green-labeled wood products end up inadvertently buying from countries with less environmentally-safe standards.  In effect, consumers who feel good about paying for the green label may unknowingly be supporting less environmentally-friendly business practices.  It is a bait and switch tactic.

ACI has written on forest certification before, and how favoring this international certification program over others can have negative economic and environmental consequences.  An October 2012 study by ACI found that requiring FSC standards in the U.S. will eventually lead to consumer welfare losses of approximately $10 billion for wood products and $24 billion for paper products markets.  Further analysis performed last year also determined that 785,000 jobs could be jeopardized by such a framework.  In short, dependence on this varied standard is bad for consumers and workers.

Just last week, Tasmanian Times reported on FSC certifying land for logging that contains 600-year-old trees in Western Australia. “FSC is seen as the international gold standard for wood certification, approving products that meet its high standard for forest management, but FSC has got it all wrong in Western Australia,” said Wilderness Society National Forest Campaigner Warrick Jordan.  “When consumers buy a product branded as sustainable, they don’t expect to be buying paper made from a 600-year-old giant or a tree that was home to animals threatened with extinction, such as the Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo.”   The Australian Conservation Foundation also called on FSC to withdraw environmental certification awarded to Western Australia’s state logging agency.

Something similar transpired two years earlier, when IKEA garnered negative publicity after its subsidiary Swedwood was clear-cutting virgin trees hundreds of years old, in areas of “high conservation value,” on FSC certified land.

This highlights what critics of FSC claim – the organization adopts tough standards in developed countries, and lax standards in developing nations.  But all a consumer may see is an FSC-seal of approval.  This means that environmentally-minded consumers are misled into believing that buying the green label is good for the environment, when it ironically encourages consumers to buy from countries with more lax environmental standards.  When standards vary between countries, let alone within them, there really is no standard at all.

The problem is embedded in a government bias for the FSC standard.  In hundreds of local, state and federal jurisdictions, timber can gain access to “green” building projects that rely on “LEED” standards, which gives preference to wood certified by FSC.  There was never an economic case for favoring FSC timber over other types of certified wood, and the environmental case for the international standard continues to fall apart.

In short, reliance on an international body with varying standards is bad public policy, and it hurts consumers, American workers and the environment. If eco-conscious consumers want to promote sustainability, they should advocate for a framework that supports competition in timber markets and does not favor foreign timber over America wood.  At the very least, this framework should allow for the use of wood certified by all credible third-party programs in “green” projects and markets.  The status quo, which restricts market access for this timber, harms our economy and the environment.

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org

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