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.

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