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The New York Times: "Environmentalists’ complaint exposes rift between ‘green’ certification groups"

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May 31, 2013 -- Conservation groups charge that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a group originally formed by big timber companies, defrauds the public by certifying that products carrying its label are harvested using only environmentally responsible practices.

By John Broder

WASHINGTON — The legal watchdogs at the Federal Trade Commission have been trying to police the proliferating — and often false — claims in recent years that products are “green” or “environmentally friendly.”

The agency recently brought cases against, Macy’s and Sears, Roebuck & Company for selling clothing purportedly made of bamboo fiber that was really fashioned from rayon, a decidedly ungreen material. It cracked down on the paint manufacturers Sherwin-Williams and PPG Industries for saying that some of their products did not produce hazardous fumes. It shut down an online firm selling “tested green” certifications for products that were neither tested nor green.

“This is certainly one of our priorities,” said James A. Kohm, the associate director of the trade commission’s enforcement division. “We’ll bring a case where we need to make a point, where consumers are getting hurt the most.”

This week, two environmental groups, ForestEthics and Greenpeace, filed a complaint with the trade commission claiming that an organization that certifies paper and other forest products as “green” is a front group for the timber industry and violates the agency’s new standards for such claims. They call it a classic case of falsely claiming that a product or service is somehow more environmentally friendly or sustainable than similar products.

ForestEthics and Greenpeace charge that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or S.F.I., a group originally formed by big timber companies, defrauds the public by certifying that products carrying its label are harvested using only environmentally responsible practices. The environmental groups say that some of the companies using the S.F.I. label engage in damaging forestry methods like clear-cutting, overusing pesticides and destroying habitats or rare species.

The groups claim that the certification panel, far from being independent of the industry it supposedly oversees, as required by F.T.C. guidelines, is in fact a body created by and dominated by timber companies. S.F.I. officials deny the allegations.

The environmental groups’ complaint aims to test the trade commission’s new “green guides,” a revised set of rules issued last year laying out the circumstances under which a company can claim that a product or process is environmentally sound. The new guidelines also update previous guidance on what constitutes a legitimate certification or endorsement. They now state explicitly that any certifying body must be independent of the industry it oversees and that any “material connection” to that industry must be disclosed.

The F.T.C. warns manufacturers or marketers not to use broad claims that a product is “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly,” because these statements frequently have no scientific basis and mislead consumers.

The agency also now warns against claiming that a product is biodegradable, free of harmful substances, made with renewable energy or made with all-natural materials unless these statements can be proven.

Mr. Kohm said that the agency had received the complaint about the forestry certification program but would not comment on it. It may be months or longer before it is known whether the commission has opened a formal investigation or declined to take any action.

The forestry complaint laid bare an obscure schism in the forest products world between two rival green certification groups, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which mainly includes companies in the United States and Canada, and the Forest Stewardship Council, known as F.S.C., a more global group with ties to environmental advocacy organizations.

The two bodies compete fiercely for companies to use their eco-friendly labels. At stake is a marketplace in the United States for green products and services that some say is worth as much as $500 billion a year.

Todd Paglia, the executive director of ForestEthics, said that his group took its concerns to the F.T.C. because it believed that the revised guidelines specifically cover organizations like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. ForestEthics filed a similar complaint in 2009 under the earlier guidance but the agency took no action.

“We believe it is a really strong signal the F.T.C. agrees with us that S.F.I. is operating in an illegal manner, deceiving individuals and companies by not disclosing their close ties to the logging industry,” Mr. Paglia said. “The fact is they’re funded by logging companies, and the industry has a veto over anything proposed.”

Kathy Abusow, the chief executive of S.F.I., said that interests allied with the Forest Stewardship Council were behind the trade commission complaint, part of a campaign to entice companies to quit S.F.I. and seek F.S.C. certification. So far, 24 companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Office Depot, have done so, according to Mr. Paglia.

Brad Kahn, a spokesman for the stewardship council, said it was “not aware of the complaint and had no involvement whatsoever.”

Ms. Abusow defended her program’s independence and its rigorous standards. She was confident that the trade commission would ignore the complaint, as it did the previous one.

“These groups are stuck on where we were a decade ago and not where we are today,” Ms. Abusow said.

She said that her group’s 18-member board included a dozen representatives of governments, environmental organizations and universities, as well as six representatives of the forest products industry.

Ms. Abusow said the certification body was a nonprofit entity fully independent of the forest industry, although much of its revenue comes from dues and fees paid by member companies.

S.F.I. has threatened to sue ForestEthics, saying that it files frivolous claims and spreads false and defamatory information. “These tactics are going to catch up with ForestEthics,” Ms. Abusow said. “People won’t even want to talk to them because they’re unethical.”

Conflicts over certification are likely to grow in coming years as more companies seek to position themselves as green alternatives in the marketplace, said Scot Case, the markets development director for UL Environment, a branch of the 120-year-old safety certification body UL, the old Underwriters Laboratories.

UL Environment publishes sustainability standards for scores of household and institutional products, from adhesives to window treatments.

Mr. Case said that recent Federal Trade Commission enforcement actions had gotten the attention of manufacturers and retailers, who are now more careful about their claims of purity.

“With the F.T.C. clamping down on the pure charlatans out there,” Mr. Case said, “it makes it easier for legitimate environmental labeling organizations like UL Environment to do what we do best — make it easier for consumers to buy greener products.”