The Ecology Action Centre and Nature Nova Scotia have joined six other Canadian environmental groups to lodge a complaint with Canada’s Competition Bureau about “sustainability” claims the Sustainable Forestry Initiative makes about its forest certification.

The complaint, made on behalf of the groups by Ecojustice, asks the Competition Bureau to conduct an inquiry into those sustainability claims, which it calls “false and misleading.”

In a press release, Ecojustice says the groups are seeking “legal remedy” from the Competition Bureau.

According to Ecojustice, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative – or SFI – is North America’s largest forest certification scheme, and it is also backed by the logging industry.

The Ecojustice press release states that:

SFI gives the impression that logging operations certified to its standard are ‘sustainable’ while having no rules requiring that logging meet prescribed sustainability criteria nor any on-the-ground assessment to confirm sustainability. SFI has long faced criticism from environmental and community groups in both Canada and the United States.

Considered in the context of an internationally accepted definition of sustainable forest management, the groups say SFI is misrepresenting the standards of its certification system, and that this has contributed and will continue to contribute to unsustainable logging globally and in Canada on an immense scale. SFI’s certification allows clearcutting, spraying of toxic chemicals, and logging of endangered forests (including old growth forests and caribou habitat). 

Ecojustice executive director Devon Page describes the SFI standard as “greenwashed certification that misleads consumers and fails to protect forests and the environment.”

“Forest certification could be a useful tool to help consumers seek out and buy products from well-managed forests,” Page says. “However, industry-led certifications such as the SFI standard have been corrupted into a self-interested tool to greenwash irresponsible forestry practices.”

Sustainable Forestry Initiative website with the name at the top left, above a photo of pristine untouched green forest with very lofty SFI standards listed on the side; climate challenge, species recovery, packaging for the planet, green jobs, better building solutions.
Sustainable Forestry Initiative website

In addition to the two Nova Scotia groups, the others involved in the Ecojustice complaint are Greenpeace Canada, Wildlands League, David Suzuki Foundation, Alberta Wilderness Association, Wilderness Committee, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, and a forestry professor from the University of Toronto. 

‘Their SFI certification is a farce’

Rachel Plotkin, boreal project manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, has this to say about SFI:

Consumers are sick and tired of meaningless greenwash. When they buy a product on the basis of it being produced sustainably, they deserve to be able to believe that this claim is backed up by a credible standard. We are counting on the Competition Bureau to protect consumers and to restore their trust.

Raymond Plourde, senior wildnerness coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, describes SFI as “industry greenwashing.” Plourde adds:

Forestry companies under the SFI certification standard can clearcut natural mixed-species forests, spray glyphosate to suppress natural re-growth and replace them with softwood plantations, all while claiming to be ‘green’ to the marketplace.

Bob Bancroft, president of Nature Nova Scotia, notes that as a biologist who has worked with pulp companies like Northern Pulp for decades, he has seen even pristine forests clear-cut.

“It was the only harvest method they used,” says Bancroft. “Their SFI certification is a farce.”

Man with glasses and a light green baseball cap and matching shirt smiles at camera with a large tree trunk behind him. Photo: Alice Reed
Bob Bancroft Credit: Alice Reed

In an email to the Halifax Examiner, Bancroft writes:

This industry certification was designed to assure consumers that products were sustainably harvested. Instead consumers are being duped by the forest industry. It is the industry answer to the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC] certification system, which was environmentally driven certification that, in the beginning, was meaningful. Under SFI they could clear-cut, spray and substitute plantations. They clear-cut old growth forests. SFI is meaningless certification. 

Bancroft says that the FSC certification has been greatly weakened in recent decades, but in his view Nova Scotia should still be using FSC rather than SFI certification.

Importance to Nova Scotians (and their forests)

The complaint is of particular importance to Nova Scotians and their forests.

In 2012, the NDP government of Darrell Dexter purchased 550,000 acres (222,577 hectares) of “commercial and protected” woodlands in western Nova Scotia that had once belonged to Bowater. Nova Scotians paid Resolute Forest Products $117.7 million for the woodlands. Today, many of them are managed and harvested by the WestFor consortium of mills that the provincial government formed in 2016, which includes Northern Pulp.

However, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR), the Crown holds Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification for those Crown lands managed by WestFor in western Nova Scotia.

Woodlands in the central part of the province are also certified with SFI.

DNRR tells the Examiner that Northern Pulp has a timber licence for 308,000 hectares (761,084 acres) of Crown land in central Nova Scotia, which dates back to the Scott Maritimes Act of 1965, and was renewed in 2018.

Northern Pulp, a Paper Excellence company, is currently enjoying creditor protection in the British Columbia Supreme Court after declaring itself insolvent in June 2020, and it is also suing Nova Scotians for $450 million for lost profits. However, its wood allocation from Crown land in Nova Scotia has not changed since the Northern Pulp mill closed in January 2020.

Related: Northern Pulp wants another six month delay in B.C. court and forced mediation with Nova Scotia

For the Crown woodlands in the central region, DNRR says, Northern Pulp holds SFI certification.

Aerial view of clearcuts with harvester machine tracks still visible on the almost bare ground on or around Northern Pulp land near Moose River showing lakes and a small stream and one large clearcut with a small clumps of trees left in as what is called a "wildlife" clump
Aerial view of clearcut near the Atlantic Gold Moose River open pit gold mine that sits on some Northern Pulp land, which Nova Scotia loaned Northern Pulp $75 million to buy in 2010. Credit: Joan Baxter

SFI the certification of choice in Nova Scotia

According to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), in 2021 only 599,751 hectares (1,482,017 acres) in Nova Scotia had FSC certification. Of those, 535,584 hectares (1,323,457 acres) were managed by Port Hawkesbury paper, nearly all of it (96%) Crown land, with the Nova Scotia Association for Woodland Certification managing 64,167 FSC-certified hectares (158,560 acres), half of it private and half public.

In contrast, according to the FPAC report, more than twice that area of woodlands in Nova Scotia – about 1.2 million hectares (nearly 3 million acres) – was under SFI certification. Of this, Northern Pulp held SFI certification on 173,760 hectares (429,370 acres) of private land and on 70,973 hectares (175,378 acres) of Crown land.

Wagner Forest Management, a New Hampshire investment company that in 2006 scooped up more than half a million acres of former Scott Paper woodland in Nova Scotia for $155 million from Neenah Paper, holds SFI certification on 148,265 hectares (366,371 acres).

In addition to the FSC certification, Port Hawkesbury Paper holds SFI certification on some of the woodland it manages, and offers FSC certified products for those who want them, and SFI for those who don’t.

DNRR holds SFI certification on 224,643 hectares (more than a half million acres) of public land in the province.

The Examiner asked DNRR if all the certification on Crown land in Nova Scotia is SFI, or if there are other schemes in place, and for its reaction to the complaint that SFI claims of sustainability are “false and misleading.”

DNRR’s reply:

SFI is the only certification held by the provincial government. We are committed to ecological forestry as outlined in the Independent Review of Forest Practices. This transformation of our forestry sector will ensure sustainability and economic prosperity for generations to come.

The Examiner also contacted J.D. Irving, which uses SFI certification and owns 50,000 hectares (123,552 acres) of SFI-certified land in Nova Scotia, for a response to the criticisms of the scheme and the Ecojustice complaint to the Competition Bureau.

We also contacted the Sustainable Forestry Initiative itself for their response.

So far, we’ve not received replies. When (if) we do, we will append them to this article.

What Ecojustice is seeking

The environmental groups’ complaint to the Competition Bureau comes at a crucial time.

In less than a week, Canada will be hosting the world’s largest nature conference in a decade when governments from around the world converge on Montreal for the COP15 United Nations Biodiversity Conference to “agree on a new set of goals to guide global action through 2030 to halt and reverse nature loss.”

A recent UN report warns that, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The complaint also comes just two weeks after the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development began public consultation on modernizing Canada’s Competition Act.

Related: ‘Monopolies killed my hometown’: an interview with anti-monopoly advocate Andrew Cameron about the decline of Amherst, Nova Scotia

The lack of competition in the country is very much on people’s minds lately, with the Competition Bureau of Canada trying to block a merger of telecom giants Rogers and Shaw, and more recently looking at grocery store competition in Canada.

However, the Competition Act looks at more than just competition.

The Act also makes it illegal for organizations to make false or misleading claims that deceive the public about the products or services they offer.

In July 2021, six British Columbia residents filed a similar complaint about another forestry certification scheme, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). The complainants describe the CSA sustainability claims as “patently false and misleading.”  

The groups behind the latest complaint to the Competition Bureau want an inquiry and, if the Bureau finds that SFI has misled the public, that it require the Sustainable Forestry Initiative to:   

  • Remove all ‘sustainability’ claims from its public communications about the SFI Standard, and from the name of the program itself;
  • Publicly retract its sustainability claims; and,
  • Pay a ten million dollar fine directed towards conservation projects.  

Asked what he hopes will come of the Ecojustice complaint to the Competition Bureau, Bancroft says:

A  $10,000,000 fine would be a start as recommended. The certification should be abolished. Then FSC would no longer have to lower its standards to compete with SFI. We could return to a meaningful certification that could genuinely assure consumers.

Update

After this article was published, we received a statement from Jason Metnick,
senior vice president, customer affairs, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Inc. It reads in part:

While public complaints proceedings are an important element to any credible program, SFI has a proven track record of advancing sustainability through forest-focused collaborations. This is apparent through our standards, conservation impact work, community and Indigenous engagement, and environmental education and career pathways work. We welcome any scrutiny into our program and are positioned well to address any issues. At the heart of this inquiry is whether or not SFI’s standards offer outcomes-based impact to make sustainability statements. The answer is absolutely. In fact, SFI’s standards include outcomes-based criteria and indicators as well as a prescriptive criteria and indicators to achieve sustainable forest management.

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Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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2 Comments

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  1. It will be interesting once all crown land is managed by the more modern standards under the ecological forestry model ‘triad’ whether they will meet FSC standards.
    ‘The crown’ as the ‘land owner’ should not allow the companies to dictate what standards are met for certification and the province itself should hold and maintain all sustainability standards available on crown land and make licensees accountable to those standards. The province should not be allowing any crown land licensee to manage it at anything less than FSC certification. Anything less than that is corporate capture.

    One problem for private owners and certification is that there is no market incentive for even FSC certified wood products. Any woodlot owner who has gone through the process has likely NOT seen any increase in the value of what they sell, so it’s done more as a point of pride, at this point, knowing that they are harvesting sustainably. If we want the certifications to truly ‘matter’ to the people and change their behaviors on the ground they’ve got to be able to make a reasonable living and be incentivized economically doing it or they will just resort to cheaper unsustainable methods.

  2. Glad to see SFI claims finally being challenged. I don’t think FSC Certification, once adopted for our Crown lands, then dropped is any better, but still held by Port Hawkesbury Paper. It didn’t stop cutting of Old Growth in the Loon Lake area in eastern NS (Crown lands managed by PHP), for example. What’s really got the Canadian forest industry up in arms now is the European concern about “Forest Degradation” in addition to “Deforestation”, re “Canada: Ambassador tells EU that deforestation rules ‘burdensome'” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-63736486. The sloppy science and misuse of science by and on behalf of Big Forestry in Canada is coming home to roost.