Sustainable Forestry Initiative
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a sustainability organization operating in the U.S. and Canada that works across four pillars: standards, conservation, community, and education. SFI is the world's largest single forest certification standard by area. SFI is headquartered in Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
In 2005, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, which itself is the world's largest forest certifications system, recognized the SFI standard.
The SFI Forest Management Standard covers key values such as protection of biodiversity, species at risk and wildlife habitat; sustainable harvest levels; protection of water quality; and prompt regeneration. A new set of SFI 2015-2019 Standards and Rules, developed through an open review process, took effect on Jan. 1, 2015. All SFI certifications require independent, third-party audits and are performed by internationally accredited certification bodies.
The SFI Standards are revised and updated every five years to incorporate the latest scientific information and to respond to emerging issues. Draft SFI standards will be publicly available throughout the revision process on the SFI website. The current SFI 2015-2019 Standards and Rules are extended through December 2021. As part of this process, comments were received during two public comment periods in 2020 (First Public comment period (30 days) October 23 – November 22, 2019. Second public comment period (60 day) on first revised standards draft – May-June 2020.) Input was received from 12 public workshops across the United States and Canada. About 10,000 stakeholders were invited to submit comments. Participants included public and private landowners, forest sector representatives, Indigenous communities, conservation groups, industry, academia and government officials.
Independent oversight was provided at each stage of the revision process by the SFI External Review Panel, a group of independent experts representing conservation, professional, academic and public organizations, operating at arm's length from SFI. The SFI External Review Panel reviewed every public comment submitted to ensure that all comments were considered, and to guarantee the Standard revision process was transparent, objective and credible. The responses to comments are posted on the SFI website.
SFI standards only apply to forestlands in the United States and Canada, and SFI-certified organizations must comply with all applicable laws. For sources outside of North America without effective laws, participants must avoid illegal or other controversial sources. SFI supports activities by international experts to find ways to address the problem of illegal logging and is a member of the international, multi-stakeholder Forest Legality Alliance.
The SFI 2015-2019 Fiber Sourcing Standard promotes responsible forestry practices based on 14 Principles, 13 Objectives, 21 Performance Measures and 55 Indicators that address the 90 percent of the world's forests that are not certified. The SFI 2015-2019 Fiber Sourcing Standard distinguishes SFI from all other forest certification programs in that it sets mandatory practice requirements for the responsible procurement of all fiber, even if it is sourced from non-certified land. These fiber sourcing requirements include measures to broaden the practice of biodiversity, use best management practices to protect water quality, and utilize the services of forest management and harvesting professionals. Because it governs how SFI-certified organizations procure fiber from non-certified land, supporters argue that the Standard encourages the spread of responsible forestry practices.
SFI has certified more than 375 million acres (150 million hectares) to its standard in the United States and Canada. At the end of October 2010, SFI had 959 chain of custody certifications at 2,339 locations. According to the United Nations, SFI was the fastest growing organization for chain of custody certifications in 2008.
SFI sponsored a world record attempt for tree planting. During this attempt in May of 2015, 29 teams came together to plant 202,935 trees in one hour across North America. The teams included youth, community groups and industry partners.
SFI Board of Directors
The Board of Directors that governs SFI has three chambers that recognize economic, environmental and social sectors equally. Directors include representatives of environmental, conservation, professional and academic groups, independent professional loggers, family forest owners, public officials, labor and the forest products industry.
Recent research publications
“Influence of mechanized timber harvesting on soil compaction in northern hardwood forests,” published in the journal Forest, Range and Wildland Soils, by Joshua Puhlick and Ivan Fernandez. The paper describes a project that evaluated and refined methods for minimizing soil compaction during harvesting operations. Soil compaction can have negative effects on a forest’s ability to regrow after harvesting, and this work helps inform best management practices to help minimize this issue and improve management of forests certified to the SFI Forest Management Standard. This project was supported by an SFI Conservation Grant to the University of Maine.
“Non-Native Earthworms Invade Forest Soils in Northern Maine, USA,” was published in the journal Forests by Joshua Puhlick, Ivan Fernandez, and Jay Wason. This brief communication documents the presence of non-native earthworms which have the potential to abruptly change soil properties and deplete or redistribute soil carbon stocks. In Northern Maine where the study took place, winters were previously thought to be too harsh for earthworm populations to survive. Thanks to this work, scientists and practitioners are now aware of their presence and can begin to consider ways to reduce those effects. This project was supported by an SFI Conservation Grant to the University of Maine.
Recent media references
“Outdoor classrooms reenergize kids during the pandemic,” CNN. This cable news story featured educators using educational materials from Project Learning Tree, SFI’s environmental education program.
“Opaskwayak Cree Nation student plans virtual ice fishing derby,” CBC. This news story featured Project Learning Tree Canada’s Green Leaders program, which encourages Indigenous youth to plan and deliver community-based projects. PLT Canada is supported in part by the Government of Canada and is delivered by the SFI and Canadian Parks Council networks.
“Forging a Career Path in the Forest Sector,” Alternatives Journal, Canada’s oldest environmental studies magazine.
“Help Protect North American Wildlife With Bird-Friendly Construction Design,” Construction Executive. SFI and the American Bird Conservancy collaborated on this an op-ed to highlight the importance of their collaborative efforts to allow SFI-certified organizations to access the latest information on bird habitat and conservation needs, which can be used to improve sustainable forest management.
Reviews and comparisons
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe/Food and Agriculture Organization, in its 2009-2010 Forest products Annual Review, says: "Over the years, many of the issues that previously divided the (certification) systems have become much less distinct. The largest certification systems now generally have the same structural programmatic requirements."
Dovetail Partners Inc., in its 2010 Forest Certification: A Status Report, states: "the previous differences between forest certification programs are much less distinct ... each program generally has the same structural programmatic requirements, although the required content and level of detail provided by each may vary considerably."
SFI is generally considered less stringent than that of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). For example, SFI allows more tree farming and does not require conservation plans or consultation with local and indigenous stakeholders (except for public lands).
SFI is less highly rated than FSC for example by Consumer Reports “Greener Choices”, and Green America. Others rate SFI/PEFC and FSC equally: TerraChoice (part of Underwriters Laboratories Global Network) in its 2010 Sins of Greenwashing report, like its 2009 one, counts the SFI/PEFC and FSC in its second-tier list of "legitimate" environmental standards and certifications.; as does Environment Canada's EcoLogo.
A National Association of State Foresters forest certification policy statement passed by resolution in 2008 states: "While in different manners, the ATFS (American Tree Farm System), FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and SFI systems include the fundamental elements of credibility and make positive contributions to forest sustainability. No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best’, and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility."
Green Building Council
On April 5, 2016, the U.S. Green Building Council issued a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) pilot alternative compliance path (ACP) designed to screen out illegal forest products from LEED buildings. While the ACP is being tested as a credit, it will ultimately become a prerequisite that applies to all LEED projects. As a pilot, the ACP does not become a permanent part of the LEED standard without an affirmative vote of the USGBC membership. The ACP pilot recognizes all certified sources - FSC, PEFC, SFI and ATFS and programs. The ACP will apply to all LEED v4 rating systems including Homes v4 and to all LEED 2009 rating systems.
The ACP categorizes the various forest certification standards based on the ASTM D7612-10 (2015) standard, which is titled “Categorizing Wood and Wood-Based Products According to Their Fiber Sources.” ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) International is a globally recognized leader in the development and delivery of voluntary consensus standards.
Other green building tools, including two American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-approved rating systems in the United States – ANSI-ICC 700-2008: National Green Building Standard and ANSI/GBI 01-2010: Green Building Assessment Protocol for Commercial Buildings (formerly Green Globes U.S.) – Green Globes and Built Green Canada recognize wood products certified by credible third-party certification programs like SFI.
SFI is supported by conservation groups such as the American Bird Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests, and the Canadian Parks Council (all of which serve on the SFI Board).
Unlike SFI, the FSC included environmental groups such as Greenpeace among its founders. The National Wildlife Federation and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) currently serve on the FSC Board. The Sierra Club endorses only FSC.
Critiques of SFI
On September 9, 2009 the Washington State Forest Law Center, on behalf of the environmental protection group ForestEthics, filed complaints against SFI Inc. with the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.
The FTC complaint accuses SFI Inc. of misleading consumers with deceptive marketing practices. The complaint cites various aspects of SFI's marketing, including its claim that it is an “independent” not-for-profit organization, its dependence on the timber industry for funding, and the vagueness of SFI's environmental standards, which allow SFI-certified landowners to be certified merely because the landowner is complying with state environmental regulations. The complaint cites SFI's certification as an example of greenwash.
Both the FTC and IRS investigated the complaints made against SFI and found them without merit. No action was taken by either investigative body.
Conflict of interest
The complaint filed with the IRS requests an examination of SFI Inc.’s non-profit status, based on the fact that SFI benefits the private interests of its corporate landowners and not the public interest, as well as the fact that SFI draws more than 80% of its funding from the wood and paper industry. The complaint asserts that in serving the private interests of wood and paper companies that want a ‘green’ image, SFI is inappropriately granted a nonprofit status reserved for public charities.
The IRS investigated the complaint as well as conducted a thorough examination of SFI's non-profit status and concluded that it was appropriate and that no further action was required.
Sierra Club complaint
The Sierra Club has lodged a formal complaint with the SFI, alleging that Weyerhaeuser engaged in risky and irresponsible logging on steep slopes that led to 1,259 landslides in 2007 on SFI-certified Weyerhaeuser lands in Washington state. Challenging SFI to back up its claims of 'independence' and 'rigorous audits,' the Sierra Club requested that Weyerhaeuser's SFI certification be revoked.
A peer reviewed landslide study concluded that the Washington State landslides that the Sierra Club attributed to Weyerhaeuser's logging practices were the result of extreme weather conditions such as heavy rainfall and not the result of steep slope logging by the company. Landslides occur on both logged and unlogged sites, but science shows that logging (and logging roads) dramatically increase the risk of landslides.
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