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WFLC Files Second Complaint Against SFI in the FTC

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SFI-certified forest in SW Washington On behalf of ForestEthics and Greenpeace, WFLC filed an extensive Complaint against the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Complaint alleges that SFI violates multiple provisions of the FTC’s revised “Green Guides,” which the FTC released in October 2012.  This is the second time that WFLC has filed a complaint against SFI in the FTC; after WFLC filed the first complaint in September 2009, the FTC chose not to take direct enforcement action against SFI but, instead, revised its GreenGuides to state more clearly when and how a so-called “certification” entity can market itself as an “independent, non-profit public charity.”
SFI-certified forest in SW Washington State    

The FTC enforces the Federal Trade Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 45-50.  Consisting of appointed commissioners and a staff of lawyers, the FTC has promulgated “green guidelines” and has developed a body of case decisions over the years pertaining to deceptive “green” advertising.  The Trade Act does not give citizens a right to enforce its terms but citizens are invited to petition the FTC to take action.  In general, federal trade law prohibits advertising of environmental claims that are deceptive, unfair, “unsubstantiated,” that overstate a product’s environmental attributes, and that make unfair comparisons.

The Complaint asks the FTC to investigate SFI and take appropriate enforcement action against SFI for purposefully maintaining a forest “certification” system that is designed to, and does, confuse and mislead retail and wholesale consumers of lumber and paper products who are seeking to buy “green-certified” products.  Specifically, the Complaint alleges SFI violates the FTC Green Guides because it is a forest certification system that is virtually completely funded and governed by the U.S. timber industry, because timber industry-paid personnel are exclusively responsible for setting its so-called forest management standards, and because its forest management standards are vague, ambiguous, not subject to measurement, and permit environmentally-harmful forestry practices: 

  • It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product has been endorsed or certified by an independent third party. (16 C.F.R. § 260.6 (a)).
  • “Certification” seals may not misrepresent that the certification entity is an “independent” entity as opposed to an industry trade association or industry certifier. (16 C.F.R. § 260.6 (Examples 1-8)).
  • To legally claim a certification entity is “independent,” the certification entity must promulgate its standards as a “voluntary consensus standard body.” (16 C.F.R. § 260.6).
  • A certification entity’s claim of “independence” will be judged by how the consumer would likely perceive the certification entity’s name. (16 C.F.R. § 260.6 (Example 3)).
  • A certification entity cannot claim “independence” if an industry member of the entity can veto any proposed changes to its certification standards, even if those standards are promulgated by a “voluntary consensus standard body.” (16 C.F.R. § 260.6 (Example 4)).
  • A certification seal may be an “endorsement” and, consequently, must disclose “material connections” between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that “might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement.”  (16 C.F.R. § 260.6; 16 C.F.R. § 255.5

Read the FTC Complaint.

The attachments to the Complaint can be found here.

The FTC’s revised Green Guides can be found here.

For more information about this FTC Complaint, please contact Peter Goldman at (206)-223-4088 x. 3 or pgoldman at wflc.org.