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A Screaming Success

For Kathy Abusow, a trip to the local grocery store with her two kids can be an enlightening experience. While recently shopping the packed isles of the neighbourhood grocer for the next week’s lunch makings, she explains that she picked up some juice boxes and “let out a scream.” It wasn’t that something was wrong. “It was a scream of excitement,” she clarifies. “I had just spotted our organization’s logo on the juice box packaging.”

November 14, 2011  By Bill Tice

Kathy Abusow For Kathy Abusow

Abusow, you see, is the head of the non-profit Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which is already one of the world’s leading forest certification programs, and it is growing quickly. “Although I don’t get involved in the actual label approval process –  that’s Jason Metnick’s job at SFI – I used to be aware of every product that was going to carry the SFI label,” she explains. “We are so busy now with so many label approval requests it is easy for me not to know about them all, but that can make for a pleasant surprise when you find it on the store shelf or at some other time when you are not expecting it.”

The enthusiasm Abusow demonstrates for an SFI-certified package ending up in her grocery cart carries through to everything she does at the organization. Whether she is giving you the five-minute summarized version of what SFI can do for you, presenting the benefits of SFI certification to a group of executives in a company board room, or speaking to hundreds at a trade show or conference, you can tell she is excited about what SFI stands for, what it can achieve, and what it can do for forest products and pulp and paper companies that subscribe to it. In her pitch, she could slam the other organizations out there that compete with SFI certification, but she doesn’t have to. She knows she has a good program. She knows forest products companies need to be certified if they want to succeed in the North American and global markets. And, most importantly, she knows there is enough uncertified land out there to keep her and her competitors busy.

“If I had to keep my message to one sentence, it wouldn’t be to sign up for SFI certification, or to only use products that are SFI certified,” Abusow says. “My message would be that ‘we need to make customers, consumers and the general public aware that only 10% of the world’s forests are certified, and the companies that are certified should be rewarded by having their product purchased, regardless of which certification program they are part of.’ Let’s not quibble over the 10% that is certified. Let’s look at the 90% that isn’t and see what we can do to change that.”

Awareness Campaign
SFI’s most recent awareness campaign sends the same message, clearly pointing out that only a small percentage of the world’s forests are certified.  The headlines in the campaign’s print ads don’t shout out that you should be SFI certified.  Instead, they read, “Support responsible forestry” while the body text states in part, “The good news is that there are a number of credible forest certification programs. And each one, including SFI, encourages responsible forestry.”


It’s a messaging campaign that seems to be working for SFI. In their most recent Progress Report released earlier this year, they reported that as of May 2009, the program had 245 participants, 65.6 million hectares (162 million acres) of third-party certified lands, 635 chain-of-custody certifications at 1,411 locations, and 52 fibre sourcing certifications. The volume of certified land has grown from just 280,000 hectares (700,000 acres) 11 years ago, while the latest number for chain-of-custody certificates issued by SFI has risen dramatically from just under 400 in December of 2008.

“Things really are going great for us in terms of the awareness of our program, the partnerships we are building, and what is happening on the ground in terms of our standards,” Abusow says. “We have three main areas we focus on and they are integrity, conservation collaboration, and market outreach, which includes public awareness.”

Abusow notes that integrity is one of the most important factors to SFI’s success and she says they have a well-rounded board of directors that has expertise in the economic, social and environmental aspects of the non-profit charitable organization. She says they go through a rigorous standards review every five years, with the latest standard being rolled out this fall for the 2010 to 2014 time frame.

Sins of Greenwashing
On the integrity front, Abusow says “having a clear and transparent label identifying products using fibre from a certified forest or procurement source is second to none.” She adds that the consumer watchdog in Canada is the Competition Bureau and she notes they put their stamp of approval on all three of the main certification programs in Canada – SFI, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Canadian Standards Association (CSA). She also points to the TerraChoice green marketing program, which interfaces with the Canadian government. “TerraChoice recently released their ‘Seven Sins of Greenwashing’ report and they found that over 90% of the labels they looked at were guilty of at least one of the sins,” Abusow explains. “The good news for our brand awareness and integrity is that we were only one of 14 labels with a clean record and our main rival, FSC, was the same. That’s a thumbs up for forest certification in general.”

Abusow says SFI’s support of conservation and social projects is “one of the organization’s best kept secrets.” She notes that in Canada they recently gave Louisiana Pacific and Ducks Unlimited a Leadership in Conservation Research award for work they were doing in Manitoba’s watersheds and awarded the same honour on the Nature Conservancy of Canada, UPM-Kymmene, Time Inc, Bird Studies Canada and other partners  for work they were doing in New Brunswick. “We are looking at over 100 conservation projects across North America right now,” she adds.

On the social side, Abusow is happy to talk about SFI’s latest project, which involves supporting Habitat for Humanity Winnipeg by helping them source wood building supplies from organizations that are committed to responsible forest management. The project will see 11 energy-efficient homes built in the Winnipeg area for low-income working Metis families. SFI will also be working with Habitat for Humanity in Tennessee this fall when they will hold a “Build Day” for the organization in conjunction with the SFI annual conference being held in Nashville. “Working with Habitat for Humanity is an excellent way for the SFI program and its participants to show their commitment to communities as well as to responsible forest management,” says Abusow.

Down the Road
In addition to growing in terms of  certification volume, SFI is also growing in staff and geographically. They have gone from four staff members in 1998 to 11 today, and they have specialists located across North America. Abusow, who is originally from London, Ont., now works from Ottawa and an SFI office in Washington, D.C., and they also have staff in British Columbia, South Carolina, Oregon and Arizona.

Looking down the road, Abusow says SFI wants to expand its certification of solid wood products. A number of solid wood producers are already certified to the SFI standard, but Abusow would like to see more go down that road. She says to help make that happen they are working hard to have the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program include SFI-certified products in its criteria. SFI is already recognized by Green Globes, another major green building organization in the U.S., and the National Green Building Standard for homes in the U.S.

If Abusow takes on the challenge of growing the certification of solid wood products with the same enthusiasm she has for her other projects, you will be seeing the SFI logo more frequently in your local DIY home centre.

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