The Competition Bureau has opened an inquiry to see if forestry industry claims of sustainable management on vast stretches of Canadian woodlands are false advertising. 

The inquiry, announced late last year, comes in response to a complaint filed by the environmental law firm Ecojustice on behalf of eight environmental groups. Ecojustice says that forest industry ads claiming the Sustainable Forestry Initiative sets rigorous harvesting standards are dishonest and misleading.

"The (standard) does not prescribe, require, assure, command, mandate, or in any form certify sustainable forest management," says the complaint filed to the bureau. "It allows aspirations, stated intentions, and programs to be conflated with actual outcomes."

Jason Metnick, spokesman for the initiative, denied those allegations Wednesday.

"(The initiative) has a forest management standard that is based on objective performance measures and indicators," he said. 

At stake is Canada's most commonly used method of assuring consumers that the wood and paper products they buy are harvested in accordance with modern ecological principles. It is promoted by the Forest Products Association of Canada and purports to certify sustainable forestry on more than 120 million hectares.

But the Ecojustice complaint calls on the Competition Bureau to force the industry to retract those claims and pay a $10 million fine. 

It says the initiative uses vague language that is too woolly to create any sort of measurable standard. Terms like "rare," "ecologically important," "significant" and "at risk” are not defined.

Ecojustice says companies are allowed to define for themselves what constitutes an old-growth forest. The initiative defines long-term as up to 80 years — too short to measure real sustainability and more in line with harvest schedules.

The system allows forests to be converted from one type to another with "appropriate justification." Ecojustice says while the system suggests clearcuts be limited, it allows too many exceptions. 

As well, it criticizes the initiative for focusing on process. The complaint says the system assumes that if adequate policies are in place, the results on the ground will be good.

"(Sustainable Forestry Initiative) employs no means of assuring that certification to the SFI standard achieves sustainable forest management," the complaint says. 

Ecojustice points out there are no cases of certification being withdrawn for non-compliance.

"In the absence of mandatory requirements, there is no standard against which performance could be judged inadequate," it argues.

Metnick said the complaint is based on outdated and misleading information and that the standard does contain specific targets.

"We have … 114 indicators that speak to both an outcomes-based as well as a systems-based approach," he said. "We believe we are sound and based off of science."

Metnick said certification is only awarded to companies that have passed a third-party assessment. Companies are audited annually, which includes a field inspection component, he said. 

"The auditor will go into the forest and make sure that what the organization says they are doing is backed up by the field visit."

The Competition Bureau inquiry, which is not conducted in public, has the power to use the courts to compel evidence. 

A spokesman for the bureau said the Ecojustice complaint was assessed before the decision to hold an inquiry was made.

"When the bureau receives such a request, the information provided is reviewed to determine whether it meets the technical requirements of the section," said Yves Chartrand in an email. 

"If so, the bureau is obliged under the (Competition) Act to launch a formal investigation to determine the facts."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.