Gibson Guitars: where have all the fleas come from?

In one of the political blogs still commenting on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s second raid on Gibson Guitars for possible contraventions of the Lacey Act, Republican pundit Andrew M. Langer, berating Gibson for “consorting with environmentalists”, refers to an old saying that “if you lie down with dogs be prepared to get up with fleas”. He adds that “Apparently if you lie down with environmentalists you should be prepared to get raided by the Feds.”

Langer implies that the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Greenpeace, and the Forest Stewardship Council have all played their part in the predicament of Gibson, which is now potentially facing criminal prosecution for use of illegally traded wood. They are all lumped together as environmentalists with whom Gibson has ‘lain down’ and then gotten up with fleas. Curiously, Langer neglects to mention the ‘environmental’ group which has been closest to Gibson, and has provided it, at significant cost, with ‘advice’ and FSC certificates: the Rainforest Alliance.

Most US environmentalists will no doubt dismiss this as yet more right-wing ranting, of which there has been much around the Gibson case, most of it aimed at “over-reach” of the Obama administration. But Langer has a point, even if he misses the mark somewhat. And now the case has become the subject of a petition to President Obama, which more than 23,000 people had signed by today, defending Gibson and attacking the Lacey Act. In this, Gibson’s CEO Henry Juszkiewicz is quoted as saying “Gibson has a long history of supporting sustainable and responsible sources of wood and has worked diligently with entities such as the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace to secure FSC-certified supplies. The wood seized on August 24 satisfied FSC standards.”

The Rainforest Alliance itself, though, is keeping quiet. The Alliance has issued no formal public statement answering questions that have been raised about the nature of its relationship with Gibson, or on the quality of the service it provided to the company. The Alliance’s ‘Frog Blog’ from September 30th tells a little story about one of its staff member’s incorruptibility: “In the late 1970’s, the Rainforest Alliance’s senior vice president of programs, Mohammad Rafiq…was a young forest officer in rural Pakistan…when he was offered lucrative bribes to look the other way when trucks carrying illegally harvested wood passed his checkpoint. When he refused those bribes, the traffickers did everything in their power to get him out of the way.” Perhaps we are meant to feel assured by this that the Alliance’s taking of ‘gifts’ worth up to $390,000 per year from from Gibson, which it was supposedly independently certifying, could not possibly be anything to do with corruption.

Perhaps the Rainforest Alliance looks so much like a good ol’ American business that it must, in Langer’s view, be beyond reproach. But equally curious as Langer’s omission of any mention of the Rainforest Alliance is that whilst the EIA, Greenpeace and the FSC are taking the rap for Gibson’s bad case of fleas, they too are keeping silent about the real source of the infestation.

EIA is no doubt in a bind because the Rainforest Alliance was one of its partners in the lobby coalition that secured the enactment of the Lacey Act in 2008.

The FSC is, as ever, confronted with the horrible dilemma that it either kicks out the Rainforest Alliance, and thereby loses the maybe 40% of its certificates that the Alliance’s SmartWood programme is responsible for issuing, or does nothing and becomes forever known as being completely impotent at upholding certifier standards of propriety. It has anyway tied itself up in contractual knots which make it almost impossible to apply any serious sanctions against miscreant certifiers without finding itself in court.

Greenpeace has once again found that one of the wheels of its global forest campaign appears to have fallen off, because so much of what it campaigns for ultimately relies on there being a functioning and credible FSC to attest that its targeted forest wreckers and criminals have been embarrassed into becoming reformed, certified, ‘sustainable forest managers’. Clearly, it is going to struggle to convince supporters of the effectiveness of this strategy if the FSC itself is shown to be unable to uphold forest certification standards.

Greenpeace, along with other genuine environmental groups, has long sought to build credibility and respect amongst the business community. They and EIA had very little to do with Gibson’s unfortunate choice of suppliers, or its FSC certificates, they made no money out of ‘advising’ Gibson, nor took any valuable gifts from it. Yet they now find themselves being likened to flea-spreading curs.

Greenpeace and EIA may only be able to save the political credibility of the Lacey Act if they are open and honest about what has gone so badly wrong in the Gibson case, and who was responsible. They are rightly concerned about being seen to engage in ‘green-on-green’ disagreements. But like most people, they have been suckered in by the Rainforest Alliance’s plausible ‘not-for-profit’ rhetoric, and they have for too long been publicly silent on the deep structural problems and flawed policies within the FSC, which allow for these kinds of problems to re-occur. In order to retain any credibility for the FSC, they need to insist on the abandoning of the so-called ‘Controlled Wood’ Policy. More urgently, they need to insist that the Rainforest Alliance is removed as an accredited certifier. Until they do, they will no doubt continue to be seen by some as bedding down with flea-ridden dogs.

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