2023 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom winner

Deforestation Inc.

About the Project

A global investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Deforestation Inc. exposes how a lightly regulated sustainability industry overlooks forest destruction and human rights violations all while granting so-called green environmental certifications that provide false assurances to investors, governments and consumers. The project reveals how environmental auditors approve green labels for products linked to deforestation and authoritarian regimes.

Over nine months, reporters working with ICIJ in 27 countries followed loggers’ footprints from harvested protected woodlands in Finland to clear-cut areas of South Korea to British Columbia’s pock-marked forestlands. The reporters talked to Indigenous community members, forest-preservation advocates, forestry auditors and industry insiders; journalists examined hundreds of court filings, violation data and leaked documents in more than a dozen languages. The project spanned the world.

ICIJ’s findings reveal how some companies misrepresent their commitment to ending the global climate crisis while exploiting precious natural resources under the “sustainability” banner. Meanwhile, forested areas that, combined, are larger than the European Union have disappeared since 1990. And more and more forests keep vanishing to provide dubiously labeled products.

The project puts a long-overdue spotlight on the organizations at the heart of a system that presents itself as self-regulating: the Forest Stewardship Council, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and other international certification firms. While their “green” labels adorn wood products around the world, the organizations rely on third-party auditing firms to actually certify that forestry and wood-products companies and palm-oil producers harvest responsibly and don’t use materials linked to illegal logging and other crimes.

The environmental auditing sector is part of the $200 billion testing, inspection and certification industry. It includes specialized units of auditing giants such as KPMG and PwC, large, publicly traded companies such as the Swiss multinational SGS Société Générale de Surveillance SA and smaller firms such as PT Inti Multima Sertifikasi in Indonesia. The auditors typically perform risk assessments for their clients, inspect mills, interview company foresters and ensure that operations and products are in line with voluntary environmental standards designed by private certification organizations.

Trouble is, our investigation found, this expensive compliance system routinely rubber stamps destructive practices.

Judges Comments

From start to finish, this package of stories has a clear demonstration of impact in a subject area with a lot of coverage — the writing is excellent, gripping and clear, and the visuals are concrete and help explain a difficult subject, with measurable results.