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Certified wood: eco-fad or everlasting? Want to back sustainable forests and natural capital when you reach for lumber? A look at what those symbols mean and where the movement's headed.

The term "certified wood" can seem a bit cold and clinical, especially when you consider the wide range of environmental implications. For consumers who'd rather not purchase garden supplies representing the remnants of a ravaged rain forest or live in a house made from lumber pared from old-growth, certification offers an opportunity to shop with a conscience, providing a sort of "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" for forest products harvested around the world.

The concept is as old as Earth Day consumerism, and certified wood sort of fits on the same shelf with food or clothing promoted as organically grown. Sellers of certified wood products vow they've been extracted from an environmentally sound, sustainable forest, with lots of checks and balances to back up the claims.

Forest product certification is a program still in its infancy, with one of the major programs having recently celebrated only its tenth anniversary. The fact that millions of forest acres in dozens of countries now bear certification's stamp of approval reflects the ambition and energy of a movement grown out of the private sector and unafraid to focus on the cold reality of the marketplace, which time has proven to be the ultimate arbitrator of environmental endeavors.

Essential to the certification concept is the philosophy that sustainable forestry and profitability are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. Certification organizations like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) grew out of a perceived need by members of the American Forest & Paper Association to establish higher environmental standards and goals.

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In October 1994 this group, representing the majority of wood products producers in North America, agreed it could meet contemporary production needs without sacrificing long-term environmental objectives. These include the protection of soil and water resources, wildlife and fish habitat, and aesthetic values. As part of the agreement, third-party certification teams perform on-the-ground inspections and periodic monitoring to insure the SFI seal of approval is never rubber stamped.

At the same time, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was evolving as a global certification group. Today FSC has headquarters in Germany and maintains 34 satellite offices around the world.

FSC is a privately funded, nonpolitical organization that promotes third-party forest certification according to a stringent set of guidelines, many of which explore issues the environmental movement has only lately seen as essential to the long-term viability of planetary health. Central to FSC certification is a humanitarian viewpoint that laborers and indigenous people remain a critical component in any overall assessment of forest sustainability. Certification under FSC guidelines weighs heavily on the human factor as well as on ecological well-being.

"If a dictator is selling his nation's forest products to finance a genocidal civil war, then we don't believe that the worldwide marketplace should reward such behavior," says Michael Washburn, vice president of forestry and marketing in FSC's Washington, DC, office. Certification, he adds, allows the world market to recognize responsible nations and ostracize those that aren't.

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"FSC certification extends all the way back to the hands that hold the chainsaw," Washburn says, adding that corporations, paper suppliers, or architectural firms purchasing certified wood products do so comprehending not only the long-term environmental benefits but the social and cultural bonuses as well.

Basically, the program's selling point is radically simple: doing the right thing is good for business. FSC not only provides foresters with third-party certification credentials, but backs up the initial process with "chain of custody certification," a means of insuring that forest products determined to be environmentally sustainable in the field are not degraded as they pass from sawyer to miller to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. The chain of custody process prevents any mixing of noncertified materials or falsification along the production/marketing sequence of events.

In the span of a decade, certification organizations have managed to enroll 3 percent of the world's forests while selling the concept to major wood products purchasers including publishers, architectural firms, and even familiar strip mall names like Office Depot, Kinko's, Lowe's, and Home Depot.

Home Depot began selling certified wood in 1998, according to public relations spokesperson Jerry Shields. The chain remains the largest retail outlet for certified wood products, Shields says, adding that the program has been "absolutely successful" for both Home Depot stores and their customers, even though the certification process adds a certain amount of cost. Others say Home Depot's decision grew out of need for a better environmental image. The stores have in the past been a stage for protests stemming from what detractors claimed were policies that included selling products made from trees felled in old-growth forests.

But while forest certification organizations have been successful at applying leverage in the boardroom, they still have a ways to go in making the concept a household mantra. Few at the bottom rungs of the retail ladder know anything about certification, let alone enough to make a sensible sales pitch. Point of purchase displays are often lacking or nonexistent, and local contractors and builders are too often among the unaware, except in states with above average environmental awareness.

But that will change in time, according to certification true believers like FSC's Michael Washburn. He points out that the overall educational process is still in its infancy, and at the moment remains geared toward the top of the wood products-consuming corporate food chain.

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Washburn also believes that the supply side of forest product certification is already capable of meeting market demand. However his views aren't completely shared by some growers like Potlatch, a firm with dual certification from both FSC and SFI for its 1.5 million acres of commercial forestland in Idaho, Minnesota, and Arkansas. Potlatch's Mike Sullivan says his company believes in certification, but at the same time thinks the program needs to improve on the supply side, especially at narrowing the gap between where certified trees are grown and where certified wood products are needed to meet what he sees as a growing demand.

"We've taken a risk in this," Sullivan admits when asked if certification has been a good investment for Potlatch. He says the practice has provided the firm a way to demonstrate its commitment to environmental improvement and long-term stewardship, but that it hasn't happened without a cost.

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Sullivan says certification will pay when consumers recognize the industry's commitment to sustainability and voice approval with their wallets. "We're confident that double certification by the world's top two organizations should, or will at some time in the future, mean something to consumers," Sullivan says. But, he adds, awareness won't come about without an education process.

"Too often we've found that people can't discern the differences between certified and uncertified products," Sullivan says. Yet it's not that certification doesn't have a noteworthy story to tell.

Following official organization in 1994, FSC certified nearly 25 million acres of international forestland by 1998. In 2004 FCS extended certification to nearly a half-million acres of Wisconsin state forest lands, certified another 670,000 acres of Potlatch holdings, added 1.68 million acres of woodlands owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, sanctioned 2.8 million acres of Nipissing commercial forest in Ontario, and convinced a group of Japanese paper companies to buy wood products from certified forests.

In Canada, about 70 percent of the wood harvested in British Columbia grew in forests with third-party certification. And in 2004, certification organizations claimed nearly 116 million acres of approved forest in 60 countries around the world.

In areas of international concern, Brazil has shown leadership south of the equator by enrolling nearly 3 million acres of native Amazon forests and another 2.47 million acres of plantation woodlands under FSC certification. Maybe more encouraging, FSC guidelines call for recognition of the cultural values of native peoples as well as the rights and labor concerns of workers who harvest the wood and work in the mills.

Certification procedures take into consideration forests of special environmental concern, like those harboring endemics, endangered species, or possibly fragile riparian areas where careful management may be needed to protect water quality. And third-party certification plans even exist for plantation forests, generally as long as the monoculture plantings are mostly composed of native species and if the high-yield management plan exists as a means to forestall clearcutting in other natural forest areas.

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It seems noteworthy that corporations like Boise Cascade, Hancock, Georgia-Pacific, and Weyerhaeuser join such unlikely bed-fellows as Yale University, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests on a certification checklist. Whether driven by politics, conscience, or the perceived dictates of the marketplace, foresters from a variety of backgrounds both large and small are at least talking sustainability and adopting some sort of management plan that adheres to a self-restricting process, one that involves third-party scrutiny in periodic review.

At the same time, certification appears to be a more mature way for environmentalism and a free market system to shake hands, sit down, and share a dialogue. That would be preferable to another spotted owl fracas, which did little but spur cartoonists and political pundits into action while alienating the logging culture and with it a majority of conservative voters. Judging by past performance, certification, rather than endangered species litigation, looks like a workable compromise both sides of the aisle can live with.

As one forestry insider pointed out, certified wood's enormous popularity in Europe appears destined to spread to consumers in the U.S., and the resulting competition for market share will in itself spur additional recognition. Certified wood may not yet be a household word, but the scramble on the supply side to meet increasing demand should generate its own publicity.

And why shouldn't consumers have a voice in how the forests they love are managed? What could be more American than voting with one's hard-earned cash?

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Today debates rage over the financial burden passed along to future generations in such areas as social security and a staggering national debt. The certification process extends that debate to forestry, asserting that sustainable wood products, clean air, beautiful vistas, rare plant communities, endangered species, clear streams, and healthy fisheries can be passed intact from one generation to the next--as long as certification guidelines are upheld and promises kept.

The day may come when a typical American homeowner wouldn't think of relaxing on a wooden deck unless the wood in that deck was certified. And as Potlatch's Mike Sullivan is quick to point out, all of his firm's cedar decking material is already certified.

Folks like FSC's Michael Washburn are optimists, ready to cheer on the benefits of certification in a changing culture and marketplace. Through certification, he says, corporations will enjoy the chance to brand their endeavors with the stamp of environmental responsibility in a growing market eager to reward the good guys.

Washburn believes there has been a dramatic change in corporations over the past few years. Corporate citizenship is becoming more than just lip service, he insists, with an increasing number of firms truly wanting to do the right thing, especially in the field of natural resource sustainability.

He adds that most wood producers now concede that good citizenship is rapidly becoming good business, and few are willing to hedge their bets that environmentalism is on the wane, especially when it comes to heartstring issues like air, water, wildlife, and healthy forests.

It may take a while for the message to reach the heartland, but for now certification groups already are affecting lives, even if it's only obvious in a package of computer paper down at Office Depot. If the concept continues to grow as rapidly as it has over just 10 years, and if the programs capture the imagination as they have in Europe, then certification is almost certain to take on broad new connotations within the American vocabulary--and provide even more impetus to sustain the nation's woodland resources for the benefit of generations yet to come.

Gary Lantz writes from his home in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Author:Lantz, Gary
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:2004
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