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Green certification is not needed for sustained forestry.

IHPA -- International Wood Products Association members are intensely intereste in sustainability. Forests are the source of our industry and our families' livelihoods. For our members, no trees equals no business. Thus, IHPA has been an active participant in the green certification debate for about three years and has a number of thoughts on the topic which we think need to be heard.

The green certification issue first appeared several years ago, primarily in connection with tropical timber. There was, and continues to be, great concern about deforestation in tropical, developing countries. Third-party certificatio was being sold as a way to address this problem.

According to advocates, forest management concerns that met the criteria developed by private third-party, for-profit certification operations (and who wrote a check, usually a sizable one), would get a "certificate" and could sell themselves as being more environmentally friendly than those who didn't have a certificate. This was supposed to allow them to sell their product at a higher price (the elusive "green premium") and to gain a larger market share due to th supposed unquenched demand on the part of consumers for those "green" products.

The appeal of this concept is certainly easy to understand. It offers an extremely simplified and easy answer to a very complex problem. This approach isn't unusual in this day and age of 30 second commercials and 8 second sound-bites on the evening news. In the current atmosphere of mandates, legislation, litigation and political correctness and expediency, sound-bite solutions look pretty good sometimes. And there is certainly no shortage of individuals and/or organizations who know what's best for us and who, more ofte than not for a price, are willing to tell us what to do or to sell us the lates product to solve the latest problem.

Questionable assumptions

Certification supposedly allows consumers to feed good about their purchases an assures them that they are doing their part to save the world's forests by forcing drastic changes in management practices. However, there are a few flaws (or at least some enormous leaps of faith) in this logic and a number of assumptions that must be questioned.

* The first assumption is that forests all over the world are being badly managed, that the timber industry is responsible for massive deforestation/forest degradation and that certification can somehow change all that.

Those familiar with hardwood forests in the United States know that there has been an 82 percent increase in the volume of standing timber in the last 40 years. In the tropics, the problem is one of poverty and population pressure. Even a recent study commissioned by Greenpeace found that the overwhelming caus of forest depletion is agriculture. Forestry was credited with 2 percent of depletion in Brazil, 9 percent in Indonesia and 0 percent in Cameroon, the thre countries specified.

Additionally, one should keep in mind that harvesting in the tropics is almost exclusively selective, meaning the vast majority of trees are left undisturbed and standing. Alternative land uses, like agriculture, totally remove the trees from the land. Also, only a small amount of the forestry production goes into international trade. And, the markets where certification is being discussed ar small (the United States is approximately 6 percent) in the overall international tropical timber trade picture. The impact of certification on deforestation or forest management, especially in the tropics, would be like a drop in the ocean.

Certification will not stop deforestation in the tropics. IHPA believes that th time and resources spent on pushing certification would be better spent on addressing the real problems behind deforestation -- poverty and population. Anyone who has witnessed the abject poverty in some of those regions of die world knows that some slip of paper, supposedly meant to make some northern, industrialized consumer feel better, will not make one bit of difference.

* Another assumption is that consumers are the driving force behind certification. Are consumers clamoring for "green" wood products and willing to pay a "green premium" to get them? Current demand appears to be quite limited t some who purchase very small quantifies, who want to be "environmentally correct" and to one or two large buyers looking for a possible marketing gimmick.

While we are aware that there are a number of surveys that indicate a possible willingness to pay for certified products, we must question the validity of these studies. A survey can be structured in order to achieve any desired result. How would you expect someone to answer a survey question about environmental friendliness? For instance, you could include a survey question like, "Would you rather buy a chair that has been certified environmentally friendly, or one that is the result of the below-cost clearcutting of thousands of acres of old-growth forest, killing all the native wildlife and forever destroying the entire ecosystem for your children?"

We also are aware of a recent German study conducted by a well-known firm for the Federal Environment Office in Berlin. Germany is considered to be one of th most "progressive" countries when it comes to "environmentalism." The survey involved over 3,000 people, the vast majority of whom described themselves as "environmentally aware." The average level of "awareness" on a scale of 1-10, was 7.8. But only 36 percent of the respondents said they would pay extra for a "green" product, and then no more than 5 percent extra. Somewhat surprising results considering the topic and population.

Market is the only valid study area IHPA has conducted its own informal survey of the market. We have combed the trade press and other industry publications for signs of a market for these products. We gathered the last 18 month's worth of issues of a variety of trade publications and found that there was not one a either asking for, or offering, certified wood or wood products. Not one! This now continues over two months after a leading certification advocate committed to placing ads.

We suggest that supporters of third-party certification actually put products o store shelves and let the consumers vote with their wallets. Formal and informa surveys aside, the one study that is valid is the marketplace. The one example we know of where this has taken place provides an interesting study, based on a account given by a representative of that retailer at a recent conference. It appears that the retailer struck a special deal with a "certified" supplier, allowing the retailer to offer the certified product at what has been described as a 35 to 40 percent discount when compared to the uncertified competing product. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which product the consumer is going to buy. It would be a big mistake to try to draw any conclusions regarding green marketing from this example. It should also be note that the representative of this retailer stated at the same conference that his company will not pay one cent more for certified wood.

So what impact would certification have on markets and manufacturers? Manufacturers who choose to deal in only certified products would lose much, if not most, of their price and source flexibility since certified wood is rare an more costly. This would eliminate, or certainly restrict, the ability to readil substitute sources of supply based on price, quality or reliability. There may even be a need to maintain dual inventories. What would happen if the supply runs out? Do you shut down the assembly line? This, obviously, gives a clear competitive advantage to those who don't choose the certification route.

And are some environmentalists and certification organizations just attempting to cream a market for the certification services they offer? That's good marketing, but is it good forestry? What makes these third-party groups, with forest management criteria heavily weighted toward social issues, more qualifie to gauge sustainability than forestry professionals that have been in the forests for years?

And why is the cost for certification so high? Why does it cost at all if the aim of these groups and of this concept is to reward good management? These "independent" third-party certification programs are unabashed "for-profit" operations. None are free. Certificates are not offered as a public service. These services cost in the tens of thousands of dollars for the initial certification and then smaller amounts for annual renewals. If certification is pursued, someone must pay. The cost is borne by the landowner. Can they pass it on to the lumber dealer? To the distributor? To the manufacturer? The only clea winner here is the certifier.

Alternatives are available Currently, there are many alternative approaches to sustainable forest management being explored and considered, some of which may come to fruition in the very near future.

For tropical woods, the International Tropical Timber Organization's Criteria and Guidelines for Sustainable Management of Natural Tropical Forests and its Year 2000 goal have been signed by the governments of the 50 member countries. These are very extensive and exhaustive guidelines. We understand that a simila process is underway for temperate and boreal forest countries.

The United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development is due to adopt fores management measures in mid-1995. National and international standards groups ar beginning to work on more scientifically-based and measurable criteria for forest management. Additionally, there is life-cycle research being conducted, or about to be done, on wood and competing materials that may give an even true picture of the environmental pluses and minuses of material use. We also understand that a number of tropical timber producing countries are very close to implementing "sustainability-verification" of their own that will be significantly more viable and credible than any of the current systems.

More constructive than third-party certification schemes, and more reliable a course in addressing forestry issues, is for consumers/governments/foundations, etc., to recognize and provide incentives in the form of increased funding and technical assistance to those who are working toward sustainability of the forest resources. All who have a stake in the future of the forests must be involved in order to bring forth the resources needed to employ the best management practices in forest areas.

IHPA strongly supports the sustainable management of the world's forests. Why? No trees equals no timber, and no timber equals no jobs -- it's good business. IHPA, primarily though its C.U.R.E. program, is working both within and outside the industry to raise the level of awareness and increase knowledge of these important issues.

IHPA -- International Wood Products Assn. represents American importers of wood and wood products from literally all around the world. IHPA also represents individuals and organizations affiliated with the international wood and wood products trade. Robert Waffle is the association's director of government affairs.
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Title Annotation:Point/Counterpoint
Author:Waffle, Robert
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:Green certification of wood: implications for the woodworking industry.
Next Article:Rebuttal.

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