Hot Button: How Green is Thy Lumber?

Seattle's green building community questions which wood is good enough

Say you’re an environmentally conscious consumer looking to build a new deck. You head to Dunn Lumber on Lake Union and stare at seemingly identical stacks of lumber. Which is the most eco-friendly? It’s hard to tell. Should you just buy the most expensive wood and assume it must be the greenest? What about that pile with the official-looking stamp? Or that other pile with the different but equally official-looking logo? What do those symbols actually mean, anyway?

As consumers stand scratching their heads in the aisles, a behind-the-scenes battle is being waged regarding these very logos—environmental certifications—and what they tell us about the wood they adorn. On one side is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit organization founded in 1993 by conservation groups to set sustainable forestry standards, widely considered the most stringent certifier of forest products. On the other side is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which began in response to FSC and has Weyerhaeuser and other captains of the timber industry on its board of directors. They both certify lumber as to its greenness; their logos are remarkably similar. But there is one important difference: As of this writing only FSC boasts the prestigious (and especially in the Northwest, coveted) LEED seal of approval.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the country’s premier green building rating system, has long offered its wood credit exclusively to FSC products. “LEED has always represented the high road and the idea of pushing the market in a positive direction,” says Margaret Montgomery, a principal at Seattle-based architecture firm NBBJ. Run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED certifies buildings that have met benchmarks for sustainability in several areas, including energy savings, water conservation and use of sustainable materials. Comparatively, wood is not a major credit in LEED, but eco-conscious builders consider it an important player in the fight against climate change, since the conversion of forests into plantations or for other agricultural purposes is a significant source of global carbon emissions.

At press time, USGBC members were poised to vote on a revision of the LEED wood credit standards that could give rival certification programs, including SFI, some amount of LEED credit (a “half point” in LEED terminology, versus the full point offered to FSC wood). But Montgomery and other members of the Seattle-area green building community—one of the most active in the country—are crying foul, saying SFI-certified wood is sourced from forests, including some in Washington state, whose management standards are sub-optimal. Those on the FSC side feel wider LEED wood certification will lead to consumer confusion, and defeat FSC’s efforts to promote sustainable forestry.

“In my mind, SFI certification doesn’t mean anything,” says Patti Southard, board president of the Northwest Natural Resource Group, which supports sustainable forestry in Washington state. Southard says SFI lacks credibility in the environmental community, agreeing with a 2001 Yale University forestry study that found several standards less stringent under SFI than FSC. According to the study, “FSC is based upon a required, consistently applied third-party audit; SFI is not,” and SFI does not provide social criteria to consider “local communities and indigenous peoples,” while FSC does. FSC prohibits use of some pesticides, while SFI does not. The study concluded that SFI has “taken initial steps promoting better forest management” but found FSC to be “the only auditing system active in the Northern Forest that is capable of rebuilding public trust in the ability of landowners to responsibly manage their forests today and for the future.”

Many voices in the local green building community are speaking out. “It feels like [the USGBC] got a lot of pressure from industry, so they’re trying to rewrite this benchmark to be more inclusive,” says Montgomery. “Which means they are lowering the standard. It feels like they’re saying, ‘OK, well, let’s lower it just enough so these guys can play the game.’” Montgomery is one of a group of sustainable design leaders from 37 of the largest architecture and design firms in the country, including locals such as Perkins and Will, Mithun and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which sent a letter to the LEED steering committee in March 2010 asking that they maintain FSC guidelines as the minimum standard for the wood certification benchmark.

Additional groups opposing the proposed change in LEED wood credit standards include the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and, locally, Seattle Audubon, the Washington Environmental Council, Conservation Northwest and the Northwest’s highly active Cascadia Region Green Building Council, an independently incorporated chapter of the USGBC. “It’s our feeling that SFI certifies forests that really are even with or only slightly better than what’s mandated by law,” says Cascadia’s Joel Sisolak. “FSC goes a lot farther and is a more difficult standard to reach. It needs to be if it’s really going to change the way forest products are produced.”

So who is in favor of changing LEED standards to be more inclusive to SFI and other wood certifiers? For starters, 79 congressional representatives from 35 states, including eight of Washington’s nine members of Congress (Jim McDermott excluded), who sent a letter to the USGBC in July asking the group to “accept all credible forest management certification systems for qualification under the LEED rating system.” Governor Christine Gregoire has also sent a letter to the USGBC stating that the proposed changes would allow many more forest products from Washington to be included in the LEED system.

SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow agrees, noting that 75 percent of the certified [via SFI and other non-FSC certifications] fiber in North America is currently not eligible for the wood credit under LEED. She believes USGBC/LEED’s sole recognition of FSC, to the exclusion of other forest certification systems, including SFI, amounts to a “de facto monopoly.” “FSC is in this very comfortable position of not having to improve,” she says. As for explaining in what areas FSC might be improved, Abusow says she doesn’t see value in focusing on competition or describing ways in which SFI is superior to FSC, adding that both certifications have high standards. 

Why don’t SFI forests just go ahead and meet FSC certification standards in order to gain the market afforded by LEED certification? Abusow answers: “Why should they? There’s a thing called competition out there that’s in the public interest.” As it stands now, FSC-certified wood often costs more than similar products from SFI and other certifications—sometimes as much as 15 percent more, though that rate is highly variable.

Some, such as Society of American Foresters executive vice president and CEO Michael Goergen, think most green home certification programs should overhaul their standards to offer some amount of credit to any wood product—not just those with LEED certification—because wood (unlike, for example, steel or concrete) is a renewable material. “We would hate to see builders make choices for nonrenewable products over wood,” he says.

But currently, for the wood products industry, LEED credit is the ultimate entree into green building—particularly now that the LEED standard has introduced a LEED for Homes system (much more wood is used in homes than in commercial buildings). Green homes are one of the few sectors of the building market that has continued to grow. Locally, those with green certifications generally sell faster—and for more money—than those without the stamp.

Pressure from consumers who care about the environment pushes much of this growth, which has drawn attention from mainstream companies looking to cash in. “Until 2003 or 2004, we were but a blip on the radar screen for the forest products industry,” says Corey Brinkema, president of FSC-US. “But as green building and LEED have grown, FSC…has become powerful in the forest products marketplace.” And Brinkema asserts that FSC is far more environmentally diligent than other LEED hopefuls. “By our account there are at least eight prerequisite criteria in the current USGBC benchmark that could not be met by any standard other than FSC,” he says.

For now, such practices have brought the FSC increasing success in the lumber industry and beyond. Around 4 percent of the forest products in the United States are FSC certified, and in the past few years, major companies such as Staples and Office Depot have begun to offer FSC paper products. FedEx Office recently switched its primary stock from SFI-certified paper to FSC, and the REI and Nordstrom catalogs are printed on FSC-certified paper. Even the Harry Potter book series (beginning with book 7) is now printed on mixed-FSC paper, at the request of author J.K. Rowling. FSC-certified furniture is found online at places like West Elm and “We’re a real threat to the status quo practices in the industry,” says Brinkema.

It remains to be seen whether current or future efforts by other green wood certification programs to improve their credibility and gain entrance into green home rating programs will slow FSC’s progress. No matter the outcome of this fall’s USGBC vote, debate on the topic will remain heated, particularly in a timber-producing state like Washington.

Meanwhile, green consumers shopping for wood products that look virtually identical will continue to rely on organizations such as LEED to research the substance behind certifications. Consumers can also plow through certification websites, or take the word of groups (the Sierra Club) or people (congressional representatives) who back a certain standard. Alternatively, they can visit Consumer Reports’, which provides details on the FSC and SFI organizations, rating FSC as a “meaningful” green label, and SFI as “somewhat meaningful.” All of which is slightly more meaningful than official-looking stamps on lumber. But certainly not much less confusing.

Published November 2010