National Hardwood Magazine


April 2009 Feature Story


Lumber Certification Debate Gains Momentum

By Kathy Brooks

Memphis, Tenn.–Green marketing has gained popularity since the 1990s, with environmental certification of timber and wood products exploding in the last two years.

But some of North America’s smaller Hardwood and softwood growers, middlemen and dealers have been slow to jump on the bandwagon, wondering which of two major forest-management certifications are preferable and whether the costs of voluntary certification will pay off in increased sales.

“We feel it is a market decision that each company has to make individually,” said Mark Barford, executive director of the National Hardwood Lumber Association.

The Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) certification system and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are two of the most widely used auditing programs in North America. Both programs aim to assure consumers that certain landowners have shown their commitment to maintaining healthy, sustainable forests while providing the landowners an independent assessment of their management practices and advice on how to make them more environmentally friendly.

The FSC and SFI also provide “chain-of-custody” certification, which traces timber products through each phase of the supply chain to ensure that environmentally sound practices produced the final result. Each organization offers branded labels that may be attached to the certified products.

“The most important ‘pro’ of certification is the guarantee to your customers that your lands are being managed responsibly,” said Corey Brinkema, President of FSC–US. “But it’s also a way to maintain or increase market share in an otherwise-down marketplace.”

Both organizations use independent third-party auditors who conduct the evaluations according to FSC or SFI criteria. Landowners interested in attaining certification contact an auditor directly, then sign contracts for the work to be performed. “The general public is notified about certification assessments before they take place so that the certifiers, helping assure the integrity of the process, can hear a full range of voices,” the FSC website says.

Certification is good for five years, at which time the landowner may apply for recertification if desired. Annual audits are performed to insure that contract terms are being followed.

Chain-of-custody certification costs between $3,000 and $5,000, Barford estimated. Brinkema said the cost of certifying forest acreage varies, depending on the land’s size and complexity.

“The cost is very difficult to lock down,” said Jason Metnick, SFI’s Director of Market Access and Product Labeling. “It could be 25 cents an acre or it could be three dollars an acre.”

 “Certification is generally not within reach of a single, small landowner,” Brinkema said. “You won’t net out relative to the cost of certification.”

However, group certificates are an economically viable way for those landowners to become certified, Brinkema said. He noted that 31,000 family forest owners representing 2.15 million acres recently became certified through a tax-incentive program in Wisconsin. “Cost per acre was pennies or even less, so it’s an extraordinarily efficient program,” Brinkema said.

“Group certificates aren’t usually of that scale,” he added, noting that 10 or 20 landowners were more the norm in the Pacific Northwest and Maine. Increasing the number of group certifications is a prime objective for the FSC in 2009, Brinkema said. “Small companies provide the majority of wood fiber, so if we don’t make FSC certification viable for the small landowner then it’s not going to have the impact that it should have.”

The SFI program was designed for larger landowners, but its partnership with the American Tree Farm System also provides for group certification of smaller landowners, Metnick said.

Significantly more forestland has been certified in Canada than in the United States, he said, attributing that to Canada’s pattern of larger landowners. The SFI has certified 96 million acres in Canada and 54 million acres in the U.S., while the FSC has certified 60 million acres in Canada and 29 million in the U.S.

Timber certification has made great strides since the early 1990s, when a World Wildlife Fund coalition founded the nonprofit FSC because of concerns about illegal, unsustainable logging practices in tropical forests. The American Forest & Paper Association followed in 1994, beginning the SFI program that is now maintained by a separate 501©3 nonprofit organization, the Sustainable Forestry Board.

“It was really the ‘Big Box’ stores that drove the market toward certified products in the mid to late 1990s,” Metnick said. “Then in 2001 and 2002, stores like Office Depot, Office Max and Staples instituted similar procurement policies.

“We’ve absolutely seen the market demand surge for certification in the last two years, whether it’s a large government like the United Kingdom or a mom-and-pop print shop located in North Carolina that has a client who wants an annual report printed on certified paper,” Metnick said.

However, Nick Kent, president and CEO of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association, said the paper industry has been much quicker to embrace “chain-of-custody” certification than the lumber industry. And softwood merchants have largely seen indifference among customers at the retail level, he said.

“But the trend is clearly going in that direction,” Kent said. “It’s just a matter of time before it happens, but market forces are putting a brake on it right now.”

To be sure, many U.S. landowners – whether certified or not -- always have maintained relatively high standards in managing their property, Barford said. He added that he has not seen forest management practices “change that much, if at all,” since certification began its roll into the marketplace.

And wood itself is the ultimate environmentally responsible material. It’s a renewable resource, consumes carbon in the atmosphere during growth, is biodegradable and recyclable. “We attempt to talk about all of the good things that we do and are,” said Deb Hawkinson, executive director of the Hardwood Federation, which represents over 14,000 businesses and 1 million Hardwood families in Washington, D.C.

Hawkinson expects to see even more green initiatives this year, particularly with the recently passed economic-stimulus package. The legislation includes investments in renewable technology – such as wind, solar and biofuels – and also would create jobs in companies that supply energy-efficient technologies and cleaner forms of coal.

In 2008, the Hardwood Federation spearheaded the introduction of House Resolution 1477 to ensure that Hardwoods would receive preference in green building initiatives for government buildings. The bill, which was not acted upon at presstime, will be reintroduced this spring.

“If we’re looking to stimulate the economy and put the life into small business, especially Hardwood companies, then they need to be recognized for what they already do,” Hawkinson said.

Differences Between FSC And SFI

While the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative both offer timber and “chain of custody” certification, some differences exist between the two environmental organizations and their standards:

• The FSC certifies forests worldwide; the SFI focuses on North American property.
• FSC bans the conversion of forests into plantations; the SFI does not.
• FSC bans genetic engineering in its certified forests; the SFI does not.
• SFI is the only certification standard that requires landowners to protect wildlife habitats on both certified and non-certified land, leading to its endorsement by Ducks Unlimited and the American Bird Conservancy.
• FSC claims the support of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund.
• FSC standards are referenced in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for commercial builders
• SFI is endorsed by the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), an internationally recognized organization with strict requirements.


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