Lumber Certification Groups Battle for Recognition

What do lingerie and groceries have to do with certified lumber? Take a look at the back of the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog or on the bottom of a paper bag from Safeway or Lucky’s, and you’ll see brand logos from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), respectively.

By Chris Wood

The competing lumber certification bodies – which certify working forest acreage, as well as the paper, pulp, fiber, and solid lumber goods derived from such forests – have always had a contentious relationship. But things are heating up in a brand battle that also includes certification standards under the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Once a hard-to-find, premium-ticket item, certified lumber has become commonplace on the racks of building material retailers. Its use in the manufacture of flooring, cabinetry, doors, windows, and siding also is on the rise.

Simply put, all certified lumber carries a promise that it comes from a sustainably managed forest. Regardless of the acronym, the message is the same: Rest easy, because we didn’t clear-cut the rainforests, destroy animal habitats, or otherwise screw up the environment in the making of this product.

In the ever-greening global economy, that promise carries saleable weight, say certifiers and product distributors, and certified lumber consequently has enjoyed a surge in demand. Certified lumber also qualifies builders for points under various green building programs. As certified lumber commands more market share through these programs and increased awareness, certifiers are in a no-holds-barred wrestling match to get their brand identity front and center.

Cola Wars

The competition for visibility is an interesting one, considering that, unpromoted, certified lumber is typically sight unseen within green building projects.

In an applied setting, certified lumber does not reduce energy usage, make the building more efficient, or reduce harmful emissions. Its greenness lies in the guarantee that it comes from sustainably managed professional forests. By using it, you can earn points or credit within most green building programs, add substance to your marketing message, and feel good that you are not contributing to rainforest depletion, unfair trade practices, or the complete disregard for natural resources and virgin ecosystems.

Within a larger green building product, it gives the builder another bullet point and line item of environmental friendliness.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last six months making the market more aware of SFI and the benefits that the standard offers in the marketplace,” says SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow. “Historically, SFI did not do any outreach, and a lot has changed – we became independent from the APA, we revamped our standard in 2005, and we instituted a chain-of-custody program. We want to put the word out on those successes, so we’re meeting with customers, hitting the trade shows, and making a huge push on product labeling.”

At FSC, U.S. region president Corey Brinkema has felt the market heat. “SFI is spending a considerable amount of money to create some consumer demand for its product and do what it needs to do to get credibility in the marketplace,” Brinkema says.

Brinkema counters that his organization’s partnerships have led to the appearance of the FSC moniker on Victoria’s Secret, Crate & Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma catalogs as well as the last Harry Potter book. “All of a sudden, we have the eyeballs of the American public on our brand,” he says.

Whether or not co-branding and industry outreach can conjure a dominant market share in the building materials sector remains to be seen. Collectively, SFI and FSC already account for the lion’s share of certified wood available in the United States; certified wood overall makes up about 10% of U.S. wood supplies. According to data prepared for the U.S. Green Building Council by the Yale School of Forestry, SFI-certified producers account for approximately 50% of U.S. solid wood products and 85% of U.S. panel production, while FSC remains the de facto certification body for wood not originating in North America.

Naturally, competing certifiers would have you believe their standard is the best, the largest, the fastest growing, the most preferable, the greenest. But navigating through each program’s certification criteria doesn’t reveal a clear-cut winner, even for the experts.

“All of the programs – FSC, SFI, the American Tree Farm System, the PEFC system – if you look at what happens on the ground, are today remarkably the same,” says Jim Bowyer, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Department of Bioproducts and Bioprocess Engineering and an elected fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science, which does not endorse any particular certification standard.

“I hear that argument all the time, that it is Coke vs. Pepsi,” says Brinkema. “And I think that PEFC and the related standards of SFI and CSA would have you believe that all standards are equal. But the reality is that they could not be further apart.”

Culling the Stock

But are they? Comparative matrixes prepared by both Yale and the independent Forest Certification Resource Center show that all standards share active oversight and balanced participation from academics, industry stakeholders, and members of the conservation and environmental community.

The criteria of CSA, FSC, and SFI all touch on a broad range of forest science, environmental, social, and economic issues; are addressed by independent third-party audits; and are subject to public review. All prohibit using illegally harvested wood, and all offer chain-of-custody certification that verifies to the end users that the product they hold has been segregated from noncertified wood throughout the harvest, milling, and distribution processes. Certifiers also offer “percentage” or “mixed” chain-of-custody standards that allow for co-mingling certified and noncertified woods.

Perhaps more relevant to builders is a realization that certified lumber is ultimately just wood. “Certification does nothing to verify the durability and the strength of the lumber,” says Russell Richardson, director of industrial markets for Kenner, La. – based Southern Pine Council, which has CSA-, FSC-, and SFI-allied members but does not endorse any one certification body. “Don’t forget about the structural attributes and aesthetics of your lumber. You want wood that looks good, is durable, and is environmentally friendly.”

One core argument for certified lumber is that wood, in and of itself, is an environmentally responsible material. Within a full life-cycle assessment, wood is renewable, consumes atmospheric carbon during growth, requires comparatively little energy for harvest and manufacturing than nonorganic building materials, and is biodegradable and recyclable. Bowyer even argues that any wood professionally produced in the U.S. and Canada has already met regulations that put it within the top 5% of environmentally sustainable lumber on a global scale.

But to be sure, and to earn points for green building programs or up-sell the eco-friendliness of your product to your clients, you’ll need the appropriate product labeling.

“Definitely one of the things driving an increase in demand for certified lumber is the ability for builders to highlight its environmentally friendliness to their homeowner customers,” says Paul Novack, a product specialist for Green Depot, a green building products supplier. “With that demand, costs have come down and availability has gone up.”

To get the brand, expect in general to pay a price premium of up to 5%. Additionally, a host of products, from floor joists to replacement windows to flooring and cabinetry, are now manufactured using certified wood. Expect the typical low percentage price premium and the corresponding prevalence of the certification brand on the more wood-heavy products, like flooring.

In some categories, such as windows, you may not pay a premium at all and might even have to search a spec manual to see the certification brand.

One thing is for sure: With The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards, and most independent retailers now carrying a range of certified lumber products, availability should not be an issue. Ultimately, you just have to choose where your brand loyalty lies.

This article was originally published by Remodelling Magazine.