Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Back in a minute, I need to greenwash the floor...

I was watching a little television before bed last night and ran across a new series called Ax Men on the History Channel. It follows four logging crews through a season in the remote forests of northwest Oregon as they work in one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. As I watched, the little hippie inside of me silently shed a patchouli-scented tear as each tree was felled, then hauled up the mountain at breakneck speed (literally). The one-armed, prosthetically enhanced logger had defeated tree-after-old-growth-tree, and another house would soon begin construction.

After getting out of my morning shower the visions of falling timber stick stuck to the back of my head, so I decided to see what the show was doing in terms of sustainable practices. At the end of a long day, it sure looked like the Ax Men were simply clear-cutting the side of the mountain at random, but what did I know? I'm a mid-Western bike commuter with clean fingernails. He had, well, only five fingernails.

I googled and blogsearched, and while numerous interviews and reviews hint that the show is doing what it can to promote environmental stewardship, they don't, however, say how/why/who/when/what they're doing. There isn't any promotion of replanting, any exhibition of responsible forestry, or any environmental stewardship whatsoever.

Actually, the majority of the interviews seem to reiterate this comment made by one of the loggers,
"The media has beat us up pretty badly, and I don't think a lot of people are really educated on how the woods are regulated."

We are doing something because we know environmental degradation is bad.

But what? What exactly are you doing? Who's watching you do it? Who recommended you to do it? Who's following up on how you did it or what affect it had on the environment?


As of late, questionable green promotions seem to be par for the course for the building, construction, and supply industries. And as far as the logging industry goes, they're acknowledgment of current environmental issues seems to be (in their opinion) adequate enough to ward off any further environmental stewardship. So, if that's how they want to play the game, who or how can we keep tabs on what they're doing? More importantly, how can we keep tabs on what we, as consumers, are buying?

Well, wood suppliers often make claims that their products come from "managed" or "sustainable" forests, but without independent certification, there is no way to really know. Increasingly, such claims are used as a marketing ploy to "greenwash" material that came from destructive forestry practices. That’s why it’s important to buy certified wood, but the fact that a wood product is "certified" does not mean that it comes from an ecologically-well managed forest. There are now various types of forest certification (see below), and most do not have meaningful environmental standards, enforcement mechanisms, or methods of tracking the wood through the supply chain to keep out illegally-logged material and prevent misrepresentation.

The only forest certification system that enjoys the support of environmental groups worldwide is that of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is independent, non-profit, and has a mechanism for tracking wood from the forest to the consumer – from first cut to your kitchen. The USGBC only recognizes FSC certification as evidence of the sustainability of a wood product. So, if you want verification that the wood you are purchasing came from a truly well-managed forest, demand FSC-certified material, and demand proper documentation.

Now here’s the tricky part. The fact that a company has FSC certification does not mean that what you are being sold is FSC-certified (I know, it’s complicated). Why? Well, many companies that have FSC "Chain of Custody" (COC) certification, which gives them the right to buy and sell FSC-certified wood even though they only sell a minute amount of FSC-certified wood. This is particularly the case in the wood flooring industry.

So buyer beware: Most FSC-certified wood products have on-product FSC labels, but watch out. If you are purchasing what you believe is FSC-certified wood but there are no FSC logos on the product packaging, it most likely is not certified, no matter what the rest of the information provided by the manufacturer or supplier might indicate. Some companies will even use the FSC logo on product samples, but ship uncertified material to fill your order. To verify the FSC-certified status of a wood product that does not bare the FSC logo, demand not only the supplier's COC certificate, but also an invoice or receipt detailing the FSC-certified status of each product on an individual line-item basis. If the invoice's line-item doesn't say "FSC-certified," the material is not certified. If the supplier gives you the run around, drop him/her like fallen timber.

Examples of questionable certification systems include:

SFI - Sustainable Forestry Initiative - Sustainable Flooring
• Funded and dominated by the timber industry
• Weak environmental protections
• Allows conversion of natural forests (including old-growth) into tree farms
• No credible Chain of Custody to keep out illegal wood

CSA - Canadian Standards Association
• Allows large-scale clearing of old-growth
• Fails to protect First Nations

PEFC - Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
• Weak environmental standards
• No credible Chain of Custody
• Mutually recognizes virtually all forest certification systems, including SFI and CSA
• PEFC wood could come from almost any source

ISO - International Standards Organization
• Standards address manufacturing practices, not forest management

IBAMA - Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources
• Program of the Brazilian government
• Low environmental standards, poorly enforced
• No Chain of Custody

None of the above forest certification systems enjoy the support of the environmental community. The FSC, on the other hand, is supported by major international conservation groups such as Greenpeace, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rainforest Action Network, and many others.

So next time you're out and about or even spec-ing a new building, look for the FSC stamp and feel a little better about your purchase. You inner hippie need not cry, well, as much.