Growing Greener Forests

By buying products made with sustainably grown timber, consumers can use their purchase dollars to help conserve woodlands

  • Doug Stewart
  • Oct 01, 2003

IT'S UNDENIABLE that trees must be harvested so that people can have pencils--and two-by-fours, gymnasium floors and picket fences. Logging happens. But how many woodland creatures may have suffered habitat loss in the making of that pencil you're using?

That may sound like a silly question to many people, but some furniture makers, hardware chains, and yes, even pencil manufacturers are now pondering such things. As they do, the concept of "green" lumber and other earth-friendly forest products is gaining visibility and clout in the marketplace. Home Depot, the world's largest home-improvement chain, for example, has announced a preference for selling wood that is officially "certified" as having come from trees that were harvested responsibly. And some timber companies around the country are starting to supply what the market is demanding.

"Five or six years ago, the debate was, 'Is this just a fad, or is this going to be a requirement for doing business?'" says David Ford, president of Metafore, a nonprofit group that helps bring distributors and buyers together. "That debate is over. There's no question today that forest-products companies, at the global scale, see that certification is a necessity for them to do business in the future."

MAKING A POINT: Currently, about nine million acres of U.S. forests have been certified as well-managed under guidelines established by the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Though still far from ubiquitous, the wood harvested from such forests is increasingly finding its way into a wide range of products. Dixon Ticonderoga, for example, now sells a line of Number 2 pencils made with certified wood, while The Home Depot sells lumber and other goods bearing the FSC logo (above, on a two-by-four at a Habitat for Humanity project in Atlanta).


A forest is "a damp and intricate wilderness," Thoreau wrote. Loggers who harvest timber carelessly can destroy the delicate, tree-shaded habitats of a host of wildlife species. "Here in the Northeast, we know of at least 85 forest-dependent birds and mammals, on top of a myriad of plants and microorganisms," says Eric Palola, director of NWF's Northeast Natural Resource Center in Vermont. "So the question of how forests are managed is very real to us."

Certifying wood is a way to help assure people that the wood products they buy come from well-managed forests. The whole idea is market-based, not regulatory, which is why profit-hunting corporate executives and environmentalists are able to share an interest in it. Certification is voluntary. The owners of a managed forest invite a team of accredited outside experts to do a thorough, sometimes painful inspection of their operations. Are clear-cuts and pesticides used sparingly? Are creeks and wetlands left undamaged? Is the local community included in decision-making that affects its welfare? If the forestry operation racks up enough "yeses," it earns the right to label its products as certified for a five-year period (during which it is audited annually by certifiers). Once that period is over, the operation is subject to a reassessment of its procedures.

The principal body that decides which practices pass muster and which do not is a relatively new international organization called the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Headquartered in Bonn, Germany, FSC was founded in 1993 by an improbably diverse collection of people--conservationists, foresters, timber-company executives and representatives of indigenous peoples around the world, among others--and is supported by a who's who of environmental organizations (including the NWF). In the United States, FSC's funding comes primarily from private foundations.

"A lot of this was originally driven by public concern about tropical timber," says Michael Washburn, vice president for forestry in the U.S. office of the FSC in Washington, D.C. "But most certified forests so far are temperate, not tropical." All of them are managed for timber harvesting; none are wilderness areas. In the United States, he adds, "we currently have nine million acres under FSC certification--that's a pretty big number." A lot bigger than ten years ago, when the number was zero, but still a small fraction of 700 million, which he estimates is the total acreage of forested land in this country.

Though sales of "green" timber continue to grow, less than 5 percent of the wood currently on the market in the United States is FSC-certified. Most consumers, many builders and even some employees at companies that sell certified wood products are still unfamiliar with the idea. "It is akin to organic vegetables," Washburn says. "It took awhile for people who wanted organic food to know that it was available. Now there's a market where people consistently produce it and other people consistently buy it."

While it may be far from ubiquitous as yet, certified wood has been used recently in a number of high-profile green structures. A 21,000-square-foot wall in the new international terminal at the San Francisco airport was built entirely of certified cherry from Pennsylvania. In Vermont, Middlebury College used $300,000 worth of certified local wood for wall paneling and architectural millwork in creating its new Bicentennial Hall. At the other extreme of scale, Dixon Ticonderoga now sells a line of Number 2 pencils that are made of certified wood.

The wood in one of Gibson Guitar Corporation's high-end electric guitars, the Les Paul SmartWood Studio Exotic, is all FSC-certified. The mahogany looks no different from ordinary mahogany (physically, certified wood isn't distinctive), but musicians can rest assured that their guitar purchase didn't contribute to the destruction of a Third World rain forest, however indirectly. According to Gibson's CEO Henry Juszkiewicz: "Our long-term goal is not just to promote certified-wood guitars as something special. In fact, it is just the opposite--to bring our industry to a point where certified-wood guitars are nothing special at all, where the use of certified wood is standard procedure."

Niche marketing like Gibson's has won both the guitar-maker and FSC valuable publicity. Still, only companies that buy certified wood by the trainload--and do so regularly--can boost demand significantly enough to ratchet up the amount the forest industry supplies.

WILDLIFE FRIENDLY: The privately owned certified forest in New Hampshire where these trees are growing (above) provides habitat for dozens of species, including the red-bellied woodpecker and black bear. "Here in the Northeast," says one conservationist, "we know of at least 85 forest-dependent birds and mammals, on top of myriad plants and microorganisms."


Corporate heavyweights that now buy FSC-certified wood--when they can find it, that is--include not only Home Depot but also furniture giants IKEA and Knoll, Inc., and the Andersen Corporation, maker of Andersen Windows. "Certification is good for companies that are risk-averse," says the FSC's Washburn. "They're less likely to have protesters camp out at their door, and they're not getting editorials in the local paper criticizing their latest clear-cut."

Before the FSC was formed, what responsible forestry looked like was a matter of opinion. "There were no formal standards," says Bob Beer, forestry director of SmartWood, the world's most extensive forest-certification program operated by the New York City-based Rainforest Alliance. SmartWood is the nonprofit group the FSC has authorized to do field inspections of forest management operations. The FSC itself sets the standards but does not do inspections. (Certification on the U.S. West Coast is conducted by the for-profit operation Scientific Certification Systems in Oregon.) Says Beer, "In the 1980s, someone could say, 'I have a well-managed forest. I never cut a tree.' Someone else could say, 'I have a well-managed forest, too. I'm cutting down every single tree as fast as it grows.' To him, a forest is well managed if you don't waste any wood--you make sure you take it all."

Differences of opinion remain about what constitutes good forestry. Few forest-products giants such as Weyerhauser and the International Paper Company have applied for FSC certification for their huge, so-called industrial forests. Instead, they follow the standards of a certification scheme known as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which are less stringent than the FSC's.

"In a forestry school 20 years ago, the training centered around timber," says Washburn, who has taught forestry at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. "Today, you learn to produce timber but also to pay attention to other values in your forest, like plant and animal diversity."

Among forest managers in this country, FSC has been most successful so far with forest owners who already tend to be green-minded (including states where voters also tend to be green-minded; all of the state forests in Pennsylvania and New York are FSC-certified, as well as much of Maine's). In the Northeast, the largest private forest certified by FSC to date is a nearly one-million-acre expanse in Maine managed by the Seven Islands Land Company, based in Bangor.

BUYING POWER: Homeowners that opt for products made from certified wood know that their purchases did not contribute to the destruction of tropical rain forests. This kitchen includes floor, ceiling and cabinet products that are now available in wood taken from sustainably managed forests.


Because the company manages such a huge forest, he says, the public has often lumped it in with the state's pulp and paper companies, which have checkered reputations. "Certification is a way for us to differentiate ourselves," says Seven Islands Vice President John McNulty. The company has always taken a long-term approach to forestry, cutting trees based on its woodlands' carrying capacity, not on its sawmill's wood-cutting capacity. FSC certification, he notes, is an unbiased, third-party judgment to demonstrate to the public that the company is trying to behave responsibly.

A more concrete reason that forestry companies such as Seven Islands--and, out West, California's Collins Companies and Mendocino Redwood Company, among others--applied for FSC certification in the first place was to earn a "green premium": charging buyers a little extra because the wood they sell is FSC-certified. Unfortunately, green premiums so far have been elusive.

"Retailers who have tested the waters, including businesses such as gardening centers whose customers you'd expect to be open to the idea, say people don't want to pay a premium for certified wood," notes Lloyd Irland, a forestry consultant in Maine. As for wholesale buyers, some, such as Andersen Windows, may pay more for certified wood, but they've been reluctant to pass that extra cost along to the consumer.

Part of the problem of making certified wood pay off is that, like organic tomatoes 30 years ago, it is not always available when you want it. Most certified wood, in fact, winds up in uncertified products. That's because wood flows are influenced by the expense of transportation and storage, and often it is more efficient for an operation to sell certified logs to a noncertified company than to wait for certified demand. Experts expect that situation to change as the number of companies certified for so-called chain of custody increases (currently there are nearly 500 such companies in this country).

"Chain of custody," says David Ford, "tracks the wood from a tree through each step of manufacturing until it gets to the end product, whether it's a two-by-four, a pencil or a piece of furniture. The theory is: When you buy a wood product, you should be able to trace it to the forest it came from." It will take time for these pieces to link up smoothly, he says, but they will.

To boost awareness of and demand for the wood it certifies, the FSC has been promoting its own consumer-friendly logo with full-page ads featuring Pierce Brosnan and Jennifer Lopez. FSC partners, such as NWF and its affiliate, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, also are mounting educational campaigns that focus on the added value certification brings to forest ecosystems. Other efforts are aimed at the most influential wood buyers: bulk purchasers and specifiers such as architects and builders.

Earlier this year, The Home Depot, which has seen its annual sales of FSC-certified wood products grow considerably in the past four years, reported that it can now track 9,000 such products back to their sources. But the system is not perfect.

Not long ago, as a consultant, Ford sat in on meetings where Home Depot executives quizzed various wood-product vendors in turn about such facts as where their wood comes from. One vendor, Ford recalls, "didn't know how to answer that question. He looked around and finally said with a sheepish look, 'It comes from--the loading dock?'" The man knew his business, Ford says, and his company had good environmental programs in place, from recycling to handling of toxics. But no one in his firm was paying attention to how the wood in the products it made had been harvested.

Now, prodded by the FSC, companies of all kinds are starting to pay more attention. "Certification is raising awareness," Ford says. "It's getting businesses that are making purchasing decisions to ask the question, 'Where's the wood coming from?' It's hard to believe that ten years ago people weren't asking that question."

Doug Stewart profiled bird-guide author David Sibley in the April/May issue.

Promoting Forest Certification

NWF is working to help create a marketplace where consumers and industries recognize forest management practices that protect water quality and ecosystems under the lead of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). "FSC-certified forests have demonstrated forests can be managed to protect habitat while also contributing to healthy wood products economies," says Stacy Brown, certification coordinator at NWF's Northeast Natural Resource Center.

Partnering with the FSC-accredited SmartWood program, NWF has coordinated evaluations on 1.2 million forested acres in New England and New York.

NWF staff has also helped develop new FSC procedures to aid small landowners and small scale woodworkers. NWF's Campus Ecology program has stimulated college purchasing agents to look for FSC wood and paper products. And NWF's Globalization and Environment program is working to ensure World Trade Organization rules provide flexibility to allow producers and consumers to use labels and certification. Look for FSC logos in stores or find store locations where FSC-certified products are available at and

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