Understanding Wood Flooring Certification Programs

Start discussing environmental issues in any social group, and passions quickly flare. Discuss them with people in the wood flooring industry, and opinions run the gamut. Given that situation, it can be difficult for consumers to know what to believe when they ask questions about wood flooring and the environment. Certain products, such as reclaimed floors, have obvious environmental value. Beyond that, the truth can be more difficult to perceive.

Certification programs try to make it easier on consumers by verifying that their certified wood floors come from trees in sustainably managed forests. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA) are the three most common certifications in North America, and a bevy of others are found elsewhere. The FSC garnered media attention in 1999 when The Home Depot announced a new environmental purchasing policy that focused on FSC-certified wood. Lowe’s quickly followed suit, but both companies have struggled to achieve their goals. Likewise, certified wood flooring has yet to achieve the hold on the market that manufacturers had envisioned. Many consumers aren’t even aware that certification programs exist, or if they are, they’re confused about what each certification means.

Understanding Certification

The certification programs aim to achieve similar goals based on responsible forest management. The programs vary in the stringency of their requirements and the breadth of their scope, but they have a common basis in “sustainable forestry.” Coined in the ’80s, the term is relatively new, but the practices that support it are not. Basically, it goes beyond managing a forest simply for “sustained yield” to also accounting for other factors, most importantly maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

FSC was the first certification system. Founded in 1993, FSC has the backing of most major environmental groups, and it is international in scope. FSC determines the requirements for its certification, while the actual certification process is handled by an organization such as Smartwood or Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). Manufacturers of end products such as flooring that carry an FSC label comply with a strict chain-of-custody program in which the wood from the FSC-certified forest is tracked separately from non-FSC products. Distributors must pay to be chain-of-custody providers.

In 1994, SFI was founded through the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). Participation in the SFI program is a requirement of membership in AF&PA. SF I offers three levels of certification: self-certification, second-party certification and third-party certification. Only third-party certifications may carry the SFI label. End-product producers are required to have an auditable monitoring system that accounts for wood flow, but there is no chain-of-custody system.

The National Standard for Sustainable Forest Management from CSA was first published in 1996. This third-party certification system primarily focuses on Canadian forests, and it includes a chain-of-custody program.

Compare and Contrast

Differences between the certification programs can be difficult to discern by asking industry experts. A 2001 report from the Meridian Institute (commissioned by FSC-U.S., SFI and The Home Depot) offers an unbiased comparison of the FSC and SFI programs (available on the Web at www.merid.org/comparison). Opponents of SFI point to differences in policies on clear-cutting, pesticide use, old-growth timber harvesting and conversion of forests to plantations as key distinguishing factors.

Others say the differences are minimal. “Basically, most of these systems are fairly comparable, and independent verification is a fairly standard auditing procedure. The real differences are political,” says Dr. Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace and now chairman of Greenspirit, an environmental consulting firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dan Harrington, director of marketing and architectural sales at EcoTimber in San Rafael, Calif., disagrees. When EcoTimber was founded in 1992, company representatives traveled the world doing their own research to determine which companies were logging while leaving ecosystems intact. Today, the company relies on FSC for verification of sound forestry practices and points to the endorsement of major environmental organizations as evidence of FSC’s validity.

Harrington says he wishes SFI would spend less time and money marketing and more promoting good forestry management, but he sees some benefit to the SFI certification. “The SFI does represent the fact that the timber industry has recognized that change needs to occur because of consumer demand,” he says. “It’s a positive development … in my view it’s clearly a response to the growth of the FSC marketplace, and to that extent, I think the existence of SFI is the biggest achievement of the FSC.”

Good Practices Regardless

Others in the industry explain that wood floors don’t have to be certified to come from sustainably managed forests. At Laona, Wis.-based WD Flooring, President Peter Connor points to the fact that his grandfather was a pioneer in the concept of selective harvesting in the 1920s. The family’s Nicolet Hardwoods Corporation owns 40,000 acres in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The property has been managed for logging for five generations, and the company has been awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its sound forest management practices.

When using selective harvesting practices such as those at Nicolet, it can be hard to tell which forests have been recently logged. On forest tours, Nicolet’s forester, Al Murray, asks a trick question. “I’ll take someone past an area we just cut two years ago and ask them how long it’s been cut. They’ll guess 15 or 20 years ago. In reality, we might have just moved the machine out of there,” he says.

These days, he says, selective harvesting is more common than not for commercially managed hardwood forests. After all, it’s in companies’ best interests to manage the forest well, ensuring an abundant harvest in the future.

Oftentimes, it’s the smaller, less-educated land owners who employ more damaging logging practices, he says. Perhaps they bought the property as an investment, and now they want to see a cash return. Bigger companies selling tracts of land also can be damaging. “A lot of what I call ‘rape and pillage’ happens right before properties sell … Anytime a block of timber is sold, someone tries to recoup money,” Murray explains. “So, if you have a 20-year rotation, it moves up to 15 years, and you start losing the structure of your forest as that goes on.”

Although Nicolet and WD are SFI certified (SFI certification is necessary for any mill wanting to sell its wood chips to paper mills), Connor doesn’t see certification as necessary for promoting the companies’ environmental aspects. “The fact that we’re still managing the same amount of acreage and have been doing so for 100 years—we think that speaks for itself,” Connor says. “We don’t see that it’s necessary to put some kind of a stamp on it so people can feel good about what they’re buying.”

FSC All the Way

Canadian forest products giant Tembec, which has 55 manufacturing facilities, mostly in Canada, and wood flooring operations in Huntsville, Ont., also has a history of selective harvesting practices. Tembec, however, chose to pursue FSC certification. Four years ago, the company’s private land program in Huntsville was the first of the company’s operations to become FSC-certified. “We felt if it was going to be meaningful in the public eye, then we had to have support of environmental groups; we felt we needed to work in concert with them rather than separate from them,” says Gerald Kroes, general manager of Tembec’s Huntsville, Mattawa and TKL sawmills.

The original goals of Tembec’s FSC certification were varied. “At that time, the feeling was that the high-end markets would be looking for certified flooring,and that would give us further access into that end of the market. That hasn’t been the reality,” Kroes says. The company also looked to the FSC auditing process to push the company to progress even further in its forest management practices, as well as give outside verification of the company’s good practices.

Tembec’s biggest benefit of FSC certification wasn’t what the company expected. “The major benefit we’ve seen—that we didn’t plan on initially—is helping the corporate image for Tembec as being a proper steward of the forest,” Kroes says. “It’s improved the image of Tembec overall.”

The company has expanded greatly from its initial foray into FSC certification. In 2001, it signed an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) pledging to seek the FSC certification of all woodlands as soon as possible; the WWF agreed to help Tembec promote its FSC products. “That was a historic agreement—getting the environmental groups and the forest industry to strike an accord like that,” Kroes says. “I don’t know that that’s ever happened in history before.”

Anti-FSC Sentiment

While FSC certification is beneficial for some, just the thought of working under the control of an organization with ties to major environmental groups makes other wood flooring professionals cringe.

“A lot of private landowners don’t want any environmental groups telling them how to run their land, so they don’t care how good the system is,” Greenspirit’s Moore says.

In WD’s region in northern Wisconsin, Connor sees strong ties between radical left-wing environmentalist groups and the local FSC-certifier. Those environmental groups are actually hurting sustainable forestry, not helping it, he says, by successfully lobbying to stop responsible harvesting on national forest lands and thereby putting more pressure on sustainably managed private holdings.

“We don’t feel we should pay large sums of money to the FSC program to see that money come back and fight us in terms of the sustainable practices we’ve been continuing for 60-some years,” Connor says. He also despises the implication that environmentalist groups are responsible for turning the forest products industry on to sustainable practices. “The fact that they want to gain credit for it now when they had absolutely nothing to do with sustainable forestry is rather unnerving to us,”he says.

Feelings can rage so strongly against FSC and its environmental ties that one FSC certifier, SCS, is rolling out its own certification for companies uncomfortable with the political extremes of FSC and SFI. “If the FSC is simply not going to be embraced by a substantial segment of the industry, and if SFI is little more than a green marketing campaign designed to stop FSC, we believe that forest owners and managers will benefit from another option,” says SCS Senior Vice President Dr. Robert J. Hrubes. The main distinguishing factor of the SCS certification, he says, is that it “isn’t FSC.”

The Marketing Spin

Even those who strongly support the FSC’s goals can encounter frustrations. William Jopling, president of Delran, N.J.-based Wood Flooring International (WFI), has been involved in FSC from its inception, and he produced flooring from the first tropical forest to be FSC certified. “There are lots of problems when you’re trying to put together a product line that needs consistent sourcing, and your certified base is too small to supply all your needs,” he says. Keeping the FSC wood segregated all the way through production is another logistical problem. Today, WFI offers an FSC-certified line of domestic engineered flooring,but no exotics.

Some FSC supporters are frustrated by what they see as misleading marketing by other FSC-certified companies. Jopling points out that any manufacturer can pay to become a chain-of-custody provider as long as it abides by the chain-of-custody process in the event that it gets FSC product. “They agree to keep it segregated and to match all the labeling all the way through, but that doesn’t mean they’re running one stick,”Jopling says. “What really counts is what percentage of their volume they buy FSC-certified and sell FSC-certified.” Regardless of the volume, they can use the FSC logo on their literature and other marketing pieces.

Scott Taylor, sales manager at Great Barrington, Mass.-based Green River Lumber, which sells FSC-certified red oak, cherry and maple, voices similar concerns. Walking the show floor at Surfaces early this year, he was incredulous at the number of wood flooring companies promoting their FSC certification. After checking into them further, “I found out that some manufacturers have only one of their products certified, but they are marketing as if their whole line is certified,” he says.

Jopling agrees. “Where I have the most problems with it is those in the industry—the ‘bad boys’—who have gotten the chain-of-custody, and all their literature makes them look like they’re holier than thou,” Jopling says.

Those problems add up to what Taylor calls “a consensus of frustration with the whole thing.” Jopling points out that although he heartily agrees with the goals of sustainable forest management and the FSC program, “When you get into the trenches and see how it’s played out by competing interests—see how it’s abused—you get a little jaded.”

Green Motivation

Pricing for certified products doesn’t provide much incentive for manufacturers to increase their certified production. The vast majority of consumers will not pay more for certified products,manufacturers say. “All the certification programs were set up saying that there would be a market share looking for green, certified wood,” says Nicolet Hardwood’s Murray. “But as a matter of fact, people take the wood whether it’s certified or not, because they go for the best price. There are very few customers who will pay extra just because the wood is certified.”

Indeed, EcoTimber’s Harrington says that 90 percent of wood out of FSC-certified forests is sold on the common market. At Tembec, FSC-certified flooring is sold for 15 to 20 cents (U.S.) more a square foot, but the company hasn’t found many consumers willing to pay the small surcharge. “It’s the same product, but one is certified. The certified product doesn’t look different at allthan the regular product, and that’s the problem,” says Tembec’s Sales and Marketing Director Robert Belisle.

Taylor says that Green River’s support of FSC is motivated exclusively by the company’s values, not by a lucrative business opportunity. “Honestly, it’s worth it to us because it’s something we believe in,” he explains. “If you want to base it totally on dollars and cents, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Even though prices on FSC products have come down significantly—Harrington estimates they are now anywhere from 0 to 10 percent higher than non-FSC products—shipping can still make the flooring costly, because few distributors see the benefit of paying to be a chain-of-custody provider and stocking FSC material. And, since they don’t see much demand, they can’t buy in the quantities that make the price more appealing.

Of course, there are “hot spots” in the United States where environmentally minded consumers are willing to pay more for certified products. Predictably, San Francisco; Portland,Ore.; and Seattle are among them, along with Austin, Texas; Santa Fe,N.M.; Los Angeles and Madison, Wis. Beyond that, interest in certified products is growing, but manufacturers say the majority of people still don’t know about certified products, much less the difference between the various certifications.

“I think consumers are too confused as to what the different certification systems mean,” says Tembec’s Kroes. “There are just so many out there; it’s become meaningless to the consumer.”

Where producers do find demand is with architects and corporations. “The markets that ask for certified products are some of the corporate accounts, and the design community likes it. There is zero interest from end users,” Jopling says. At EcoTimber, high-profile commercial clients include Pottery Barn, Nike and Disney.

Taking the “LEED”

Architects are increasingly asking about the environmental aspects of wood flooring, and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design(LEED) program from the U.S. Green Building Council is one of the reasons. The program aims to recognize “green” building, and various aspects of a project’s construction earn points toward LEED certification. For wood flooring, FSC products and “rapidly renewable resources” such as bamboo earn green points.

“LEED is sweeping the commercial industry by storm, especially with government and municipal projects. Lots of universities, state organizations and even the military have adopted LEED standards for all their new construction,” Harrington says.

At Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based distributor Geysir Hardwood Floors, architectural design representative Lana Vogestad fields many questions from architects interested in the availability of certified products, and she notes that architectural firms have inquired about FSC products for their LEED projects. They’re concerned about the environment, she says, “However, we haven’t placed any orders.”

Jopling sees the LEED program as instrumental in keeping FSC certification alive. “I thought the movement [FSC] would fade away, but it’s actually coming back stronger on the demand side just recently, and part of that is coming from the LEED program. That’s really what’s driving some visibility and demand,” he says.

While Green spirit’s Moore recognizes the good intentions of the LEED program, he sees some fundamental flaws in its policies regarding wood products. “The real problem with forest product certification is that none of the other building materials are required to be certified for anything… Where’s the green steel, where’s the green concrete?” he explains. “So,the most renewable material in the world is being required to meet a higher standard than non-renewable materials, which pushes architects away from wood and toward nonrenewable products—which definitely is not green.”

Moore also takes issue with the specific LEED requirements for wood flooring. “The Green Building Councilis telling people that bamboo is superior to wood flooring from an environmental perspective—what that means is it’s green to cut down a native stand of hardwood trees grown to make flooring and replace it with a monoculture bamboo plantation,” he says. “That’s because their criteria for renewable resources is’ rapidly renewable resources,’ and trees aren’t fast enough for these people,” he adds.

Moore urges his clients to take an inclusive approach to certification—accepting SFI, CSA and FSC—and he turns traditional preservationist logic on its head by making the case that the best way to save forests from destruction is to use more wood, notless. It’s consumption of lumber that encourages landowners to maintain the forests, he says. “If you hold apiece of wood and ask yourself, ‘Was this piece of wood from a sustainably managed forest?’ Well, how else did it get there? It had to be in a tree. The real question is, ‘Is the forest where this piece of wood came from still being managed as a forest, or has it turned into a parking lot?’ So, what we really want to do is promote policies that maintain land in a forested state, and the best way to do that isto use more wood.”

Reprinted from http://hardwoodfloorsmag.com