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Architecture Week: "FSC Versus SFI"

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August 12, 2009 -- The battle between rival forest certification systems FSC and SFI is crescendoing in a showdown over recognition in the LEED system, the preeminent green building standard in the U.S.

By Christine MacDonald

When the Forest Stewardship Council rolled out the world's first "green" wood certification label in 1993, the organization quickly rallied big-box retailers like Home Depot to the cause. The largest do-it-yourself home improvement chain in the United States became a founding member of the FSC and publicly announced that it would soon ensure all of its products came from certified sources.

For U.S. retailers, who had been picketed by environmentalists for selling wood from rainforests and other endangered ecosystems, going green was an easy call. "We started offering certified products as a way to reassure customers that we are buying from credible sources, before they start knocking the door down requesting it," Mike Eisen, then-manager of the company's environmental marketing efforts, told Wood & Wood Products magazine in March 1994.

But U.S. logging companies and mill owners, who had less business with consumers and therefore were less vulnerable to grassroots campaigns, took a different approach: in 1995, the industry launched the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to go head-to-head with FSC.

Nearly a decade and a half later, the battle between FSC and SFI is crescendoing in a showdown over recognition in the LEED system, the preeminent green building standard in the U.S.

Since its inception in 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has recognized only lumber with the FSC label as responsibly sourced. But the increasingly besieged U.S. Green Building Council, which created the LEED system and oversees its evolution, is currently writing new rules about wood-product sourcing.

Once in place, possibly as soon as early 2010, the rules will replace the simple FSC monopoly with generalized benchmarks for evaluating systems claiming to enforce sustainable forestry.

This will open up consideration to various "green" wood labeling systems that have sprung up in recent years, including SFI, as well as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) forest certification, and the European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC).

High Stakes

Depending on how the benchmarks are written and applied, they might allow SFI products to qualify for the same amount of LEED credit that FSC lumber now receives.

That prospect has set off a passionate debate between competing supporters of the two high-profile wood eco-labels, a debate with potentially huge consequences for the future of green building.

On its face, this might seem like a big fight over a little credit. Choosing an FSC-certified wood source today nets projects only a single point out of the dozens it takes to earn certification under the various LEED subsystems. But the stakes are higher than that might suggest.

Green building, which represented just 2 percent of the construction market in 2005, could grow to as much as a quarter of all commercial and institutional building starts and 20 percent of the value of residential starts by 2013, according to McGraw Hill Construction's Green Outlook 2009 market intelligence report, which noted that green building is one market segment seemingly insulated from the current construction industry malaise. By 2013, the green building sector could grow to $93 billion to $140 billion.

With so many greenbacks — and the future of "green" — in the balance, the USGBC has embarked on the lengthy and controversial process of revising the LEED wood sourcing standard. The USGBC began work on the wood benchmarks two years ago. The first draft, issued in August 2008, received a record number of public comments for the USGBC. The long-awaited second draft is expected out in mid-September 2009, which will likely lead to another comment avalanche. After receiving and digesting those, the USGBC hopes to approve the new evaluation system quickly.

The new benchmarks and conformance assessment are expected to be operating by the first quarter of 2010, according to Whit Faulconer, USGBC's director of LEED technical development. Once those are done, the USGBC will be open to hearing groups such as SFI make the case that their certified lumber should receive LEED credit.

"It really is high time that USGBC take a look at this, because the forest certification market has changed in the last decade," SFI President and CEO Kathy Abusow says. "It's fabulous. We are very, very pleased."

FSC supporters, however, see the development as part of a wider building industry gambit to pass off status-quo business practices as environmentally friendly. While FSC supporters say they welcome science-based standards, they fear the USGBC will succumb to pressure to lower the bar on forest protection.

"If our leading green building rating system can't maintain its leadership, we should all be concerned," Corey Brinkema, president of FSC-US, who warns that SFI's entrance into the LEED rating system could halt the "greening" of mainstream building practices that has been gaining momentum in recent years. "If [SFI] gets recognized as good enough, that sends a pretty powerful signal that existing practices are adequate."

The Labels

While the two are not the only environmental standards for wood, FSC and SFI are major forces in the U.S. green building market. FSC, which operates in dozens of countries, is widely viewed as the most stringent forest certification system available. But SFI has certified more acres in North America — the only area it operates in — and its lumber is easier to find at U.S. lumber yards and retail outlets.

On the ground, the two labels differ significantly in their protections for natural forests.

FSC's conservation standards tend to be more concrete, while SFI's are vaguer targets with fewer measurable requirements.

FSC prohibits landowners using its label from converting natural forests into tree farms or other non-forest uses in the vast majority of cases, while SFI has no such prohibition.

Before gaining FSC certification, forest managers not only must develop with a plan for maintaining the ecological functions of the certified forests, they must also identify, map, and preserve "high conservation value" tracts that have high biodiversity, are home to endangered species, or play a vital role in the lives of local communities or in the region or country. FSC also requires consultations with indigenous and other local people living in or around the forest.

While SFI calls for forest conservation, there are no concrete requirements for community consultations or for set-asides to preserve areas of high biodiversity. There are also no prohibitions on many conventional silviculture practices that the FSC bans as harmful to forest ecology.

The two organizations differ greatly in their origins, too. FSC was formed on the heels of the 1992 Rio Summit by a group of environmental groups, grassroots social organizations, and industry representatives determined to do something about rampant worldwide deforestation.

SFI, in contrast, was started by the trade group American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), which shaped the rules and managed SFI's payroll, bookkeeping, and other core functions until 2007.

Despite their many differences, however, critics see some of the same weaknesses in both certification systems. According to Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist at Consumers Union, both FSC and SFI undermine their own credibility by letting lumber industry executives participate in setting the rules for certification.

"They have industry voting on the standards. For that reason alone, they are not independent labels," she says. Consumers Union reviews and compares the claims on green labels on its GreenerChoices web site.

While the biggest challenge for FSC, which operates internationally, is how to standardize rules that vary from country to country, Rangan says SFI is more fundamentally flawed. "We find there is less meat on the bone with SFI," she says. "There are really no teeth behind it. It's very loosey goosey."

While broadly seen as presenting a higher environmental bar, even FSC has been faulted for certifying timber from old-growth forests, which represent a tiny and rapidly shrinking percentage of the world's timberlands, but are home to a disproportionately large number of plant and animal species, many of them endangered.

Both SFI and FSC have weathered some scandals. Environmentalists in Washington state and Maine brought separate complaints against two of SFI's most prominent members — Weyerhaeuser Co. and Plum Creek Timber Co., Inc. — accusing the companies of failing to meet SFI's own standards in 2006.

FSC came under fire in 2007 after news broke that it planned to certify some paper from Asian Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. (APP), a Singapore-based industry giant known for its clearcutting and other destructive forestry practices. The Wall Street Journal reported that FSC was poised to certify as "mixed source" some paper that combined pulp from an APP plantation with "fully FSC-certified pulp" from companies elsewhere.

The two certification programs reacted differently to public outcry. After the Asian Pulp & Paper scandal surfaced, FSC severed its ties to Singapore-based APP. At SFI, however, Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek, continue to hold seats on the board of directors.

SFI Advances

But SFI's Abusow says such comparisons miss the big picture: Only 10 percent of the world's forests are certified to be sustainable today, she says. All of those certification programs should get credit for their environmental contribution, she says, since they represent "the gold performers."

"When we start to get into the weeds of one standard over the other standard, we're not paying attention to the fact that 90 percent of the world's forests today aren't certified," she says. "SFI and FSC should be working together to tackle the problems of the 90 percent that aren't certified."

SFI has already made inroads with other certification systems for green building: Green Globes and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) National Green Building Standard both accept SFI-certified wood. And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — a.k.a. the stimulus package — which requires green building techniques in school construction and renovation projects, allows SFI wood in those projects. Even the new playground installed outside the White House has SFI-certified wood, according to SFI.

SFI also has relationships with environmental groups — notably, some more business-friendly ones, such as The Conservation Fund, NatureServe, and Conservation International. And Steven J. McCormick, president and chief executive of The Nature Conservancy, chaired the SFI board for two terms until 2007.

In the last decade or so, those ties have helped propel SFI to improve its conservation goals and its procedures to achieve those goals, according to a high-level employee at one environmental group, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing its relations with industry officials. That source also echoed some of Urvashi Rangan's concerns, saying environmentalists have been frustrated that SFI has failed to add "teeth" that would make its conservation goals enforceable.

SFI left the auspices of the AF&PA in 2007, and Abusow says her organization severed all ties with the trade association in 2008 and is now a "fully independent" nonprofit group.

The overhaul also included instituting membership fees for the first time. Those helped rocket the organization's annual budget to $5.5 million in 2007, up from around $676,000 a year earlier. A chunk of that additional cash went to the advertising firm Porter Novelli, which earned $1.8 million, according to the 2007 tax forms, the most recent available.

FSC Responds

"We don't have those millions to spend," says Brinkema, the FSC-US president. But FSC is not without powerful allies among environmentalists and green-industry executives.

"What we're going to continue to do is make sure the USGBC knows what's at stake for U.S. forests and the world's forests," says Brinkema, who calls the debate "the single most controversial" credit fight in LEED's nine-year history.

This is not the first attempt SFI has made for recognition in the LEED system. A skirmish five or six years ago was quickly beaten back by FSC and its environmentalist allies. When the issue resurfaced, USGBC launched the benchmark plan. But the first draft of that plan sparked outrage among FSC supporters.

"When it first came out, we thought it looked a lot like the SFI standard," Brinkema says, adding that the proposed rules were too vague and could open the door to destructive forestry practices under the guise of green.

For Brinkema and other forest defenders, such as Daniel Hall, a campaigner with the environmental group ForestEthics, the battle over LEED's sustainable wood credit is a fight not just over forests, but also over burgeoning green business initiatives.

"It's been left to the marketplace to work out how best to ensure that our national resources are managed well and sustainably," Hall says. But "vested interests in the industry have pushed back by creating sham certification processes that really rubber-stamp status-quo practices that have decimated our forests," he says, referring to SFI and others, backed by the traditional building trades, that allow logging in old growth and even some endangered forests.

"If LEED wants to go to the next level, the best thing LEED could do would be to adopt a stipulation that there not be any wood from endangered ecosystems," says Hall.

Even under the current rules, the LEED approach to wood sourcing is far from environmentally pure. For instance, it allows builders to use FSC-certified framing or finishing materials from old-growth forests and still win the credit for sustainable lumber sourcing. And projects can use uncertified lumber and still receive a green building plaque to hang on the wall as long as they earn enough points in other areas, such as water conservation and energy efficiency.

But observers suggest such a move could make LEED certification more costly and difficult to achieve. And strengthening sustainable wood standards appears politically unlikely, considering that AF&PA, NAHB, and other industry groups have stepped up pressure on USGBC with their support of competing green building standards that are cheaper and easier for mainstream builders to meet.

Much as FSC has been engaged in a market-share battle by SFI, the USGBC and LEED supporters are wrestling with industry groups attempting to slow LEED momentum by blocking proposals put forth by grassroots environmental activists around the country to incorporate LEED standards into municipal and state building codes. Some industry groups have also introduced their own watered-down building label systems.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The vast majority of lumber used in U.S. homes and office buildings comes from North America, and only about a quarter of it bears any type of sustainability certification, according to the Yale Program on Forest Policy and Governance, which prepared a 2008 report on the USGBC's policy options for forest certification. The Yale data puts SFI's share at more than 10 percent, and FSC's at less than 5 percent (in 2006).

As for Home Depot, today it reports that more than 90 percent of the wood it sells is certified by third-party standards like FSC, SFI, CSA, and PEFC. But only about 5 percent of that certified wood is FSC-certified, "due to limited supply," according to a company spokeswoman.

Brinkema says FSC has certified 280 million acres worldwide (about 113 million hectares), about 100 million (40.5 million hectares) of them in North America. But SFI and other systems, such as ATFS, have had more success in expanding the number of acres certified and pushing for market recognition. According to SFI, it has 163 million acres (66 million hectares) certified across North America as of June 30, 2009.

"They've been one of the most vocal proponents of their system and worked very hard to get their forest certification system recognition in some way," says the USGBC's Faulconer, referring to SFI.

Green building consultant Jason Grant of Sebastopol, California, believes the shortage of FSC wood results from an intentional industry effort to undermine the label. "The industry has developed an embargo on FSC to try to keep it in a boutique box," he says.

Others say the slower rate of growth for FSC is because it is simply easier for timberland owners to become certified to SFI standards without major investments and overhauls to their conventional forestry practices.

Will the USGBC Step Back?

There is some concern among FSC proponents that pressure from deep-pocketed forest industry groups may succeed in getting USGBC to step back on wood certification standards, a possibility Faulconer dismisses. Describing the process of developing the sustainable lumber-sourcing benchmarks, he says, "We are trying to create a wish list of the best-possible-case scenario."

Others are not so sure, including Dan Harrington, director of product development at EcoTimber, Inc., a Richmond, California-based distributor of FSC-certified flooring and other wood products.

"The old guard [in the building industry] is more than willing to expend some resources to maintain its position," Harrington says. "If an industry trade association is able to throw its weight around and water down a green standard, it invites other industries to do the same."

With neither FCS nor SFI calibrated to maintain carbon sequestration in certified forests — nor even prohibiting the devastation of old-growth logging — the scope of the FCS versus SFI controversy illustrates how far we have to go before green labeling represents truly sustainable wood sourcing.

Even so, the implications of FSC versus SFI for the core integrity of LEED certification suggest this fight is one of the most significant in the fledgling history of green business.

Christine MacDonald is the author of Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Lyons Press, 2008.