After nearly 20 years, forest certification has come of age and most agree it’s a good thing for our forests and our planet. Certification is now an accepted - and expected - standard in the North American and European forest industries.
The major recognized certification systems are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and ISO 14001. In Canada, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is also an option and, in the U.S., the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) certifies smaller landowners. All systems have essentially the same goal: to promote environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable forest practices.
Certification can require upfront changes in harvesting systems, which can be costly, and regular audits are mandatory.
Forest companies that invest in certification are committed to it long term. For AbitibiBowater, certification of its 16.8 million hectares of forest in North America began in 2000 and was “the right thing to do.” At Tembec, which also manages about 16 million hectares of certified forest, demand for certified wood products continued during the recession and helped the company weather the downturn.
Most forest products companies use certification as part of their corporate image and leverage it as a public relations and marketing tool. Some, like Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek, which are Timberland REITs (Real Estate Investment Trust), benefit because certification can attract “green” investors.
Still, some industry analysts question whether forest certification provides real benefits or is a defensive move against negative public perception. RISI timber analyst Seth Walker wrote last year that the benefits of sustainability “may be more strongly linked to avoiding the negative effects of being perceived as unethical rather than capitalizing on any positive market benefits.”
A fundamental question in all this is still unanswered: Does certification matter enough to consumers for them to pay a premium for certified wood products? Much research has been done to find an answer.
In the RISI article cited above, the author notes that consumer “signals” (preferences for sustainability) are either “not showing up” in the marketplace or “they have been too diluted by other market forces.”
A 2008 GfK Roper Yale Survey looked at American and Canadian consumer attitudes toward environmentally- friendly products and eco-labeling in four kinds of products - detergent, computer paper, cars and wood furniture.
Where wood furniture was concerned, four in 10 Americans said they would pay 15 per cent more for certified wood furniture. One in five were familiar with the SFI label and one in 10 with FSC.
Compared to Americans, nearly twice as many Canadians said environmental friendliness is their top priority and, when choosing wood furniture, a greater percentage of Canadians expressed willingness to pay a 15 per cent premium for it.
Overall, according to the survey, a majority of Canadians and Americans feel that it is important for products they purchase to be environmentally friendly but in the end, price and quality take priority for most consumers.
Catering to these potential customers, Home Depot walks the green talk with its EcoOptions products, including FSC certified moldings, doors and dimensional lumber. A sales counter on the website registered 630, 662, 338 FSC certified products sold. A quick online price check showed that FSC certified moldings are the same price as the non-certified product. In the current economy, that may be the key to introducing them into the marketplace.
At last year’s IWF trade show in Atlanta, Weyerhaeuser came out big with the Obey Mother Nature campaign for using northern hardwoods, stressing that they are “abundant, sustainable and legal.”
This refers to another certification issue challenging the industry right now. About 15 percent of the trilliondollar global wood products trade involves illegally harvested wood, mostly from tropical forests. In the countries where this wood originates, forests, communities and economies are being negatively impacted by unsustainable harvesting methods.
In 2010, the Forest Legality Alliance was launched to reduce trade in products made from illegally harvested wood. In the U.S., the Lacey Act prohibits these products and the European Union and other countries are following suit with new regulations.
The biggest impact in North America is the competition this trade creates for legally harvested, certified wood. Illegally harvested forest products are generally a lot cheaper and that’s unfair competition for the domestic market. Certification by any of the recognized systems is insurance for the buyer that the wood is legally harvested and, in today’s multichallenging business environment, it’s one less thing to worry about.
The North American woodworking industry is listening to its customers and embracing sustainability. Many associations and trade groups are establishing their own standards. In Canada, AWMAC (Architectural Millwork Association of Canada) in conjunction with WI (Woodwork Institute) are working on a voluntary sustainability standard for millwork. The current working name for the project is SAW (Sustainable Architectural Woodwork). It is scheduled to be launched this spring.
The CKCA (Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association) recommends in its stardards manual that all components and raw materials used by manufacturers of kitchens and vanities are environmentally friendly to encourage sustainable and environmentally friendly housing.