Certified Lumber: A Better Way to Build

Consider Forest Sttewardship Council-certified lumber for your next home improvement project.


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Certified lumber is still more of a fantasy than a reality in the homebuilding world. It’s true that Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified lumber exists and is identified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program as a point toward getting a commercial building accredited. But out of some 70 trillion board feet of softwood lumber used by the homebuilding industry each year, FSC-certified lumber is not even a blip on the radar screen.

Why is that? Because nobody is asking for it. Lumberyard owners and retailers alike say they would carry it if there were a demand. Wood mills say they have plenty in stock but that no one is buying it. It is time for us to make our values known through how we spend our money. If we don’t demand wood from FSC-certified sources, we will continue to support an industry that has little concern for the future, much less the natural cycles of the planet today.

I was at a Rainforest Action Network (RAN) awards dinner a few months ago. RAN’s “markets campaign” has been pressuring customers to stop buying products from some of the worst offenders in the logging and forest products industry until they change their logging practices. I was seated next to a remodeler who had just finished an addition for one of the loudest protesters in the organization. The remodeler told me he had tried to get this person to use sustainably harvested lumber but that the client complained it was too expensive and used conventional lumber! It is this kind of behavior that perpetuates the clear-cutting of what is left of North America’s old growth forests. This is where we, the ultimate consumers of millions of unnecessarily cut trees, can make a huge difference.

We have a problem

Ninety-five percent of the forests that were here when our forefathers landed on this continent have been logged and turned into compost. Much of the 5 percent that is left is in “tree museums”—state or federal parks. A tree plantation is not a forest. A tree plantation is like corn; it is agriculture. A forest is a naturally balanced ecosystem starting with the soil and working its way up to the canopy where the butterflies live. It’s the berries and the bears in between that are left homeless after a clear-cut.

I live in Boulder, Colorado, one of the most progressive cities in the country, where building green is code. The city council passed a resolution in 1996 to use only FSC-certified lumber for all municipal projects. I tried for four years to get FSC lumber to Boulder, but no lumberyard would carry it. At the same time, Collins Pine, the largest FSC softwood producer in the United States, was selling only 15 percent of its certified lumber as actual FSC certified lumber. The rest was being sold on the “commodity” market, mixed in with all the rest of the two-by-tens from who knows where.

What’s missing from this picture? The consumer. From two-by-fours for the backyard playhouse to the tropical wood handles on the barbecue grill, if we don’t demand wood from FSC-certified sources, we will continue to support an industry that has little concern for the future, much less the natural cycles of the planet today. If we continue to allow the status quo to prevail by our lack of interest or demand for wood that has been carefully harvested, milled, and brought to our hometowns, then we have no right to complain, fuss, get angry, frustrated, or incensed by the perception that the world is falling apart before our very eyes.

What you can do

All too often I hear, “But what can I do as just one person?” It takes very few people to get the attention of industry giants. RAN helped bring Home Depot to the table with a corporate commitment to give preferential treatment in buying FSC-certified lumber for its stores. Now it is time for each of us to do our part. Certified wood needs to fly out of the bins while the “regular” wood sits there untouched. Every wood product we buy needs to be identified as sustainably harvested, or we will tell the store manager we’re taking our business elsewhere. You would be surprised how few inquiries it takes before a lumberyard or a hardware store starts buying certified products. Always ask. Always bring the issue to the manager. Write letters to the company buyers or, even better, to the CEO.

Change, in my estimation, does not take place in Washington, D.C. Change takes place every day in how we vote with our pocketbooks. If we support the companies that are working hard to make a difference, we support the kind of change that many of us are fundamentally committed to: leaving behind a planet that is fit for our children to grow up in.

Speak up and buy up. Only we can prevent forests from disappearing.

David Johnston is president of What’s Working, an international environmental design and consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, that specializes in environmental construction technology and helped develop a marketing strategy for the U.S. Green Building Council to introduce the nation’s first commercial building environmental rating system: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). He is the author of Building Green in a Black and White World (Home Builder Press, 2000).