Fighting Over Our Forests

Fighting Over Our Forests

Competition between forest certification programs has embroiled the green building industry in controversy and confusion. When the smoke of propaganda clears, will there be a standard we can point to that best ensures the protection for our forests?

Back in the 1980s, public concern over deforestation spurred non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developed countries to campaign against the tropical timber trade. However, NGOs realized that if the forests didn’t provide lumber due to a trade ban, they would simply be used for some other, probably environmentally harmful purpose. Therefore the forests should be managed in an eco-friendly way, yet remain valuable in the market. Likewise, the retailers against which NGOs were campaigning became aware of the fact that their products could have originated from a poorly managed forest and processed using non-sustainable methods. They too needed a way to confirm that they were selling eco-friendly products to the public.

Trade unions, NGOs, and retailers found the solution in the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), established in 1993. Significantly, governments and much of the mainstream forest industry were excluded from the development process. The FSC itself does not certify wood products, but sets the standards for certification, which is then carried out by the Forest Conservation Program (FCP) of Scientific Certification Systems and the Smartwood Program of Rainforest Alliance. The FSC remained the world’s certification system for four years due to strong support from NGOs, lack of true competition, availability of funds, and dedication of the staff.

By 1997, the members of the forest industry who hadn’t been included in the formation of the FSC were growing restless. Private forest owners didn’t like the idea of answering to a bureaucratic power about their management practices. FSC threatened to become a monopoly, hindering normal market operation. And governments wanted to retain sovereignty over the forests within their national borders.

In 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, and it has since evolved into the prevailing rating system for green buildings. The USGBC, through LEED, strongly supports FSC standards, as they represent social, environmental, and economic interests. However, some organizations and states have complained that because LEED only recognizes FSC standards, otherwise green buildings miss out on LEED certification if they don’t use FSC-accredited wood. (This is untrue: wood components are not a requirement for LEED certification. And if you do use wood, it doesn’t have to be accredited by the FSC in order for you to receive credits). Opponents of LEED also claim that this exclusive policy costs money and kills jobs in the US wood industry because the FSC certifies more forests overseas than in the US.

As an alternative to the FSC, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) established the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in 1996. One of many opposition groups, the Alliance for Credible Forest Certification says that the SFI is an “industry-based, industry-controlled response to FSC” whose main purpose is “greenwashing”. In other words, it pretends to raise the bar on the FSC, when in reality it never gets past status quo forestry, defaulting to forest laws and Best Management Practices (BMPs). To SFI’s credit, though, they have distanced themselves from the AF&PA, becoming a third-party non-profit with accredited auditors, like the FSC.

If you’ve done any research on the FSC vs. SFI debate, you’ve probably come across the now infamous picture of the two forests side by side, with the SFI-managed one looking anything but green. Opponents of SFI claim that the program allows clear-cutting, logging near water supplies, use of toxic pesticides, conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations, and use of genetically modified trees. By contrast, FSC is supposed to practice sustainable harvesting, protect endangered species and biodiversity, preserve old growth, protect water supplies, support the local population, ban toxic chemicals and genetically modified trees, and prohibit conversion to tree plantations. LEED has yet to combine FSC with life-cycle analysis (LCA) to fully realize these goals.

Fueled by criticism of LEED, the Green Building Initiative (GBI) launched its own rating system in 2005, called Green Globes. Advocates of Green Globes—the chief rival of LEED—argue that competition between standards will remove LEED’s monopolistic hold on certification, allowing small builders to still obtain green certification without having to use expensive FSC wood. Accordingly, Green Globes recognizes SFI, FSC, and other standards.

Sadly, the participants in this certification debate forget that competition powers innovation, which has created economic growth in America from the beginning and will spur environmental progress as well. Instead of lashing out in fear of SFI gaining a foothold in LEED, we should be focusing on formulating the most environmentally friendly standard possible. While we’re quibbling over LEED points, chain of custody, and transparency, trees and animals are struggling to survive.

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