My Wood is Greener than Your Wood: Certification Battles Continue

Real Estate, Land Use & Construction Law

My Wood is Greener than Your Wood: Certification Battles Continue

Oct 30, 2009 | Real Estate, Land Use & Construction Law

The New York times reported this week that the “Coalition for Fair Forest Certification” has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming that the Forest Stewardship Council has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices. According to the report, the main thrust of the complaint centered on FSC’s higher levels of preserved land in the United States compared to other areas of the world placing the US at a disadvantage. The complaint further alleges that the USGBC LEED system is anticompetitive because it currently only accepts FSC certified wood products as approved for the LEED program applicable credit. While the Coalition does not have a website, it is widely believe that the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) and other timber industry players are part of the coalition.

This complaint is the latest salvo in what is an increasingly ugly struggle over certified wood. As reported at Dead Tree Edition in September, ForestEthics previously filed complaints against SFI. The first complaint with the Internal Revenue Service requested that SFI’s tax exempt status be revoked. The second complaint with the FTC alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices. ForestEthics claimed that SFI was in essence deceptively postured as an independent non-profit, but instead was an industry shill funded almost entirely by timber industry interests. ForestEthics further alleged that SFI’s representations on the quality and chain of custody of SFI certified lumber were false.

These complaints are set against the backdrop of the USGBC’s currently pending proposed changes to its certified wood credit. USGBC has conducted its first public comment period regarding opening the wood certification process to other standards. Some individuals and organizations have raised concerns, including our own Jon Kinney, that the FSC certification may discourage smaller landowners from participating in the FSC certification program due to its extensive reporting and expense. SFI in turn has raised the point that the limited number of FSC certified producers in the United States translates to creating a market for overseas wood products that are shipped long distances. This naturally runs contrary to the LEED system preference for local products and materials to reduce carbon footprint and use of energy where appropriate.

Even before this latest round, SFI has been accused of being an exercise in “greenwashing”. In response to the FTC complaint, the President for FSC’s United States operations stated, “They’re attempting to put a green label on status quo practices … FSC will fight that. Otherwise, the value won’t be there and we will all lose.” Architecture Week takes the analysis a big step forward this month and details a series of 2007 mudslides in Washington that “destroyed significant swaths of mountain habitat, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and downed an estimated 140,000 truckloads of timber.” The kicker: the forests were managed by Weyerhauser who conducted extensive clear-cutting which is alleged to be the a main or contributing cause of the mudslides. Weyerhauser in turn claims that extreme weather was the culprit. The credibility of SFI rating and approval is implicated in the mudslide cases because SFI stamped approval on many of the same lands prior to the mudslides. Despite these concerns, SFI has sought and obtained approval for the SFI standards from the American Standards Institute (ANSI) for inclusion in the National Green Building Standard.

Picking one standard over another, or even more particularly excluding all standards except the FSC approval, exposes USGBC to some legitimate scrutiny and criticism. This is particularly true where the program participation costs may exclude many players in the timber industry and who may conduct their operations in an extremely sustainable way. Nevertheless, this appears to be another example where USGBC has started the reaction process and is considering alternatives in response to criticism. Regarding the merits of the FTC complaint by the “Coalition”, it is hard to see how a valid complaint can be stated that participation in a completely voluntary rating program operates as a restraint on trade. What do you think?

(Thanks for our friends Imad Naffa and Shari Shapiro for passing the NYT link on Twitter yesterday!)

Image by Rene Ehrardt


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