Blog Post

Are FSC and LEED Killing American Jobs? A Look at the Evidence

February 23, 2012

FSC and LEED, with its certified wood credit, are hurting the economy, claim the governor of Maine, a U.S. Senator, and SFI. We take a look at the evidence.

This is Part 1 in our "Wood Wars" series.

Part 2: FSC and Beyond--LEED 2012 Buries the "Wood Wars" Hatchet

The John Mitchell Center at the University of Southern Maine achieve LEED certification in 2005--the second building in the state to do so. A new executive order makes more buildings like this one illegal.

As you may know, the U.S. Congress tried to restrict the military's use of LEED in its recent budget law (it's probably not going to work, as we reported a couple weeks ago). Around the same time, the governor of Maine made it illegal for State buildings to pursue LEED certification at any level.

Both of these decisions stemmed from a common root: the "wood wars" between advocates of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). An FSC victory of sorts was declared in 2010, when the LEED rating systems continued to recognize only FSC through certified wood credits (MRc7 in LEED for New Construction 2009) to the exclusion of other certification systems, but that turns out to have been just one more battle in an ongoing conflict.

Senator Roger Wicker and Maine Governor Paul LePage both attempted to make an economic argument for their choices. By promoting FSC lumber, the claim goes, the LEED rating systems harm producers of homegrown forestry products--hurting the economy and killing jobs.

Global vs. domestic certification

Exhibit A in the economic case against LEED's preferential treatment of FSC is the fact that most forestlands certified by FSC are outside the U.S. "100% of SFI-certified forests are in North America," said Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. "90% of FSC forests are outside the U.S. You don't have to be a statistician to know that not recognizing SFI is a problem for domestic forests, communities, products, and jobs."

You also don't have to be a logician to see that Abusow's conclusion does not follow from these facts. While it's true that FSC certifies forests around the globe--and also that SFI currently certifies almost 30% more forestland in North America--what we really need to know is whether architects are specifying imported lumber instead of domestic lumber because of LEED's FSC-only policy.

Corey Brinkema, president of FSC–US, argues that it's not cost-effective to import dimensional lumber--which means that people who are specifying FSC lumber are unlikely to add to the cost premium by getting it from overseas. Furthermore, he said, "There is plenty of FSC-certified supply in the U.S. to be able to provide the necessary wood for all the green buildings in the U.S. and many other industries that are desiring responsible wood."

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When I pressed her about whether foreign dimensional lumber is really in competition with domestic dimensional lumber, Abusow simply stuck to her guns: "90% of FSC certifications are abroad, and I don't need to go into depth to know that that's an issue. And so I don't."

Getting credit for local wood

Apparently the Maine executive branch feels the same way--not least of all because SFI has been lobbying in the state, as Abusow confirmed during our call. She claims that LePage's executive order means "wood products from Maine can definitely be used in Maine green buildings."

Bill Beardsley, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, echoed these sentiments in a press release about the "expanded use of green building materials," explaining that the move "means that the local community college will be able to build using the certified-wood products from the local sawmill."

The Maine executive order effectively outlaws LEED. Click to read the whole order on the State of Maine website.

Anyone familiar with LEED, however, knows that there are credits for both locally sourced and rapidly renewable materials. You can get credit for wood products from the local sawmill regardless of whether it's certified wood or not.

Let's also keep in mind that LEED doesn't require you to use any wood at all. Certified wood, local wood, rapidly renewable materials: these are all things you can get credits for if you choose to. They are not prerequisites that you must achieve in order to seek LEED certification. Buildings made of concrete, steel, and other materials achieve LEED certification without so much as an FSC-certified toothpick in them every day.

If anything, it could be argued that LEED has stimulated the wood market by incentivizing those buildings to include some wood veneer here or wood flooring there to make them eligible for any or all of these three credits.

Outlawing LEED might hurt Maine paper mills

"We have some 4.7 million acres of certified lands in Maine," said Brinkema at FSC–US. "The state truly has a competitive advantage in providing responsibly sourced forest products to the LEED marketplace. With that executive order, they are more or less giving up that competitive advantage."

It's not just the lumber market that could be hurt, according to John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. "To me it's misguided," said Gunn. "In Maine still, the engines of the forest economy here are the coated paper mills--the mills that make the magazine and catalogue paper. Especially in the downturn here, the FSC component of their market share has been critical."

Given the fact that pulp wood and lumber often come from the same tree trunk, Gunn is concerned about the implications of the order: "If the government reduces demand for the FSC lumber side, that could reduce availability for the paper side," he said. "For example, if some landowners were to drop their FSC certificates because of that, it could reduce the amount of available FSC pulpwood, which endangers pulp mills. It is a narrow view of the implications for the forest products sector."

Does a life-cycle approach make a difference?

After we'd first reported on the military appropriations bill, it came to our attention through Chris Cheatham's Green Building Law Update that one of the people instrumental in getting LEED restrictions added to the bill was Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi--and that LEED's preferential treatment of FSC was apparently behind his reasoning.

"Standards should take into consideration the full life cycle of wood products, including the environmental benefits provided by our domestic reforestation programs," said Wicker in a statement. "After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products."

I'm still trying to puzzle out just what Wicker is trying to say here, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the new transparency credits that are being hashed out in the LEED 2012 draft. (Watch EBN for coverage of the third public comment draft soon!)

This photo from a group calling itself "Credible Forest Certification" has made the Internet rounds a lot. We're not sure how credible the photo really is--especially since SFI and FSC lands often overlap--but it does express the worst fears of those who oppose a "life-cycle" approach to comparing forestry standards. The sometimes devastating impacts of frequent clear-cutting on local habitats would not show up in a standard life-cycle assessment.

As we discussed in our recent feature article on product transparency, life-cycle assessment does not do a very good job of capturing the local impacts of harvesting raw materials, like wood and minerals, which is one of the reasons we favor a combination of life-cycle assessment and third-party certifications like FSC and SFI. We'll be keeping a sharp eye on any attempts by third-party certifiers to use life-cycle assessment as an excuse to settle for lower standards. (FSC fiercely opposes the transparency credits in the 2012 draft precisely because it fears life-cycle assessment could make SFI's standards for forestry practices look just as good as FSC's.)

What's your verdict?

I've probably made it pretty clear where I stand on the LEED-as-job-killer line. I don't think the arguments hold up under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny. I began my research in good faith and gave SFI a chance to make a credible argument that might justify its lobbying efforts.

I'm afraid SFI's president telling me "I don't need to go into depth" just doesn't cut the mustard.

But I could have missed vital evidence. Might LEED really be a job killer? Could FSC be an accessory to this chilling crime? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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Comments

June 12, 2012 - 1:02 pm

Interesting article. I see the point that most FSC forests are not in the U.S. and that it may seem like local tree farmers, but don't the forests outside the US need the most help? Without any emphasis put on certification systems, these forests in 3rd world countries will continued to be logged illegaly and vastly, driving prices down and in turn hurting domestic suppliers. The FSC certification system gives money back to these people for responsible forestry and helps save the forest. LEED and FSC should help domestic tree farmers by helping the market reach equilibrium instead of cheap foreign wood. The LEED system should make domestic farmers strive to be certified for responsible forestry, which is the right thing to do. LEED also awards another point for local wood, putting empahsis on buying FSC and domestic wood. I don't understand why outlaw the LEED Certification of buildings, as I only see positives in the program. Domestic tree farmers should strive to become certified. It will help the environment, along with the community surrounding the forest.

March 2, 2012 - 5:23 am

It's important to remind everyone that PEFC, another certification system with european routes, recognizes SFI and vise versa. This means a PEFC certified company from overseas (PEFC has 236 791 349ha certified forests around the world) can sell their products with the SFI logo in America. This means that more than 90% of SFI and PEFC forests are certified outside of America.

SFI, much as conservatives do when they do not have any strong arguments, is playing with the fear factor of losing jobs in America if LEED does not recognize their own system. Give me a break! If we stick with Kathy Abusow's rhetoric, opening LEED to SFI products means LEED is opening the US market to even more wood products from overseas. Which in fact, is not the case as it has been said in many discussions.

There is almost the same amount of FSC and SFI forests certified in the US. And there is more than enough FSC certified products to answer to LEED market needs. LEED is recognized as the gold standard of green building much as FSC is for sound forest management. Recognizing other forest certification systems, in my view, would only be watering down the LEED program. I sincerely hope this will not happen in the near future.

March 2, 2012 - 3:26 am

Kathy,
How much FSC wood was imported into the US last year from Russia?
What percentage of FSC and SFI lamd gets clear cut? Is clear cutting the norm, or the exception to the norm?

March 1, 2012 - 11:24 am

Paula, thanks for responding to me. I’m not sure why it is impossible to avoid citing controversy when it comes to forest certification. Responsible writers and organizations around the globe do so on a regular basis. I invite you and others to raise the standard of the discussion. Responsible forestry starts with integrity, constructive partnerships, open discussion and solid facts. We all value our forests and it’s time to start a responsible dialogue about how they are managed – our forests are too important for anything less.

First step is to avoid the use of photos that don’t inform. If you want to inform your readership on harvesting methods in certification, please let them know that both SFI and FSC allow for clearcutting. You could have also checked out photos of FSC clearcuts at www.fsc-watch.org that run in the range of thousands of acres. The fact is Paula your photo and those photos are not informative and they don’t support a responsible dialogue.

Regarding LEED and FSC, please don’t miss the point here. This one credit under LEED is about creating a level playing field for domestic wood. Today LEED says a 2x4 from Russia with a FSC stamp is somehow better than 2x4 from Tennessee with a SFI stamp. There simply is no excuse for a US-based program to refuse to recognize 75% of the certified wood in North America.

March 1, 2012 - 5:31 am

Paula,

Although this article is provocative, much of what’s being communicated is misleading.

In Maine there are more than 7 million acres certified to the SFI Standard and another 780,000 certified to the American Tree Farm Standard, none of which receive recognition under the LEED rating system. Under a previous administration’s executive order, LEED Certification was a requirement for any construction or renovation of State owned buildings which effectively made the products generated from the 7 million plus acres, ineligible for consideration. However, much of this is merely perceptual, since LEED doesn’t use much wood and the state doesn’t build many buildings. The fact that the products generated by these sustainably managed forests are not eligible for consideration under any LEED endorsed project is unfortunate as these landowners are some of the best forest landowners and managers anywhere. When you understand how much of the Maine forest is represented by these programs (nearly 50%) and you also understand that Maine’s environmental profile is so favorable with success stories like 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles, home to 90% of the remaining native brook trout habitat in the lower 48 states, chosen best water quality for drinkability of the 20 most eastern states by the USFS, national leader in the implementation of practices to protect water quality, North American leader in the most amount of privately owned certified forest, one of the most developed logger and forester training infrastructures anywhere, birthplace of the Master Logger program and the list goes on, you begin to realize that somebody in Maine is doing something right. Yet with all this, much of the wood harvested and manufactured in Maine is excluded from the LEED certification credit due to its exclusive nature.

Fortunately many forest products’ customers worldwide understand Maine’s favorable environmental profile as it relates to forestry and that SFI, Tree Farm and FSC contribute to that end. To the point offered by the Manomet Center for Environmental Sciences regarding a negative backlash for Maine’s paper producers as a result of this EO….it just doesn’t hold water and contradicts another statement in the article that says “LEED doesn’t require you to use any wood at all”. The net impact of the EO on Maine FSC certified lands and the mills they supply is negligible. It’s the totality of all 9 million acres of certified lands in Maine has value for the mills and their customers. To illustrate this point, in the past two years customers of Maine paper mills along with those mills, have underwritten the entire cost of certifying an additional 1.5 million acres to the SFI and Tree Farm standards. This shows definitively that there is value in the marketplace for SFI and Tree Farm along side of FSC certified products.

What’s lost in all this is something we in Maine are very proud of, the sustainability of the forest resource and how all certifications programs have contributed to that end. We prefer to encourage certification to any and all of these programs and position ourselves with a competitive advantage against other parts of the world where certification isn’t utilized and sustainable forest management practices are nonexistent.

Patrick Sirois
Executive Director
ME’s SFI Implementation Committee

March 1, 2012 - 3:42 am

Great conversation here! I'm inspired to chime in with some perspective I've gleaned from working on this for several years.

1. Clear cuts are allowed by both systems because, in some forest types, they represent a best management practice that mimics natural processes. Some tree species depend on the exposure from clear-cut to regenerate. Others depend on shade from an in-tact overstory. It's just not as simple as "ban clear-cuts".

2. Ultimately, this debate seems to keep coming down to the question of whether or not you trust the foresters, and those reviewing their work for certification, to do the right thing. FSC is more prescriptive in its requirements, leaving less up to the foresters judgement. SFI allows more flexibility--which is a good thing if the forester is motivated to do the best thing for the forest, and not such a good thing if their goal is to maximize short-term yields.

It keeps reminding me of the political landscape: liberals tend to trust government and mistrust corporations, conservatives trust corporations more than they trust government. I don't know that this debate will ever be resolved based on "facts".

February 29, 2012 - 12:40 am

Kathy, thank you for your comments and the additional information you provided. I'm sure our readers will find it enlightening.

Unfortunately, when it comes to wood certifications, it is virtually impossible to avoid inciting controversy. That doesn't necessarily mean the content is to blame.

Being "unbiased" means giving all sides of an issue a fair shake, which I have tried in good faith to do. Being "accurate" means (among other things) that you don't let fear of appearing biased keep you from stating the truth.

I'm curious what you've identified in the photo caption as a "common misconception." I'd appreciate having further dialogue about that, but I'm not sure what you mean.

I'd also like to hear more about importing FSC wood in order to achieve the LEED credit. It is my understanding that established domestic supply chains for lumber may have historically created artificial shortages or added artificial cost premiums. Whether this is still the case I do not know.

Do architects and contractors who may be reading this find they still have trouble getting domestic FSC wood for their projects?

February 29, 2012 - 4:09 am

Readers may wish to know that Part 2 of this series will cover changes to wood credits in LEED 2012 draft three, which is being released tomorrow. Watch for that (and other coverage) soon after the new public comment draft goes live.

Part 3 will be on forests and global warming.

February 28, 2012 - 8:37 am

Your aerial photo is the real thing. I have no idea how it got around, but that photo is of my family's forestland on a tributary to the lower Nehalem River in Clatsop County on Oregon's west side. The FSC portion of the land is our family's and the SFI land is our neighbor's. One small corner of where it shows SFI is actually a wetland, but the rest is what it looks like- a clear cut surrounding our FSC certified forest. Sadly, this is nothing out of the ordinary on the west side of Oregon and Washington's Cascade mountains. Go out and take a look!

February 28, 2012 - 9:48 am

Kathy,
The article was informative. Your statements to Paula and lawmakers are inciteful and misrepresentative.
"100% of SFI-certified forests are in North America," said Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. "90% of FSC forests are outside the U.S. You don't have to be a statistician to know that not recognizing SFI is a problem for domestic forests, communities, products, and jobs."

SFI in 2009 had 181 million acres total land certified. (58 million in US)
FSC in 2009 had 304 million acres total land certified. (31.5 million in US)

February 28, 2012 - 9:27 am

Paula,
Your article incites rather than informs. That’s not what I expected from a site whose mission statement calls for accurate and unbiased information.

And it misinterpreted my main point: 75% of certified forests in North America are put at a competitive disadvantage for no good reason. Respected organizations like the National Association of State Foresters say SFI and FSC are both achieving results. (You’ll find more evidence on our website at www.sfiprogram.org/files/pdf/SFI_WhatOthersAreSaying_Oct2011.pdf.)

On top of this, your use of the Credible Forest Certification photo – even with the disclaimer – shows poor judgment, especially when the cutline reinforces a common misconception. Check out the standards and you will find both FSC and SFI allow responsible use of clearcutting. (Some FSC Standards – including FSC Canada’s National Boreal Standard which represents a fifth of FSC-certified lands globally – have no clearcut size limits.) SFI sponsored a Continuing Education Unit in GreenSource Magazine that offers a more balanced position on certification and green building -- www.ceu.construction.com/article.php?L=282&C=868.

SFI is an advocate for green building, and for credible forest certification. We are also an advocate for responsible reporting based on facts.

Maine is not freezing out FSC-certified products – it just wants fair treatment for all of its certified lands, and is not willing to accept the unfair and arbitrary requirements in LEED. Its response is similar to what we heard when we posted an on-line petition – more than 6,000 people told USGBC to open up LEED www.ipetitions.com/petition/leed/.

And there is evidence companies will look outside their own country for FSC-certified products. The 2010 FSC Business Value and Growth market survey (page 6) says: “Nearly half of respondents have sought out an alternative supplier in another country when FSC certified timber or products were not available in their own country.”

Just 10% of the world’s forests are certified – and my hope is that by breaking down artificial barriers and raising understanding, we can encourage the use of more certified products, and this will lead to more certified lands. Everyone wins with inclusive acceptance of all certification programs used in North America – including our resource communities and our family forest owners.

Kathy Abusow
President & CEO
Sustainable Forestry Initiative
www.sfiprogram.org

February 27, 2012 - 10:31 am

I'm writing to comment on a couple of statements attributed to the Forest Stewardship Council in the important story above.

The Forest Stewardship Council US does not oppose transparency credits in LEED, as long as they are not overly weighted or falsely making a performance claim.

We agree there is a place for transparency tools and that there needs to be an incentive to further develop them. For example, the movement to promote transparency would benefit from broad, inclusive efforts to develop and identify leadership transparency tools, just as there are already well-identified leadership performance standards.

However, in the second draft of LEED 2012, it was possible to earn up to 5 points for disclosure, which we believe is too much. A single transparency point as a way to incentivize tool development seems more appropriate.

Our concerns with transparency approaches are not related to other certifications, but rather based on the way these tools can be used. When transparency tools are based on broad industry averages, they risk allowing products from destructive forestry to be used in "green" standards. If a transparency tool does not include site / landscape level analysis, the risk of misleading end users is very real.

February 24, 2012 - 10:45 am

Two senators explain the patriotic reason for SFI over FSC, better that Kathy Abusow:

The Senate Agriculture Committee wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reconsider a policy that encourages the use of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for new construction.

The letter, signed by Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (Democrat-Arkansas) and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (Republican-Georgia), says LEED discourages the use of U.S. wood products by allowing points only for wood certified to FSC and failing to recognize wood certified to SFI or ATFS standards. It says that since most FSC-certified forests are outside of North America, this means LEED is encouraging the use of imported wood products over domestic sources. LEED also discriminates against the 191 million acres/77 million hectares of U.S. national forests since they are not currently certified, even though timber harvest is tightly regulated.

"Unfortunately the LEED rating system discourages the use of domestically grown and processed wood products that are vital to rural communities all across the U.S.," Lincoln and Chambliss say. "Nationally, about 360,000 men and women, most of whom reside in rural communities, depend on the wood products industry for their livelihoods."

Who cares if it isn't true.

February 24, 2012 - 7:27 am

In this article, Paula Melton does a good job ferreting out the truth of the situation. Industry antics aside, LEED is an important driver of forest conservation in North America. LEED is creating demand for wood products from responsibly managed forests, which means jobs.

February 23, 2012 - 11:57 am

The Governor, like a lot of people, has not really taken enough time to think about what USGBC, LEED and the entire movement are about. The FSC credit, is just one credit. Most large projects don't have a great deal of solid wood because so many alternative materials, like MDF, exist. LEED MR credits, however, encourage regionally extracted, manufactured and otherwise sourced elements that contribute a lot to local economies. Missing the forest for the trees, I would say, when arguing details of one certification system over another. Wood should be a protected resource anyway, wouldn't Mainers like to see better forests along with better jobs?

February 23, 2012 - 7:59 am

Bill, thanks for your comment. There are substantive differences between the two standards regarding clear-cutting, use of pesticides, genetically modified trees, and other issues. Here's a fairly high-level summary based on a 2008 Yale study commissioned by USGBC:

http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2008/1/1/Behind-the-Logos-...

You should keep in mind that there is an earlier Yale study (from 2001), and that many fact sheets you find online are based on that one--but the 2001 study is outdated. If you'd really like to get into the weeds of the updated study, download this spreadsheet and look at the worksheet called "StandardsSubstance."

http://www.yale.edu/forestcertification/AppA_YPFPGCompMatrix022508.xls

February 23, 2012 - 5:59 am

Good reference to the use of US lumber for US projects. And the 90% of FSC land is outside of the US is being used as a distraction tactic.

I have tried to understand the fundamental differences between FSC and SFI. One is based in conservation and the other was based in industry. But decades later how have they evolved and how much is spin and disinformation? My experience is the group with the most marketing is the lower quality. But that's just a rule of thumb and still doesn't tell me what's going on between them.

LEED's attempt at creating a point system for rating wood just made things more confusing. Everyone's arguing about details that distract from the broad picture. And why so many points for so many things? Giving half credit to some standards for status quo logging doesn't help people. I'd rather just list a bunch of thou shall nots. Don't clear cut. Don't cheat the local people. Don't harm endangered species. Don't leave without replanting what you cut. etc. Points should be for perks like employing locals. Or leaving the forest in a better condition then when they arrived. Just my opinion from someone who knows nothing about logging.

I look forward to this series and hope you don't just focus on the war but also what are the differences. Any specifics would be great but I'm sure these examples will be picked apart by the various sides as exceptions to the rule. Any way to say 90% of SFI land does XYZ and only 10% of FSC does it? Examples like your photo work great as means to show people the fundamental differences between the two.