Sustainable Forest Certifications in North America

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North American sustainable forestry certifications are outlined in an excellent article in January 2008 issue of Environmental Building News. You need a subscription to read it so I’ll render a précis here.

Among others, the major certification organizations operating in North America are: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI); American Tree Farm System (ATFS); and Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

FSC is a sprawling international not-for-profit with affiliates in various countries and varying standards for different forest types and regions. It manages an international standard for tracking and certifying products from well managed forests, and also addresses ecological functions, old-growth forests, plantations, restoration, native habitats and indigenous people’s rights. While highly regarded among environmental groups generally, it is sometimes thought to be too lenient. In North America, it has only a small amount of certified forest.

SFI is the main competitor to FSC in the United States. SFI has made its current standard (2005-2009) more rigorous and now addresses most of the issues in the FSC. However, FSI is generally less prescriptive than FSC, a source of criticism in the environmental community.

ATFS certifies primarily small forest tracts for non-industrial owners. Certification is conducted by independent foresters accredited by ATFS. It doesn’t have its own certification logo but SFI allows its logo on ATFS-certified forests. It has little impact on the environmental building products.

CSA created an ISO style process-based standard called the Sustainable Forest Management certification system which is the dominant certification in Canada, where there’s a large proportion of timberland that is publicly owned. It has evolved to be similar to the FSI system, but unlike FSC and FSI it is not a performance-based standard.

Performance-based standards have pros and cons according to a Yale University study. They place a lot of power in the hands of logging companies to interpret the rules in favor of short-term resource extraction. On the other hand they can allow more flexibility for foresters to achieve superior environmental protection.

What this all means to consumers of wood-based building materials is a matter of ongoing industry monitoring. It may well become more contentious as environmental awareness in the forest sector continues to rise.

In the meantime, green building will be most impacted by which standard(s) the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) recognizes in its widespread LEED program. Currently LEED recognizes only FSC-certified wood, although the USGBC-commissioned Yale study may change this. And then, of course, as I noted in a recent post, there is the new initiative by the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) to develop its own certification program.

Green certification is becoming big business!

In my next post, I’ll have something (critical) to say about the relationship between the USGBC and the FSC.

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Colin Laughlan