There’s little doubt that the green movement is gaining steam in the United States. In the wood and construction industries, terms like certified wood, sustainable forestry practices, and green building initiatives have become more than propaganda, actually influencing the buying decisions of consumers.
But what exactly is the green movement? What does it mean to be building green? What environmental issues are affecting small custom furniture and cabinet shops or wood product companies? Or is it possible that the majority of all this talk about green issues is just that — talk.
In many ways, “green” is a confusing and nebulous term. Its definition or exactness is often in the eye of the beholder. And once one gets a handle on what green issues may impact their work, the decision on whether to get involved is a choice that can be a personal one or business-related.
Certainly, the green movement is an emotional issue, and like most things in life, it is rather complex. A person or business isn’t simply for or against green. That would be too easy. So it’s probably beneficial to examine the green movement, to break it down into an understandable topic and see if involvement in any green issues would be beneficial to your shop or wood products company.
Certified wood products in the United States and Canada usually meet standards set by either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Consumers and dealers are more familiar with the FSC than SFI; the latter is more of the industry standard set primarily for pulp and paper products.
The main “green” question facing small custom furniture and cabinet shops is whether to use materials obtained from sustainable forestry sources, including wood dealers selling FSC-certified wood products. On a residential basis, custom shops are sometimes requested by customers to use sustainable or certified wood products. The situation is much more complex on the commercial side.
The FSC doesn’t certify anyone directly. The nonprofit organization recognizes third-party certifiers such as SmartWood and Scientific Certification Systems that assess land, verify sustainable forestry practices and abide by other rules the FSC sets before certification can occur.
Only FSC members can sell FSC products and there is a financial ingredient associated with being certified. Prices for FSC-certified wood products
are usually higher than non-certified products and it is up to wood dealers and shop owners to decide whether to pass the added cost on to their clients.
“There are costs involved with the certification because, just like getting your financial books audited, you have to have an FSC chain of custody audit,” says Jamison French, president of Northland Forest Products in Kingston, N.H., and the Hardwood Federation, the largest forest products industry association in the country. “We’re able to recover the costs on some items, but not on others.”
The FSC was formed to assure consumers that its products originate from forests that are managed to meet the social, economic and ecological needs of present and future generations. Through the years, the FSC’s relationship with wood dealers has run the gamut from amiable to contentious. Some dealers gladly promote FSC products, while others feel the organization has developed into a power-hungry bully.
“I became involved because of environmental awareness; it was kind of personal,” says Hal Moore, owner of Adirondack Hardwoods, a retail lumber dealer in Saranac, N.Y., who uses solar energy and a sawdust furnace to power and heat his 7,000-sq.-ft. facility. “When I started in 2000, I sold $100 of FSC-certified stuff. So I wasn’t getting a lot of calls. But last year I probably did $80,000 in sales of [certified] cabinets and lumber. It’s been a slow, but steady increase.”
“At times it can be a headache, but it is still a worthwhile cause,” says Mike Mamrak of Lewis Lumber Products in Picture Rocks, Pa. “Our COC (chain of custody) number is 56, which is way down there, so we were on the very front edge. Our sawmill owns roughly 17,000 acres of timber, which is all FSC-certified. It’s definitely twofold; it’s to let everyone know that we’re interested in not just harvesting the timber, but also in providing it for the environment. It’s also for a monetary gain at the same time. We’re able to quote and do [certified] jobs that other people can’t do.”
The real change in the green landscape is in the commercial market. Many local, state and national government jobs now require the use of certified materials. Private institutional and educational jobs also fall into the same category. As an example, if a wood products company wants to bid on a job to supply wood for a government project, in most cases the supplier would have to be FSC-certified.
The U.S. Green Building Council created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System program, which promotes green building and development practices. LEED for new construction and major renovations is designed to guide and distinguish high-performance commercial and institutional projects. LEED provides a point system that gives a green rating to a particular project. The more points a project can accumulate, the greener the project is judged to be.
The LEED for Homes Rating System has four certification levels and a maximum of 136 points can be obtained. Points are offered in eight main categories, one being “Materials and Resources.” A maximum of eight points can be earned under the heading of “Environmentally Preferable Products.”
It’s no secret that the use of certified wood products in homes gets shortchanged in the current LEED system. As an example, only one-half point is awarded for cabinets made with certified, recycled or reclaimed wood. There are no points awarded for furniture built with certified wood, so certified wood suppliers and furniture makers using the material feel they are getting a raw deal in that respect.
“I think the Green Building Council is increasingly aware of those unfairnesses and we need to work with them to get them modified as quickly as we can to encourage more use of wood,” French says. “If you look at life-cycle analysis and compare wood with the other building materials — like glass, metal, aluminum and steel — [wood] comes out stellar. But what really offends us is (LEED’s) Rapidly Renewable Credit, which [encourages] people to put bamboo flooring down from China instead of using locally sourced red oak.”
Statistics point to a definite growth in green building in this country. LEED for Homes states that, as of October 2008, it had 13,651 registered homes in its program, of which 1,084 had been certified. On the commercial end, depending upon which statistic you want to rely on, between 10 and 20 percent of current building projects are LEED projects, and the number is predicted to increase dramatically in the next decade.
“There is a lot more interest and business than ever before,” Mamrak says. “FSC used to amount for 1 percent of our business not that long ago. It’s grown by leaps and bounds. There’s almost no interest on the residential level; a very small percentage. But the government and educational buildings, pretty much all of those right now have gone entirely FSC. You either become chain of custody certified, through FSC or someone else, or else you give up the opportunity to quote those [jobs].”
“We never went into [FSC certification] thinking we were going to make more money,” adds French. “We went into it because we thought it would give us some market share and access to new buyers, both domestic and international, who shared our values. We found that our customers, both overseas and our high-end furniture and millwork customers here, were actually getting more [government and education] jobs. I think our employees have always felt good about it, working in an industry that was trying to build a good reputation for our ‘greenness.’ ”
There are several areas associated with the certification process that pose problems for wood dealers and shop owners. Many report that the supply of FSC lumber periodically falls short of demand. Several large wood product companies and exotic wood dealers reported they were unable to bid jobs because they were unable to source certified materials.
“I’d say a handful of times out of the year a job will be bid out and then at the end they require that it be a certification,” says Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods in Carlsbad, Calif. “Guess what? A lot of those people that have architects and designers have to redo everything because they can’t get the wood.”
Another potential drawback is that residential green building is expensive. The consensus among panelists participating in the session, “Green 101,” sponsored by the Wood Product Manufacturers Association in Portland, Maine, in October, stated that green building projects are for clients with a minimum annual income of $150,000.
Then there is the complicated matter of the certification of imported or exotic woods. The FSC’s certification umbrella is spread worldwide, and chain-of-custody questions concerning wood from foreign countries pose a major problem. Corruptness, phony paperwork and similar practices have created a bureaucratic mess. Except for companies importing plantation-grown stock and a limited number of exotic species, dealers have stayed away from certification of exotic woods.
“I wouldn’t see any possible benefits to my business being certified,” says Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. “I seldom, if ever, get people who are interested in certified woods; I never thought the expense ever justified getting certified; and having personally looked at some of the areas mostly in Central America that [the FSC] had gone through and certified, I was just kind of aghast at the fact that it certified species that were seldom seen in the woods down there. The one I remember specifically, that I wrote notes about, was ziricote.”
“We bring in FSC eucalyptus from Uruguay, which is plantation-grown and is a great substitute product for mahogany, and we also bring in some FSC mahogany from Central America,” explains French, the Northland Forest Products president. “But we’ve taken a position of only stocking exotics that are FSC-certified. If I was concerned about this issue as one of your readers, I would be very cautious about my imported woods.”
“I pay a lot of money down in Mexico to do things right,” says Talcove, who imports his cocobolo from that country. “Being that I’ve been bringing wood in since the early ’70s, I have had to jump through all sorts of hoops, go through all kinds of criteria down there, and I believe that that’s enough. We get audited down there from time to time. I’m a rare guy that actually has the logging and the sawmill facility and brings it into the country and markets it. Now, if you’re one of those people that continually brings in illegal wood, then you’re going to get caught sooner or later. It’s like robbing a bank — sooner or later you get caught.”
Attempting to assess the status of how the green movement will impact small shops and wood product dealers during the next few years is challenging, to say the least. Certification is a reality and an issue wood dealers and small shops will have to deal with — if not now, then sometime in the near future. The FSC is the dominant player in the world of certification and will continue to expand on a global basis.
On the domestic front, until the housing market hits bottom and housing starts begin to rebound, all businesses connected with the wood products industry will continue to fight through tough times. But even with a depressed housing climate and a lackluster remodeling market, the percentage of green products used in the wood industry will continue to increase. As the familiarity and acceptance of green products grows, pricing could become more attractive to middle-class customers. And that would be good news for all aspects of the wood products industry, from distributors, wholesalers and retailers, to the small shop furniture makers and cabinetmakers.
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.
Green is a given for this group