Wood Certification Programs: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?
When building and designing a home or room, the end goal typically isn’t just about functionality, but also about telling a story. A story that leads with color, texture, shape, and contrast—which is why it’s so important to choose the right product.
Wood, one of the primary materials used in home construction, has its own story to tell. Many of us don’t think about the processes that get the finished product, whether it’s side paneling or a dining table set, from the forest to our door. That’s where wood certification programs come in: in order to consider the management of wood, and to minimize any detrimental impact on the environment and society, while ensuring its place in the global economy.
Why do we care?
As it turns out, our wood home furnishings, buildings, projects, etc., can have a sizeable impact. We all know wood comes from a forest, but what effects do forests have on the environment, on society, or even on the economy? Around 30% of all land mass is currently forested area, which serves as complex ecological systems for both people and wildlife. Forests are also important for offsetting CO2 emissions and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the forest sector contributes to 50 million jobs worldwide. An improperly managed forest can cause loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, unsafe drinking water, threaten species of trees, add to global warming, and disrupt and displace local communities. In short, we humans depend on plentiful and healthy forests. Responsible forest management helps end harmful practices and secures the quality and regeneration capacity of forests.
While it’s not possible to simply ask the wood where it originated from, we can rely on another method. Wood certification programs are third-party organizations that set criteria based on rigorous standards for the management and production of sustainable forests. An independent audit is then provided to enable accurate and transparent commitment. Some certification programs require certification to track the entire supply chain, and others look at more at management practices. This can cost more—estimates are generally in the 10%-20% range—due to the costs of audting and additional work involved in tracking the chain of custody.
The five largest wood certification programs
Not all wood certification programs are alike and not all hold the same level of accountability. There are upwards of 50 forest certification programs, and only 10% of all forested areas are certified. The US National Forest Service Association asserts that “credible forest certification programs include the following fundamental elements: independent governance, multi-stakeholder standard, independent certification, complaints/appeals process, open participation and transparency.” When choosing wood for your home improvement project, it’s important to look for one of these stamps of approval to support sustainable forest management.
1. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
As the most well known certification program in the US, the Forest Stewardship Council covers 450 million acres of certified land. FSC is a non-profit organization with a mission to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests.” The certification program has some of the more strict guidelines compared to other forest certifications that include principles that address legal issues, indigenous rights, labor rights, and an environmental impact assessment in relation to land management. FSC offers a specific certification in chain-of-custody where criteria and assessment of the supply chain is given and a forest management certification. FSC is the original (and initially, the only) recognized certification program by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system for ensuring wood meets its sustainability criteria.
2. Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is another non-profit organization; the SFI standard covers more than 250 million acres of certified forests in North America and collectively works with land owned and managed by private, public, academic, indigenous, and conservation interests. The program aims to promote a grassroots movement that fosters community engagement and education. There are three main certifications offered by SFI: forest management certification, fiber sourcing certification, and chain-of-custody certification. While intitially notone of the recognized sustainability criteria for wood and paper products for the LEED rating system (it was once viewed as the fox guarding the hen house because of SFI being perceived as owned and run by the forest industry itself), as of April, 2016, SFI is recognized as a credible sustainable forest management program.
3. American Tree Farm System (ATFS)
The American Tree Farm System is the oldest US land management certification system in the US. ATFS has a network of 74,000 tree farmers and 20.5 million acres of forested area. The administration, operated under the American Forest Foundation, is a network of “forest landowners, volunteer members of state and local committees and associations, national and state government agencies, inspecting foresters, forestry consultants, natural resource professionals, and private industry.” Certification is for forest owners with contiguous properties ranging between 10 to 20,000 acres and are required to meet eight standards of sustainability. (The ATFS program is also now recognized by the US Green Building Council to meet LEED’s criteria for sustainably-sourced wood.)
4. Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)
With the certification of about 774 million acres of land, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification is the world’s largest forest certification system. Based in Switzerland, PEFC is a non-profit umbrella organization that incorporates the international sustainability benchmark criteria into its land management standards. The non-profit tailors to the specific needs of smaller, family and community-owned forests with the aim to contribute to livelihoods and rural development. According to PEFC, to date, several hundred-thousand family- and community-owned forests have acquired PEFC certification. The checklist to receive certification from PEFC covers stakeholder involvement, forestry requirements, chain-of-custody requirements, and third-party certification and accreditation requirements.
5. Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Sustainable Forest Management (SFM)
The Canadian StandardsAssociation Sustainable Forest Management is an organization that worked to develop Canada’s national standard for sustainable forest management. The certification requires recognition of environmental, economic, social and cultural values; conservation of biological diversity and; ongoing public participation. The standards are developed upon the collaboration of national and international laws and regulations as well as the involvement of public advisory groups. The CSA SFM user group is separate from the CSA group and is now managed through the PEFC program listed above. The CSA SFM group has managed over 98 million acres of certified forested areas in Canada.
Which one is best?
According to the US National Association of State Foresters: “No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best,’ and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility. Forest ecosystems are complex, and a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ approach to certification cannot address all sustainability needs.”
Wood is a beautiful, renewable material. When its source is managed responsibly, there can be many benefits. Rather than trying to figure out which certification program is best, look for any of the above mentioned certification labels, and you can feel good about being picky and choosing the right wood. After all, we want a story that includes sustainability and quality for our homes.