GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building News

USGBC’s Wood-Certification Kerfuffle

Environmental groups take out a full-page newspaper ad accusing the USGBC of greenwashing

Full-page objection. This ad – paid for by ForestEthics, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation – ran in the Toronto Star on October 6 to highlight the groups’ concern over USGBC’s proposal to expand LEED credits for wood products beyond those certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Image Credit: ForestEthics, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation

For many environmental groups, the only wood to use in construction is that certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit whose accreditation system is intended to assure builders that the wood comes from well managed forests and is harvested in ecologically sound ways.

Although its name was coined in 1990, the FSC was officially established 1992 with the formation of an interim board of directors, whose members had consulted with business, environmental, and social organizations about accreditation and certification strategies.

FSC-certified products are currently the only ones that qualify for credit under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. USGBC is, however, proposing a change to the Materials & Resources (M&L) section of LEED that would allow credit for projects built with wood from a broader array of sources.

Potentially weakened M&R standards?

Environmental groups are unhappy with updated language in the LEED Materials & Resources section that focuses on “new credit for responsible sourcing of raw materials.”

“This credit,” USGBC explains, “expands on existing credits that deal with material origins (rapidly renewable, certified wood, materials reuse) and significantly increases the scope around which credit for responsible sourcing activities will be rewarded.”

In a full-page advertisement that ran on October 6 in the Toronto Star – just as the annual Greenbuild International Conference & Expo got under full sail in Toronto last week – ForestEthics, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation complained that “proposed changes to LEED 2012 would reward builders who use wood from some of North America’s worst clearcuts or from rainforest destruction around the world. The proposed changes mean that for LEED, all wood is good unless its illegally logged.”

“This gives big logging companies what they want and ignores the severe negative impacts of industrial scale logging,” continued the ad, which is headlined “The Proposed Changes To LEED Aren’t Just In The Fine Print.” “In addition to bringing greenwash into LEED, the proposed changes would also weaken demand worldwide for sustainable forest products.”

A disagreement with deep roots

In fact, USGBC has long been lobbied to allow LEED credits for wood certified by entities other than FSC. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative – a nonprofit launched in 1994 by a wood-products industry group, the American Forest and Paper Association, and declared independent in 2007 – has been particularly persistent in urging USGBC to “to end a forest certification policy that discriminates against North American forests and against most of the independent forest certification standards used in the United States and Canada,” as the group put it in a February 2010 press release.

One of SFI’s primary adversaries is environmental group ForestEthics, which complains that SFI’s primary source of funding is, still, the timber industry, and that its standards allow certification of wood that has been cut legally but nonetheless harvested via clearcuts close to salmon habitats and on steep slopes prone to mudslides. SFI also certifies tree-farming practices that include excessive use of fungicides and pesticides, ForestEthics says.

It’s obviously not yet clear where USGBC policy will ultimately settle on this M&R issue, but it is clear that disagreements between environmental and industry groups will remain at the heart of many of these battles.


  1. user-1031655 | | #1

    It's hard to know what to
    It's hard to know what to think on this one. On the one hand, it's a good thing that USGBC is trying to branch out and offer alternatives, rather than lock into one single standard. On the other hand, it's frustrating that none of the other standards appear to live up to the FSC standard (at least according to those objecting to this change). If in fact, FSC makes producing lumber in the US significantly less feasible economically, that's something to be concerned about. If on the other hand, that's just whining by a competitor, well, that's a horse of a different color.

    I guess I don't really feel informed enough about the different standards to say much more. Anyone got a nice chart that compares the different logging standards/certifications?

  2. Mike Eliason | | #2

    follow the money!
    given the

    follow the money!

    given the history of LEED, i expect a watering-down to happen, and then once a few lawsuits and/or people start grumbling about deficiencies, they'll make some attempt to make the standard appear stronger - though it might not actually be.

  3. Mike Eliason | | #3

    i've been following,and


    i've been following,and even i feel like i'm in the same boat.

    here are a few references: (cascadia GBC's position paper - cascadia's probably the most active/innovative GBC group - having launched the living building challenge which is where LEED should have gone years ago) (SFI's comparison) (nat'l science foundation comparison) (yale program on forest policy governance summary)

    one of the suggestions from yales PFPG is to prohibit the use of illegally harvested wood - which if SFI were to be allowed 'in', would probably be a really good (although far from ideal) approach to avoid diluting the standard.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Paul W
    For more information, use Google.

    According to an article in Environmental Building News, "On certain issues, SFI is on a par or even ahead of FSC. For example, in the area of water quality and protection of riparian zones, both systems have similar language. SFI is more demanding than FSC regarding training and education requirements for good forestry, and SFI requires participants to invest in, and learn from, forest-management research. In other areas, however, FSC’s standards appear to be more substantive and/or restrictive, depending on your point of view. FSC prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms, for example, while SFI does not. While both systems allow the use of chemicals, FSC discourages their use much more actively. FSC limits clear-cuts to 40 acres (16 ha), while SFI only restricts them to an average of 120 acres (48 ha). These are just a few of the many issues addressed by both programs."

    Read the full article here:

    According to "A Comparison of the American Forest & Paper Association’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council’s Certification System," prepared by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, "In the Northern Forest of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification system and the American Forest and Paper Association’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are the two most prevalent auditing programs. The goals of any forest management auditing system should be:
    1) to assure the public, in an open and transparent process, that a given landowner or manager has demonstrated a commitment to an ecologically healthy and economically viable forest;
    2) to provide landowners and managers an independent assessment of their current state of management and specific advice on how to achieve better performance in the future; and,
    3) to ensure that the rights and cultures of indigenous people and local communities are respected.

    "Based upon the side-by-side comparison in this report, the only auditing system active in the Northern Forest that meets these goals, and is capable of rebuilding public trust in the ability of landowners to responsibly manage their forests, is the Forest Stewardship Council system.

    "The FSC offers a more effective system as the cumulative result of many distinctions:
    - FSC is based upon a required and consistently applied third-party audit; SFI is not;
    - FSC is based upon a system of performance-based measurements; SFI is largely focused on the adoption of management systems that may or may not lead to changes in performance;
    - FSC has a comprehensive set of detailed ecological indicators; SFI ecological indicators are more general and most indicators are optional;
    - FSC sets more stringent guidelines in many areas of environmental protection (such as maintenance of older forest and reserve areas; use of chemicals, exotic and genetically modified species; and conversion of natural forest to plantations) that are more appropriate for ecologically sound forest management;
    - FSC has social criteria focusing on local communities and indigenous peoples; SFI does not;
    - FSC has Chain-of-Custody Certification and product labeling system allowing processors, retailers, and consumers to confidently know that their wood comes from a well-managed forest; SFI does not; and,
    - FSC has mandatory independent public reporting for all companies certified as “well managed” forest operations; SFI does not.
    - FSC requires an annual audit; SFI does not."

    Read the full report here:

  5. getmeoutofgba | | #5

    Martin's research
    As usual, Martin, you are the investigator, and have found research that clarifies the issue. Thank you. I would consider the Yale report to be essentially unbiased and based on what you quoted, I'm sticking with FSC as my guide for sustainably produced wood products.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Rachel Wagner
    Thanks. Glad to help -- although I don't know whether I deserve the praise. Just a little (skilled) Goggling.

    I have been following the FSC vs. SFI debate for a while, though, and I think the general consensus is that FSC is the real deal, and SFI is an alternative approach originally proposed by the lumber industry.

    Here's an example of a typical press release from an anti-SFI organization:

  7. T4NpFuz2vh | | #7

    The SFI Program
    This is an interesting discussion. It demonstrates what a challenge it can be to find accurate information when so many reports unfortunately are based on misleading claims or are out of date such as the one Martin quotes from 2001.

    SFI has a fact sheet with current quotes from respected organizations around the world – including the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers – who have taken a close look at third-party forest certification and recognize all credible programs, including SFI.

    In its 2010 status report on certification, Dovetail Partners says: “Significant changes have occurred within the major certification programs in recent years, and, in several ways, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between certification systems in North America."

    Regarding USGBC, SFI is still trying to understand why LEED Pilot Credit 43 for non-structural certified wood products would list SFI and other credible certification programs as “pre-approved certifications and labels”, then post proposed revisions to LEED 2012 that continue to shut out so much of America’s certified forests.

    We are proud of the SFI community's commitment and progress in responsible forestry, our growth and recognition in the marketplace, our on-the ground-work in conservation, and our tangible work in communities across North America. When the goal is improving the welfare of the world’s forests, we really need to move beyond the rhetoric and work together to achieve optimal results.

  8. Mike Eliason | | #8

    When you say 'we' -


    When you say 'we' - you should really qualify your response, being that you're employed by the SFI.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |