It’s hard to turn a corner today without hearing about the importance of green building and how wood products, including hardwood flooring, should be certified.
This concept has evolved over the past 20 years and is linked to logging abuses around the world. For many decades, forest clear-cutting was a common way of harvesting timber. Trees covering large tracts of land were often cut down without any thought to replanting or how the trees’ removal might affect streams, rivers or indigenous plants and animals.
So troubling was the problem that in 1992 the United Nations held a Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), now known as the Earth Summit, resulted in 120 countries supporting the Forest Principles, a non-legally binding document. This document asserts that forest resources and lands “should be maintained to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.”
This idea of forest preservation has slowly evolved into what is known today as sustainable forest management – now common buzzwords among builders and in wood product markets. Essentially, if trees are removed from any forest to obtain raw materials for the purpose of manufacturing a wood product, care must be given to the surrounding ecosystem, to the number of trees cut down at any given time and to how the trees removed can be replaced for future generations.
Over the past decade, certification systems have emerged that have led to the labeling of wood products so consumers know which ones actually come from managed forests. The process of labeling begins with proving chain of custody (COC), and this involves obtaining a written statement (a certificate) that attests to the origin of the raw materials used and their status and qualifications.
For the hardwood flooring manufacturer, this means all parties involved in the life of the product – from the landowner to the distributor – must also be certified. Although retailers aren’t required to prove COC, all other entities down the chain must be scrutinized to see if certain standards are being met and that the wood products professed to be certified truly do come from sustainably managed forests. In the United States, there are about a dozen certifiers that are deemed qualified to perform audits at the different points in the COC, and each certifier uses its own evaluative process.
The certifier works with each individual entity in the COC, starting with the landowner and then going down the line, involving all companies that handle the wood product until it is placed on the retail shelf. In the case of wood flooring, this means the raw timber must come from land being properly sustained. The logs must be labeled and then separated out by the sawmill owner, and the cut boards must then remain separated as they are transported to the manufacturer and processed into wood floors. Finally, the finished material cartons using sustained resources must be carefully segregated and labeled for delivery by the distributor to the retailers.
Because these certification systems aren’t part of a formal government-mandated program, getting all the entities to work together can be difficult. Often hardwood floor manufacturers find they must educate each participant in the COC. Each member in the wood supply chain, including landowners, sawmills, distributors and retailers/contractors must be educated about what is at stake, why obtaining certification is important and what steps are needed to get involved in the process.
Jumping through all the hoops can be complicated. For instance, wood flooring manufacturers have relationships with many different sawmills, and each of these, in turn, works with numerous landowners. Most of these landowners don’t know about the steps required to have their forests certified.
To complicate things further, the organizations conducting COC audits aren’t the same as those setting the standards. The standards are established by such organizations as the Forest Stewardship Council, International Organization for Standardization (IOS), and the Programme for the Endorsements of Forest Certification. The auditors are basically independent companies that have been deemed accredited to investigate COC and to make recommendations.
How does all this affect the hardwood flooring industry? It has placed a great premium on certified products and is forcing hardwood flooring manufacturers to pay attention to the certification processes.
In the United States, there are currently two major certification systems in place: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Both of these entities have different specifications and requirements. To date, only the FSC certification earns Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits for pursuing forest certification and completing “green” construction projects.
In addition, the National Wood Flooring Association recently started a three-tier program called the Responsible Procurement Program, which is considered a recognition of a manufacturer’s serious commitment to responsible forestry practices and a transitional step toward the previously mentioned systems.
Obtaining certification generally involves several steps, such as completing an application, having an on-site visit from an official auditor, and preparing a written report to submit to an independent peer reviewer. Then, even after certification is achieved, you must be willing to be continually monitored on a yearly basis. If standards aren’t maintained, then certification can be lost and your products can’t carry the “sustainable” origin label.
Because this process is time-consuming and may involve working directly with the various members of your COC, getting products certified might take several months, if not years, to achieve.
Why is all this important? First of all, it’s critical to be environmentally responsible; we need to preserve our forestlands for future generations. Secondly, from a business perspective, the demand via consumers and architects, who drive construction projects, is growing. In fact, most major architectural firms today are specifying that “certified” wood products and flooring be used in their projects. As we move forward, the origin of hardwood flooring is going to become more and more important.
For more information
Here is a list of Web sites related to wood floors and certification. For a list of certifiers, please visit www.fscus.org/certifiers.
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: www.yale.edu/forestcertification/faq
Forest Stewardship Council: www.fsc.org
Sustainable Forestry Initiative: www.sfiprogram.org
Responsible Procurement Program: www.rpprogram.org