Choosing a sustainable floor continues to be a point of pride among eco-savvy consumers. While almost every flooring type has a green story behind it, hardwood is a—pardon the pun—natural choice. As the thinking goes, what could be greener than flooring harvested from actual trees that grow in a well-managed forest?

Manufacturers and retailers who want to set themselves apart can carry products that are certified to certain standards. We spoke with several industry experts to find out a little more about these certification programs, and what laws are on the books in regards to what hardwoods can be legally sold.

“Trees are a natural resource providing the raw materials that support the livelihoods of those employed in the forestry and flooring industries, including so many members of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA),” stated Michael Martin, NWFA’s president and CEO.

The NWFA offers the voluntary Responsible Procurement Program (RPP). Martin noted, “The RPP identifies wood flooring manufacturers that have voluntarily made a commitment to source their raw materials from sustainable forests. In the U.S., most hardwood forests are privately owned and just a few hundred acres in size. This makes Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification difficult due to its complexity and expense. RPP fills this gap by providing a third-party verification process for sustainable forestry practices that increase gradually over time.”

The NWFA RPP is designed to be transitional, which means companies are able to gradually increase their level of commitment to sustainability over time. Companies participate in independent third-party audits that demonstrate that their raw materials are sourced only from U.S. states where timber growth exceeds harvest and natural mortality, as identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service statistics.

Martin added, “One of the most unique aspects of the program is that it was developed by NWFA in conjunction with several prominent environmental groups such as the FSC, Scientific Certification Systems, Rainforest Alliance, Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund. The goal of the program is to improve forest sustainability for future generations.”

FSC, in particular, is influential in terms of settings standards and harnessing market demand to ensure forests are responsibly managed.

“The best way for retailers to protect themselves is to exercise due care on the wood products they sell, meaning to know their suppliers and their supply chains fairly well.”

“FSC chain of custody certification covers the manufacturing and processing of wood and fiber materials originating from a FSC Forest Management certified forest and/or other controlled sources,” explained Samantha St. Pierre, associate manager of Chain of Custody for the Rainforest Alliance. “The scope of the certification (i.e. what is covered and thereby audited annually) is determined by the company seeking certification.

“For example, a company may choose to certify only one product line, or a company may choose to certify all products within their operation. As part of the certification, annual audits take place in order to verify the claims being made by the certified company and provide integrity to the FSC on-product label.”

The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal is an internationally recognized symbol of environmental, social and economic sustainability that helps both businesses and consumers do their part. However, retailers themselves are not required to be certified, said St. Pierre.

“Only companies that process, transform or manufacture the certified material are required to obtain certification. Companies exhibit several varying motivations for obtaining certification including but not limited to: demonstrating their commitment to responsible forestry, supplying materials to LEED projects/buildings and meeting the demands of their larger supply chain,” she expressed. “Retailers, if carrying FSC-certified products, may obtain a license agreement from the FSC which would allow them to use FSC trademarks and labels in promotional materials and other marketing.”

More than 380 million acres of forest are certified under FSC’s system, including more than 150 million acres in the U.S. and Canada. Drew Hash, vice president of Shaw Hardwood, stated the importance of the program. “These efforts provide even greater confidence that we are sourcing materials from suppliers who do so in a legal and sustainable manner and documenting a clear chain of custody from responsibly managed forests to our sustainable manufacturing processes.”

Martin added that for those companies sourcing sustainable materials, RPP also provides Lacey Act due care documentation. Originally, the Lacey Act only banned the trafficking of illegal wildlife; however as of 2008 the Act was amended to include plants and plant products such as timber and paper. As a result, this landmark legislation is the world’s first ban on trade in illegally sourced wood products. Penalties for violating vary depending on the severity of the act itself.

“The best way for retailers to protect themselves is to exercise due care on the wood products they sell, meaning to know their suppliers and their supply chains fairly well,” stated Susanne Breitkopf, policy manager of the Environmental Investigation Agency. “There can also be ways to get agreements with suppliers so as to avoid potential losses from goods that would prove to be of illegal origin despite due care by the retailer, but this has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Knowing where your wood is coming from is the best way to avoid illegal merchandise in the supply chain.”

Today, more and more major companies are going out of their way to integrate sustainable practices into their business model. “If you look at total market volume, a significant majority of U.S. wood flooring volume is produced by manufacturers participating in RPP: Anderson, Mannington, Mullican, Shaw and Sheoga,” noted Martin.

Regarding his company’s sustainability efforts, Hash stated, “We participate in a number of voluntary, third-party certifications to verify that our products meet our and our customers’ high standards when it comes to sustainability, safety and quality. That includes Shaw and Anderson hardwood flooring being certified under the NWFA Responsible Procurement Program (RPP).”

Marcos Proti, owner of CMC Hardwood Floors, said it’s good to know there are companies in the industry who are looking to protect natural resources. “It’s important to carry these types of products in order to help support the organizations that are involved.”

Hash stressed that consumers want confidence in the products they buy and the companies they buy them from. “That’s where ‘green seals’ or certifications such as NWFA RPP can be very helpful.”

Dan Natkin, senior director of residential products, Mannington Mills, said that supporting RPP is part of a larger company philosophy. “We are part of a select group of manufacturers who take the extra step to ensure that our products are produced legally and sustainably.”

St. Pierre noted the market trend toward sustainably-sourced forest products continues to grow. “Companies that are not certified, or do not use sustainable forest management practices, stand out against the increasing number of certified products and producers.”

Natkin added that in light of much of the turmoil in the industry around illegal overseas logging in the past few years, it’s important for manufacturers to consider programs like RPP as an additional assurance to customers. “Internally, it has helped us take a hard look at sourcing practices and the way we track raw materials. Externally, it is an additional recognition that separates us from the masses in hardwood.”