As the environmental ethic becomes more trendy, we see a growing trend in “greenwashing,” the effort by some to exaggerate the environmental benefits of various activities for personal gain or profit. Environmental activists are quick to point out greenwashing when it is practiced by corporations. They tend to go silent, however, when the greenwashers are fellow activists or government agencies.
The recent USA Today series titled “Green Inc.” highlights the extent to which corporations, environmental activists and government agencies work together to promote programs that look good but bring questionable benefit for the environment.
One example stands out – the partnership between the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The head of FSC was effusive in his praise of the USGBC’s green building standards, saying they have been “one of the most significant drivers of forest conservation in history.” That’s right, in history.
One reason FSC is so vocal in its support is that USGBC has excluded other forest certification groups from their system. As a result, the USGBC’s standard, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has very little impact on real-world forest management. Here’s why.
First, FSC has certified fewer acres of forest than other groups and many of these acres are overseas, not in North America. As a result, if builders want to receive points for FSC-certified wood, they may have to ship wood from long distances. Any environmental benefit could be lost in the energy used for shipping.
Second, FSC’s standards are often influenced more by politics rather than by science. One good example is the very different requirements in each region of the United States and around the world to receive FSC certification. A harvest that would not meet the standards in my home state of Washington could be acceptable to FSC in Idaho, for example. The difference can be even more dramatic between harvests in the United States and harvests in other countries.
This is one reason the Society of American Foresters has criticized the U.S. Green Building Council for excluding other standards. The CEO of the Society wrote that requiring “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific.”
Finally, there are numerous misconceptions about FSC timber that are often encouraged by advocates. In Washington state, for example, the state Department of Ecology argued for using FSC timber in construction because it would prevent harvest of old-growth forests. The problem, however, is that no rational builder would ever use extremely high-value old growth timber for home construction. Old growth timber is rare, making it an expensive commodity. Most timber used in construction is only 40 to 60 years old, far from the 200 years or more of age that typifies old growth.
Despite these weaknesses, the USGBC continues to favor FSC-certified wood. FSC is willing to lavish praise on USGBC’s system to secure a monopoly in a particular market niche. Protecting the brand has become more important than providing environmental benefit.
This is consistent with FSC’s approach elsewhere. For example, while other certification systems allow forests to receive and advertise multiple certifications, FSC does not. In one case FSC actually attacked a certified-supplier, telling the company it could not list other certifications since they are “FSC’s competitor.”
As a result, FSC and USGBC act more like the stereotype of corporations, protecting their market share even at the expense of the environment.
It is frustrating because FSC is built upon a very sound principle: people are willing to pay more for timber harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. FSC should be praised as a pioneer in promoting this important concept.
FSC should not, however, sacrifice the core principle of promoting sustainable forestry in favor of its market position. Competition among certification systems, like competition among companies, keeps each system honest, offering consumers a choice. Welcoming such competition is of course difficult, but if the ultimate goal is helping the environment, innovation in forest sustainability should be welcomed from any corner.
The U.S. Green Building Council should recognize the benefits of certification competition and give builders who care about sustainable forestry a choice. The environment would be better off.