Making Green Fenestration Products with Certified Wood

Competing certification programs means aggressive growth of responsible forestry
By Christina Lewellen
March 1, 2006

One has the advantage of LEED approval. The other has six times as many acres of certified land. Each is working to obtain what the other has.

But both the Forest Stewardship Council and the American Forest and Paper Association agree that competition is a good thing when it comes to forest certification programs because it means pushing aggressively toward a common goal—responsible foresting practices. “You don’t advance the movement by focusing on differences,” says Michael Washburn of FSC. “Tide doesn’t sell their detergent by beating up on Cheer.”

So how does this pertain to windows and doors? An Energy Star label is an important first step in getting windows and doors specified in “green buildings.” Manufacturers of wood windows and doors, however, may need a second label—one that states their products are made from certified wood. A certification label on wood means it comes from a forest managed in a sustainable, environmentally-responsible manner—a criteria even large retailers such as Home Depot and Ikea make known to their vendors. In the U.S., suppliers of forest products and manufacturers are now choosing between two major certification programs—the FSC program and AF&PA’s Sustainable Forest Initiative.

These leading U.S. certification programs do not protect forestland from development, rather they help ensure that the wood being harvested for the manufacture of products like windows and doors is replenished so the future supply is not extinguished. “Certification is not going to change the fact that somebody with 200 acres is going to sell that land for a condo development,” Washburn says. “That’s not what we’re trying to fight. What we’re trying to [ensure] is when wood comes into the marketplace, the marketplace is asking the right questions about what happened on the ground where that wood was cut.”

“If you make products out of wood and you’re not doing the right thing for the environment, you’re not going to have any trees left in 50 years,” adds John Mechem, spokesman for the AF&PA.

Both organizations have a system in place to label finished products as having wood that has come from forests independently certified as environmentally responsible. An audited chain of custody ensures that the source materials are monitored and labels only end up on products made from certified materials.

Though the two groups have a common goal and similar method of obtaining it, suppliers and manufacturers are left to decide which program best fits their needs. Right now, the decision boils down to one simple question of priorities: Is it more important to supply products to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or to have a more readily supply of source material?

Currently, the FSC program is the only certified wood system accepted by LEED for New Construction credit. Likewise, the LEED for Homes program—currently in its pilot phase—also prompts designers to turn to FSC labeled products for wood credits. USGBC continues to evaluate whether it should extend credit to other certification programs but Washburn, FSC’s vice president for brand management, expects that the credits will continue to go to FSC-labeled products only. “If LEED wants to transform the market, it has to maintain recognition for the highest available standards. It is incentive to move everybody else up. If you recognize the middle, you forfeit your leverage.”

Washburn notes that with something to the order of 3,000 LEED New Construction projects in play, more than 25 percent have achieved or are working to achieve wood credit. To get the credit, at least 50 percent of the building must tout FSC-certified wood, and with LEED for Homes coming down the pike Washburn expects an even higher demand for FSC products. “The LEED-H standard will be the biggest driver for FSC in the world because 30 percent of the wood used in the U.S. goes into residential construction. We’ve seen a doubling of companies involved with FSC, from 200 to nearly 400, just in the U.S. [because of the LEED-NC program]. If the commercial standard did that and only seven percent of commercial buildings use wood, think of what 30 percent on the residential side will do.”

The program’s foundation is a detailed “chain of custody” system that tracks wood from the forest in which it originates to the end product. Companies affiliated with the FSC program are audited yearly to make sure their inventory systems meet the requirements of the program.

There is a range of ways to label a finished product, Washburn points out. A 100 percent product includes only source material that came from a certified forest; a mixed label is available for products that contain as little as 10 percent certified material; and a mixed/recycled label works for composite and recycled materials that originated from certified sources. All of the labels qualify for LEED credit, he notes. “It’s not about what label is on there. It’s about whether people in the transaction can talk about the importance of why it’s on there.”

The FSC label does not pertain so much to the manufacturer itself, as much as the source of the material used to build the product. As long as the manufacturer can track the inventory of FSC-certified wood the company can label products made from that wood as “certified”.

Compared to the 136 million acres affiliated with AF&PA’s Sustained Forest Initiative program, the FSC program has 22 million acres certified in the United States. Washburn notes that FSC’s numbers nearly doubled in 2005. “We’re feeling like we’re on a roll here. You’ve seen the numbers and they speak for themselves. More and more acres have come into the system.”

For species like Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and Mahogany, Washburn says certified supplies are available in the marketplace, even for larger manufacturers. For more exotic species, which typically have lesser quantities anyway, getting supply may be more challenging, he notes. Still, any wood supply is affected by market price, shipping costs and international trade, regardless of whether or not it is certified. “There are a whole bunch of dynamics around availability that have nothing to do with certification.”

It’s fair to say there’s less certified product than non-certified product in any given species category, Washburn adds. But the primary challenge manufacturers face when deciding to offer FSC-certified products is being locked into long-term contracts with suppliers who may not have FSC-certified sources available. “If current suppliers don’t have access to FSC or have no incentive to find it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

With LEED-H on the cusp of being released to the market, Washburn says FSC has conducted studies of its inventory to make sure there is enough product to meet demand, should it stay the only certification program recognized by LEED. “Is there enough wood to meet the demand created by LEED? The answer is overwhelmingly ‘yes’. There’s a perception in the marketplace that there isn’t enough FSC [wood]. The reason the perception exists is because people aren’t asking the right companies for our products.”

To help with the search process, the organization created an online database ( to help designers and planners find companies that offer FSC-certified products. The result is a lead generation tool for manufacturers. “If somebody goes to the Web site and gives their contact information and tells us what they’re looking for, we send that out to all the companies that offer that product.”

FSC has also developed a guide for architects about how to locate and use FSC products in their projects. “These are simple tools but there’s a lot of power behind them because it creates a whole culture around this stuff,” Washburn says.

“I think the number one reason a company would look at SFI would probably be supply,” says Mechem, AF&PA’s director of communications. “Ninety percent of industrial timberland is enrolled in the SFI program.”

Having the supply readily available but not being recognized by the LEED program is something SFI organizers have been working to overcome for the past several years. It’s the organization’s top priority, which has resulted in an increased level of involvement with USGBC. “This [past] fall we joined USGBC so now we’re working both inside and outside the organization. We’re working with USGBC to get them to understand our issues and why wood is key to an environmentally-sound building.”

SFI has been working to get language changed in the LEED-NC system with the eventual goal of getting the acceptance transferred over to LEED-H when that hits the residential market. “A lot of the work we’ve been doing is to get things fixed before launching LEED-H,” Mechem notes. The National Association of Home Builders’ Green Building Guidelines is another residential sustainable building system that recognizes SFI wood. NAHB’s guidelines beat LEED-H to the market, which SFI hopes “is going to leverage some pressure to the current pilot program for LEED-H” to accept alternate wood certification programs, Mechem says.

Mechem believes SFI will eventually be successful in opening up the LEED program to additional wood certifiers. “Whether it’s the next two months, 12 months or 24 months, we don’t know. But we think we’re going to get it changed.”

Regardless of LEED acceptance, Mechem says market demand for environmentally responsible products will translate to the continued presence of the SFI program. Under constant revision for improvement, the program’s administrators complete a review of its standards every three to four years and recently added a chain of custody certification program to track from the tree itself all the way to the finished product. “Where the chain of custody really helps is on the manufacturing end, particularly those manufacturers not making products off their own land,” Mechem points out.

Globally, demand for SFI-certified products will likely spike after having been recently recognized by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, a European-based umbrella organization aimed to mutually recognize forest certification programs from many different nations. That means any SFI program participant can serve global buyers looking for the PEFC standard, Mechem says. “This is a very big step for us because it opens up new markets around the world.”

Ultimately, the two programs have very similar goals and in their own ways each program is serving environmentally-conscious consumers and creating a positive buzz about wood products that come from responsible sources. “People who are concerned about the environment recognize the renewability of wood,” Mechem notes, “so we are seeing an increased demand for all certified programs.”

“It’s not about who’s right,” adds Washburn. “We’re both saying the same thing eight out of ten times. The goal is to rebuild the trust in good logging standards. You don’t really have to understand logging to connect that a tree had to be cut down to make this window.”

For information on other wood certification programs, visit the Forest Certification Resource Center's Web site,