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Wood environmental update: Government legislation, advocacy programs progress

Oct. 21/28 2013; Volume 27/number 13

By Jenna Lippin

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 5.33.25 PMEnvironmental awareness and conservation are becoming increasingly important as technology has started to cast a shadow over nature. Some of the most significant developments in legislation regarding natural resources—namely the harvesting of wood—have impacted flooring production and created a powerful movement involving prominent industry figures and organizations.

One recent development that has impacted the industry is the adoption of LEED v4 this summer. Per the latest version, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood is recognized but is no longer a credit on its own. The credit is now just one benchmark on a list of many materials that are preferred because of environmental friendliness.

Don Finkell, chairman of the board of the Hardwood Federation and chairman of the National Wood Flooring Association’s (NWFA) Responsible Procurement Program (RPP), supports the LEED v4 changes but hopes that some alterations can be made eventually. “FSC wood is now lumped in with reclaimed wood, but it is still the only certification recognized for new wood,” he said. “I agree that FSC is the gold standard, but I think there should be a silver and bronze recognition, too. Unfortunately, a perception has developed among the design community that wood is not green. And nothing could be further from the truth if it is sustainably and legally harvested, like American wood is.”

LEED v4 also exposed a significant amount of activity regarding Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). With the latest changes, credit is given to products with EPDs. “There is heightened interest in lifecycle assessments (LCA) and EPDs since the latter are credited in LEED v4,” Michael Martin, CEO of the NWFA, explained. “Industry-generic EPDs have been released for softwood lumber, softwood plywood and OSB.”

EPDs represent positive changes, “as wood performs very well in comparison to steel, concrete and plastic when considering the product or building lifecycle, which is what EPDs are all about,” Finkell said. “The new version of LEED is a victory for those advocating a more ‘science-based approach’ to green building standards and for wood. The shortcoming is that EPDs don’t deal very well with ‘extraction’ issues. Sustainably harvested wood and illegally harvested wood are treated as equal under a life-cycle assessment.”

Also a topic of conversation regarding changes in the environmental monitoring of hardwood is the Lacey Act. The amendments to Lacey made in 2008 “have had a dramaticScreen Shot 2013-10-25 at 5.34.09 PM effect on illegal logging around the world,” Finkell said. Environmental groups have estimated that illegal logging has decreased 20% worldwide since the changes passed approximately five years ago. “Exports of U.S. hardwood lumber to China have increased almost three times since then.”

According to Finkell, one reason for the increase of U.S. exports is that American hardwood is generally accepted as low-risk for illegal logging. “Much of American wood comes back to the U.S. and Europe in the form of furniture and flooring.”

While 80% of illegal logging remains, hardwood groups that are concerned with environmental issues will continue to work on legislation regarding regulation of unlawful activities. “I believe we will see steady progress as enforcement continues and the industry develops a clear understanding of how to exercise due care,”

Finkell said. “My hope is that a consensus develops around what measures need be taken by supplier countries to ensure legality and sustainability so that they can comply with all laws in market countries and not have one set of requirements for Europe, a different set for the U.S., and so on.”

In order for changes to be made, both government entities and hardwood-related companies must obey enacted laws. Compliance has to take place throughout the entire process, from harvesting to importing/exporting to manufacturing. “As companies start complying with the requirement of Lacey for due care, and as companies start asking suppliers for evidence that products are legal, they will change what they’re doing in the forest.” Finkell explained. “I think governments have to do more to let people know the law is going to be enforced, and once companies are convinced they must comply they will start making the changes.”

Avoiding the steps that must be taken to comply with legislation such as the Lacey Act will not prove to be effective. Contrary to popular belief, following guidelines laid out by the government is not as complicated as it seems. Regardless, observance is becoming necessary. “There are some people who believe you have to do so much and it’s not practical to comply. But this is not true. However, you have to do something,” Finkell added. “You can’t just ask a supplier to write a letter stating a product is legal; that doesn’t mean much.”

NWFA and Hardwood Federation continue efforts

While more changes may come with both LEED v4 and The Lacey Act, Martin and the NWFA will continue strengthening RPP, which works with environmental groups and flooring manufacturers to produce products made from “environmentally and socially responsible sources, thus improving sustainability for future generations.”

The organization initially sought LEED points for products, but it was met with a challenge as LEED primarily addresses commercial construction. Most wood flooring is used in residential applications, Martin explained. “Several regional, residential green building programs have achieved widespread acceptance, and NWFA has pursued these programs for RPP recognition.” Those that have recognized NWFA RPP include Earth Advantage, Build It Green (BIG) and The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS).

Earth Advantage will introduce a new version of its residential rating systems in early 2014, under which NWFA RPP wood flooring will be recognized and eligible for one point in the materials category. CHPS will recognize RPP products in Version 2.0 of its National Core Criteria, to be introduced in 2014, as well. And RPP products will qualify for one point in the Resources category in BIG’s New Home Construction Green Building Guidelines, also to be unveiled in early 2014.

Organizations involved in the development of the NWFA RPP include FSC-US, World Wildlife Fund Global Forests & Trade Network, Rainforest Alliance, the Nature Conservancy and Scientific Certification Systems—which all provide the required third-party audit for participating companies.  “These organizations offered significant guidance on developing a program that met specific criteria to demonstrate environmental responsibility,” Martin said.

Using third-party certification to help the commitment to the use of certified wood, RPP incorporates three phases of voluntary participation. Martin summed up the process of RPP involvement, stating that “initially, companies participate in third-party audits that demonstrate the raw materials are sourced only from U.S.-renewing forests as identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, with the ultimate goal of achieving the use of only certified, renewable wood.”

Like the RPP, the Hardwood Federation continues to make developments and campaign for necessary federal action. The federation consistently works as an advocate for government regulations, procedures and policies “that promote and support the environmental benefits of using wood products.”

Currently, the Hardwood Federation is focused on several initiatives, including support of adequate funding for the implementation of the Lacey Act, recognizing wood and wood products in federal building programs and advocating for management of the federal forest system.

Per Finkell, government assistance often ignored the environmental benefits of using wood in building projects. As such, the federation is collaborating with the U.S. government and related agencies to include language in federal building programs that supports and encourages the use of wood. The federation also supports meeting the goals of timber harvesting programs on federal land, reducing the chances of fire and disease, and supports local economies.