Sustainable Lumber

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, a non profit that advocates for selective harvesting from sustainable forests, has a slogan that refers to the FSC label as the “The mark of responsible forestry.” The word responsible gets right at the heart of the thing. In a world that’s grown smaller, more crowded, and where resources are more finite it’s harder now to leave a mess for future generations and still claim you did business responsibly.

The word responsible also succinctly identifies what the lumber business is becoming. Responsible for more, onerous or aggravating as that might be. Third-party certification is yet another regulation, and it’s fair to say the FSC chain-of-custody requirement results in new costs and frustrations.

Still, the apparent reality is we can’t live as we have in previous generations. For all the romance of the California Gold Rush of 1849, San Francisco Bay is still polluted from it. We’ve been cleaning up rivers and other industrial dumping grounds for years, and it’s just too expensive. Raising timber is similarly big scale where the methods of operation have larger consequences and the industry didn’t step up, so the Forest Stewardship Council has tried to fill a gap.

I stopped at the FSC booth at West Coast Green not long ago and met Ian Hanna of the Forest Stewardship Council who listened to my questions and then pointed me toward Blake Ridgway, sales manager of National Forest Distribution. My questions were about FSC lumber and cost. Clients ask why does FSC lumber cost as much as 25% more? Not all of it costs that much, but whether it’s twelve or twenty-five percent, it’s always more. I later emailed Blake with a list of questions about retailers, costs, and availability of FSC lumber in the Bay Area.

He wrote back, “The cost of FSC breaks down something like this. The landowner must still comply with all Federal, State and local ordinances ex; Harvest plan, endangered species act, erosion control, archeology studies, etc. In addition they must also meet FSC management standards which are far more rigorous than any state conformance plan. Secondly they must selectively harvest being far more careful to “do no harm”. It is far more expedient (to the bottom line) to mow everything in your path and take the merchantable timber on a large scale. Secondly the mills have a couple of choices; a) they can produce a “Pure” product which requires sequestering logs at the mill and running them separately from “Non Certified” logs (very expensive to stop production) b) Mills can operate under the “Mixed Credit” standard which alleviates the need to sequester logs, but still requires stringent tracking. At the distribution or retail level the “Chain of Custody” requirements are still in effect, this involves strict guidelines for tracking inventory, training staff, and of course paying to be audited every year. The bottom line is this it does cost more, with that “extra expense” is the assurance that we have not contributed to the degradation of a finite resource and ultimately our children’s future. I also feel compelled to dispel the myth that lumber is “expensive”, fact; currently the framing lumber/commodity market is at a 25 year low. We are at about ½ the price for 2×4 that we were in 2005. The lumber industry is in shambles, continuing to operate under a low cost model. There is not a single other element that goes into construction i.e. concrete, steel, copper, etc that hasn’t matched inflation. So if your clients are unhappy that they are paying 25% more they are still paying 25% less than non certified wood was 5+ years ago. I don’t know if the “gap” will close, 5 years ago I was selling 2×4 and 2×6 Kiln dried FSC Pure for 5% over green non-certified product and it was still a tough sell to the retailers. I firmly believe that when you factor the above points, FSC is far less expensive than letting large industry (think short term) profits dictate how we approach nature.”

He also wrote in answer to a question about whether he gets resistance from lumberyards,

“Sadly this industry has been slow to embrace change of any sort, when you suddenly propose an “environmental” change the hackles are immediately raised. The timber industry has always been at odds with “Environmentalism”.  FSC and LEED as an example are usually referred to as F*%$#@g or S%#t, this position is softening and change is coming as a younger generation enters the industry and as the true story of industrial forestry is shared. What is so amazing to me is that Forest Stewardship Council is the perfect marriage of Social consciousness, Environmental vision and Economic soundness that our industry needs.”

Home Depot is a significant buyer of FSC lumber but at the Home Depot nearest me (El Cerrito) there’s none on the shelf. Ridgway listed Mead Clark Lumber, Fairfax Lumber, Ashby Lumber, Beronio Lumber, and Earth Source in Oakland as stocking “a variety of FSC products.”

Bottom line is the price disparity is liable to remain awhile. If framing lumber accounts for 15% of the cost of a wood-frame house, then building with 100% FSC lumber will add 3-4% to the overall cost. One strategy is to mix panel products considered green, OSB, for example, with dimensional FSC lumber. Reuse and reclaiming can also marginally move the percentage down, though that’s less strategy than practice.