The quest for certifiably eco-friendly lumber

Ikea sells eco-friendly teak patio tables and chairs. Home Depot stores in Seattle now stock "certified" hardwood flooring. And Wickes Lumber won't be buying wood from endangered forests by the end of this year.

But such examples are few and far between. One of the big problems facing the effort to sell "good wood" - timber that's been certified as coming from a well-managed forest - is the slow pace of certification.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has put its stamp of approval on 59 million acres of forest in 47 countries. But that still only represents about 4 percent of the world's forests being logged. Many major retailers are not advertising eco-friendly wood because the global supply is still minuscule.

"Lauan doors, lauan plywood, and ramin dowels: These things are among the most egregious products [from illegal logging in Indonesia], but they're also industry standards,'' says Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, a New York-based group.

The US logging industry has created its own certification system, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), but because it's industry-run, it has less credibility with environmental groups. The FSC has timber-industry representatives on its board, but takes no industry money. It has the most rigorous certification standard, and is recognized by most environmental groups. The FSC requires a series of independent environmental, economic, and social audits of a forest before certification. FSC third-party auditors will go to a forest to check, for example, the extent of clear-cutting and the quantities of pesticides or herbicides used.

The FSC has 10 guiding principles to gain certification, including: Obey the law, protect the rights of native peoples, limit waste, preserve species, contribute to the economic well-being of nearby communities, and preserve the forest.

The review, which logging companies have to pay for, can take years, and there's no guarantee that the coveted certification will be granted at the end of the process. The FSC also has a "chain of custody" certification that requires tracking wood from the jungle, to the mill, to the container ship, and eventually to the store shelf.

This certification is considered critical to the integrity of the program. Without it, certifications could be used for "greenwashing" - the creation of legitimate documents to cover up trade in illegally cut wood.

"People have been screaming at me for more certified wood since the day I got here,'' says Jeff Hayward, who runs the Asian operations of Smartwood, one of 11 organizations accredited by the FSC to conduct certification audits. "But it's a long, difficult process and there's only a handful of forests that have a chance to quickly meet the standards.''

In April, PT Diamond Raya became the first Indonesian timber company to get a certification - granted by the Indonesian Ecolabeling Foundation, working jointly with the FSC. As of this month, two more forest owners have been certified and four Indonesian firms are working toward certification. Three have failed to meet audit criteria.

Europe leads the way in certifying wood and selling it. For example, in Britain, consumers can buy "everything from a 2x4 stud to a piece of furniture, the handle on a broom, paper, anything sold as a derivative product," says Hank Cauley, FSC's executive director in the United States.

"We are making good progress in Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, the US, and particularly in Sweden and Poland for forest areas," he says. In the United Kingdom, 1.5 percent of wood products sold are now FSC certified. While that may sound like a small number, he notes that it's about equal to the market penetration of organic foods.

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