'Green' consumerism starts to benefit some forests

Attractive, durable, economical - these are the qualities Roger and Regina Knight like about the hardwood maple flooring in their new Maine home. But the No. 1 reason they chose it: This wood is "green" - certified green that is, guaranteed to have come from an environmentally well-managed forest.

This type of consumer - people who factor in environmental considerations when making purchases - has spawned an entire specialty market for a wide range of products, from legal pads and cleansers to electric cars and table napkins. While there is the usual squabbling over whether the "environmentally correct" label is being applied accurately, the green-wood movement is leading the way in efforts to certify environmentally benign products.

Demand for green wood is definitely growing, say people in the building industries. And as it does, say others, the specialty market is beginning to show its potential for changing how forests around the world are managed.

The number of certified forest acres supplying green-wood products has jumped from fewer than 2 million five years ago to more than 31 million worldwide now, according to the Mexico-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which sets international certification standards. Recently, in fact, owners of 1 million acres of certified forest in Maine announced plans for a conservation easement on three-quarters of the land - the first to add such permanent protection.

"[FSC] certification is a credible, nonregulatory way of allowing the market to help change corporate behavior," says World Wildlife Fund vice president Bill Eichbaum. "It does this by allowing the consumer to make a choice."

If gross sales are any indication, consumers are indeed choosing it.

National distributors of green wood report strong rises in sales. A.E. Sampson and Son in Warren, Maine, saw a 20 percent hike in sales of certified hardwood flooring from 1997 to 1998. Collins Pine Co. in Portland, Ore., increased its sales of certified hardwood by 30 percent in the past three years.

And more retailers are entering the market. Earlier this month, the president of The Home Depot Canada said the world's largest home-improvement retailer would join the Certified Forest Products Council (CFPC) and intends to develop "environmentally preferable wood products from certified, well-managed forests."

To earn certification, forest managers such as Seven Islands Land Co. in Maine, which supplied wood for the Knights' flooring, are evaluated by an independent team of scientists. The team rates timber resources sustainability; forest ecosystem health, including wildlife habitat and water resources; and socioeconomic benefits.

FROM the view of designer David Foley of Northport, Maine, who designed the Knights' home, the green products he specifies, such as flooring and shingles, are the same high quality as their noncertified counterparts. In many cases, he adds, there is no price premium.

The desire to support forest stewardship is behind most people's decision to use certified wood, says David Ford, president of the Oregon-based CFPC. But the growing use of green wood is being aided by America's building boom, particularly in the remodeling sector, he says. America's remodelers spent almost $7 billion more in 1997 than they did just two years earlier.

Moreover, interest in green-wood building in general is rising among architects, builders, and do-it-yourself remodelers. Green wood is even appearing in large government and institutional buildings.

Middlebury College in Vermont is preparing to open a new 220,000-square-foot science center, finished throughout with 125,000 board feet of certified wood. Nan Jenks-Jay, director of environmental affairs and planning, says finding this much footage took some searching. But to the college, she says, it was worth it.

Similarly, while some architects and builders say it can be a challenge to find certified wood for an entire house - it's often a special order - it is possible. Last year the CFPC sponsored Habitat for Humanity in building such a home in Portland, Ore.

"We wanted to demonstrate that environmental building isn't just for high-end homes," says Mr. Ford. "It can also be economical and affordable."

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