The Great FSC vs. SFI Debate: What’s A Homeowner To Think – or Do?

Baby treeBy Trish Holder

There’s a custody battle over this little tree – a chain of custody fight that is.

Two major certification bodies, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), want you to demand that this little tree carry their certification label.  What does that label mean?  The shorthand version is that this little tree (and all his neighbors) were brought up and nurtured in a way as to not threaten the health and welfare of future generations of little trees.

Like most custody fights, this one has gotten UGLY.  Money and politics (big surprise) are involved – and another entity that seems to hold the keys to this little tree’s future: the U.S. Green Building Council, the originators of the LEED green building certification system.

What’s LEED got to do with it?
Locally (that is, here in Greensboro, NC), most of us associate LEED certification with our own Proximity Hotel, the first LEED Platinum certified hotel in America.  But LEED certified government buildings, schools, hospitals, etc. have been popping up all over the country (and world) in the last decade.  There are even LEED certified homes – or, as in my own case, LEED registered homes that are “pacing themselves” in the certification process.  (Ah, but that’s another blog I’ve yet to find the stamina to write….)

Here’s the kicker.  Right now LEED only recognizes FSC certification for the award of certain credits related to wood.  That doesn’t mean LEED certified buildings can’t use wood that isn’t FSC certified – it just means you’re out of luck in obtaining those particular credits.   That makes SFI advocates really mad.  They want the USGBC to recognize that their products are just as good as FSC certified products.  For one thing, if the USGBC doesn’t recognize this, companies whose products are not FSC certified stand to lose a whole lot of business.  And, by the way, there are a lot more SFI certified products in the US than FSC.  That translates into jobs lost, monopolies, etc.

But the issue is far more complicated than that.  How complicated?  Let me put it to you this way.  I’ve been following the debate for about 5 years now and have yet to form a solid opinion myself.

One thing is for sure.  Advocates for SFI and FSC are about as friendly toward one another as Al Gore and George W. Bush.  Which one is Al Gore in this scenario?  Which one is George W. Bush?  Heck if I know.  Self-interests and big economic payback are at play on both ends.  And as a consumer, I’m a little bitter that all this politics has made it so hard for me to make an informed decision.

So what’s the well-meaning homeowner to do?
Many American consumers, armed with a little bit of information, meaning they have heard of FSC certification and know it is supposed to be “green”, will look for FSC certified products without having any idea of the forces that influenced them toward this decision.   If they price compare, they will find that FSC certified products will not only be harder to find, but about 15% more expensive, a pill that some will swallow but most will not.

If they dig a little deeper (or even read this blog) they will learn that 60% of FSC certified wood is imported to the US and Canada from other countries.  At this point in our economic history, most Americans just hate that.  Still, FSC has been around longer and is largely accepted as being the more stringent of the two certifications.  And it has the credibility granted to it via the USGBC LEED rating system.  It’s a quandary.

So what is the well-meaning homeowner to do?  Well, you can get educated, but you best set aside about 12 hours of study.  Here’s a site that with links in a chronological order to help bring you up to speed on the FSC/SFI debate.  Read them closely, and I’m sure you will find yourself just as torn as I am.

Or, forget the certifications and source wood as locally as possible.  I’m going to go out on a limb here (pardon the pun) to say that at this point in time most US and Canadian forests are sustainably and responsibly grown and harvested.  Whether the products are FSC or SFI certified, you’ll at least know that the carbon impact of getting the trees from the ground and into your home was minimum.  And you supported your local economy.

It’s a very imperfect selection process, but it’s the choice I made several years ago when building my own home.  After several years of observing this great debate, which only seems to be getting more confusing by the minute, I would make the same decision today.

22 Responses »

  1. Small family owned timber lands are more likely to be SFI certified…you may use that in helping to make your decision.

  2. In Australia, our Green Building Council was required to recognize the Australian Forestry Standard (a domestic version of SFI) and had to drop its support for just FSC because a. The AFS was correctly viewed as being at least as robust and b. FSC has ‘issues’ it needs to address. Same situation, very little has been FSC certified compared to the domestic scheme which carries a national logo and responsibility so issues of imported illegal wood are less likely to arise

  3. More than 140 million acres and 5000 companies are FSC certified in North America. And every major environmental group – WWF, National Wildlife Federation, NRDC and Sierra Club – recognizes the Forest Stewardship Council as the gold standard in certification.

    At the core, the differences come down to this: Is legal forestry good enough to call it “green.”

    If you believe following the letter of the law and nothing more, which varies widely from state to state, is good enough, then SFI is your standard. All forests in the US – barring illegally managed ones – are eligible for the loose SFI standard.

    If you believe a “green” certification should go beyond what is legally required, then FSC is far more robust and will better represent your values.

  4. The amount of FSC certified wood is growing in the market every day. While the amount of softwood lumber and sanded plywood that is FSC certified could be improved, the amount of FSC certified hardwood lumber, particleboard, MDF, and decorative hardwood plywood has only continued to grow. Collins just announced this morning that they have received FSC certification for their hardwood mill in Richwood, WV (not far from your home in Greensboro, NC). Also, Columbia Forest Products manufactures decorative hardwood plywood that is FSC certified every day at two plants that are within a 2 hour drive of your home (Old Fort, NC & Chatham, VA). So it is possible to get FSC certified wood that is also locally manufactured, harvested, and extracted as well.

  5. Go local. You can get more points going local than going FSC. People mis-read the credit and assume you need this. No tropical wood is allowed unless it is FSC certified. Tropical wood clearly must be imported to the US. Finally, if you want to make a difference, put your voice in during LEED Public Comment periods, it is up to the public to decide. Learn the intent of the credit and don’t waste time on credits that are worth half points. Go local, save money, save the earth.

    • Yes LEED give credits and add points for local business, but a certified product get better position. From my end will not be enough to buy from your next door supplier, will be to buy from a next door, but harvest, processed, produced, manufactured, under some environmental criteria.

  6. There is a very good reason most independent organizations use FSC over SFI.

    SFI was developed by the logging industry, and is essentially a fake eco-label, designed to get away with doing basically nothing to improve forest management practices and stop the spread of FSC

    FSC was developed through a broad-reaching consultative process process and actually means something. There are lots of good comparisons online which illustrate this difference.

  7. Thanks for the thought provoking argument regarding FSC & SFI. It gave me pause for thought as I am undergoing a total renovation & hope to achieve at least a Silver LEED certification. That said, I also question other related green aficiondos like this whole LEED certification cost & all the other interrelated green businesses. It appears to have become big business which only stands to get bigger. Going green is a good thing for the individual & the world at large but the cost to the average homeowner is almost prohibitive in the truest sense of going green! Politics, money & greed always seem to rear their ugly heads!!! This will be an ongoing debate but hopefully by raising our voices and using social media as a platform perhaps we can make a difference for the future of a sustainable green US that is fair game for all economic levels. At this point it is rather an elitist endeavor.

    • I must agree that I like LEED and any type of certificate from an accredited institution. We do so many things always and we did so go for so many years without them. It comes to a point where it is important to seal with a stamp a good product.
      It comes with a cost, but it is a document.

  8. I sell a lot of FSC-Certified lumber. I’m agnostic on the subject of whether FSC is a greener protocol, but LEED remains the most recognized and sought-after standard, and that is why FSC continues to be sought-after.

    In addition under Pilot Credit 34 you may be eligible to earn up to 2 points by using FSC certified western red cedar, which in one of the few materials (wood or otherwise) which has published a cradle-to-grave analysis of environmental and carbon effects in their EPD (environmental product declaration).

    As a distributor of FSC certified wood products in the northeast US, I can tell you that FSC certified lumber is far more available than many realize. You will pay a premium but in cedar and pine, two of the most commonly used items, it need not be a large premium (e.g. 5-10%). You need not endure long waits or face the requirement to order more than you need – these are old problems with FSC that have been solved in our neck of the woods. FSC tropical hardwoods will cost more and framing will cost more (as a %, not much in dollar terms) but in general it is possible to achieve that particular LEED point without much fuss or additional cost.

    From my perspective, the biggest challenge in sourcing for green building isn’t cost or availability – it’s effectively communicating among architects, homeowners, and suppliers (and suppliers’ suppliers) about cost and availability. This will change as LEED and other green building continues to grow as a market segment, but for now, a homeowner or architect sometimes has to be fairly enterprising or lucky in order to find out what’s possible without overspending. I think part of the problem is the understandable focus in green media on boutique products rather than on the meat-and-potatos of home building.

  9. To suggest as ‘Paco’ does that SFI is a ‘fake eco label’ is bordering on libel.This is entirely untrue and even a cursory glance at the SFI principles and practices will disabuse anyone of this option. The fact is that both systems are good for the environment and the forests and while many people see FSC as the gold standard at this point, the progress made by SFI has been outstanding and they are good for each other. Choose one or the other but don’t choose to avoid the issue , this is an important one for all of us.

  10. The debate is actually focusing on the wrong points as wood is the renewable resource for construction and LEEDS seems not to recognize its virtues over depletion resources. FSC is a for profit company that has its own agenda. Use FSC wood and its mostly imported tropical woods. In the US forestry is practiced responsibility so sticking with US woods is a best choice, especially when local. How can it be green to ship western red cedar to the east coast and call that green when local species are available? For example, at SUNY Syracuse a new building has FSC western red cedar wood that was specified to be without heart and took an 8×8″ timber to make. Now think about it, the architect followed the LEED green procedure and brought this wood across the country and this wood likely came from only old growth trees or at least very old trees. I vote for using local US woods and realizing renewable resources trump depletion resources.

  11. Wow, this is a fascinating topic & the comments demonstrate how the subject is highly charged. I can’t imagine most home owners being aware or even, when shopping at the box stores which they tend to do, they would notice either designation (if box stores even sell FSC or SFI products).

    The marketing in my opinion needs to start with architects & builders who have the opportunity to influence larger purchases for new construction and homes. The only other entity that can influence is the government with tax credits and that might be interesting but not happening soon.

  12. Great introduction into this dicey topic. Haven’t built a new home yet but have several remodeling projects underway so I’m going to figure out how to introduce this topic to my clients.

  13. While I also haven’t formed an absolute opinion between the two entities on this specific topic, I do have an opinion on the typical increase in the cost of “green” supplies. There is in inherent environmental cost in generating extra income to pay for “certified” products which doesn’t necessarily translate into net improvements for the environment. I believe cost factors need to be a factor in certifying green products.

    We need to find a balance between affordability and greenness instead of splitting hairs on which product is granted the exclusive green crown of certification.

  14. A recent report overviewing the difference:

    The fact is, we need better data about whether certification works to actually protect biodiversity and ecosystem services. There are surprisingly few scientific studies comparing certified vs. comparable uncertified stands, and tracking ecological KPI’s through time. More here:

    Rather than all this passionate hand-waving, let’s scientifically study the question on the ground and see what the data says when measuring key metrics of biodiversity and ecosystem services in comparable forests certified by different bodies (e.g., FSC vs. SFI).

    Without question, there are dozens of graduate theses, not to mention multiple awards, for whoever takes the lead in getting this crucial job done.

  15. I had no problem sourcing all of the cherry for my flooring, trim, and built-ins locally – it was also far cheaper than getting it through any of the “middle men” who would have ultimately gotten that cherry from the same place. The guy who owns the small mill was surprised to find out that he had a “green” business. He told me that it didn’t make much sense to clear-cut the logs he needed, and that he’d be out of business in a few years if he wasn’t selective about which trees he took.

    I wish the FSC/SFI debate was as simple as logging companies against environmentalists, but I agree that the two organizations, competing with each other, will inevitably mean that more scrutiny is applied to both groups. That, and more transparency, will result in better wood products for all of us.

  16. WHAT!?!?!? Great article for the most part, but i have to say that your statement that “most US and Canadian forests are sustainably and responsibly grown and harvested.” is completely wrong and harmfully misleading and exactly the kind of misinformation that perpetuates the insane levels of completely unsustainable forest mismanagement and horrible habitat destruction that indeed dominate the industry! I live in an area that is “ground zero” for this terrible mess, and I can assure you that the opposite is actually true: most forests are mismanaged to a point of massive overcutting and toxic pollution/ degrading of groundwater and topsoil. They are turning forests into unhealthy tree farms (hostile to wildlife), polluting watersheds, and destroying biodiversity and crucial carbon management natural systems… Just checkout for some examples and evidence. This kind of “forestry” also kills lots of jobs!

    WRONG: “I’m going to go out on a limb here (pardon the pun) to say that at this point in time most US and Canadian forests are sustainably and responsibly grown and harvested.”


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