Steve Baer has little stomach for the task at hand. During the next few weeks, he and his counterparts must plow through more than 1,200 often-contentious comments to his group's proposal to create a system for determining which green wood certification schemes should qualify for LEED points. This is the second time he's done this–the first comment period drew 1,800 responses–and he wouldn't be surprised if he'll have to do this a third time early next spring. And for what?
"This is totally out of proportion to its importance," Baer told ProSales a few days after the comment period ended in mid-October. "We've already spent more time on this than it's worth."
What Baer regards as a teapot-sized tempest swirls around a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) proposal that would finally recognize for LEED points wood certified as green by groups other than the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Baer, a Pennsylvania-based consultant, sits at the center of the storm by dint of his work as chair of the USGBC's Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group. He hopes to reach final agreement on the proposal by April 2010.
Green wood groups such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association, American Tree Farm System, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification–which collectively certify far more North American wood than does FSC–have argued that FSC's position as the sole LEED-recognized certifier is unfair, unreasonable, and ultimately a boon to steel and concrete producers.
While USGBC may think its latest proposal represents a way to get them all into the tent, the groups were hardly thankful. Their comment letters continued to blast USGBC, largely over two issues: how a certifying group is structured, and which issues the certifying groups should consider when deciding whether to attach their green label to a wood product. The net result, they argued, was that FSC almost certainly would remain the only group approved by USGBC.
"The USGBC system is a closed and biased approach to this significant social and economic issue, with no legitimate purpose to justify its exclusionary and anti-competitive character," the timber industry's American Forest & Paper Association charged.
On the other hand, the U.S. branch of FSC (FSC-US) took USGBC to task for not being specific enough on standards for the organizational structure of certifying groups. It also argued that USGBC's benchmarks on treatments of indigenous peoples–benchmarks for which it gives credits, but doesn't require compliance–should become mandatory. In contrast, the other groups don't believe social issues should be used as a standard at all, saying U.S. and Canadian law should suffice.
To all this, Baer asks why there's such a furor when he regards the stakes as so small.
"I've told both groups they're talking about the wrong issue," he said. "Certified wood is worth one point [in most LEED scoring systems, which require at least 45 points to get the lowest certification]. All the points that you can get from using any kind of wood instead of steel or concrete is eight or 10 points. ? You can build a home entirely out of steel or concrete and then put in a cutting board made of certified wood and get one point, because all the wood in your home is certified. Do you think your lumberyards want that?"
Rather than bickering, Baer believes the various wood groups should spend their time instead on campaigns to promote the use of wood in construction. It doesn't matter if you use FSC, SFI, "or wood from Joe's Hardware," it's better to use wood, he said. "If they all had a common message, at the end of the day, they'd sell more wood."
His model is the Coca-Cola Co., which several decades ago could have been complacent about dominating the soft-drink market but instead decided to become a company that sought a bigger share of the market for all liquids, not just sodas. Coke's campaign not only led it to sell water and drinks, but also more Coca-Colas, Baer said–and the effort increased rival Pepsi's sales as well.
"The position we've taken is that there needs to be due diligence (in choosing certification groups), but lots of good wood is a good thing," Baer said. But from his tone of voice, it's clear he believes not everyone is getting the message.