OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

"Certified" forest products: niche market or more?

09/25/1997

CORVALLIS - The American consumer, a recent analysis suggests, doesn't appear to be beating down the door for wood products that are "certified" to have been produced by environmentally friendly forest practices.

But the movement is young and may yet gain market momentum, experts say.

So far, the move towards certified wood products, at least in the United States, is growing slowly with hope by advocates that it may become a mainstream force. Right now, certified products comprise about one-half of 1 percent of the total market and, even then the demand is driven more by concerned industries and wholesalers than by consumers, the report concluded.

But in other countries, especially in Scandinavia, the movement is older, more widely recognized and shows signs of becoming a major marketing force, said Eric Hansen, an assistant professor of forest products at Oregon State University.

 

"It's pretty clear in the U.S. that certified wood products are still a niche market, face a lot of obstacles and may not amount to more than that for some time," Hansen said. "But it's also true that more is happening in Europe, and if even a single country there goes toward this in a big way you could see a ripple effect. I'm telling U.S. companies they should not ignore or discount this movement."

Hansen recently published an analysis of the business and marketing opportunities, problems and potential of certified wood products in the professional Forest Products Journal. He and other OSU colleagues have also conducted case-studies of specific companies active in this field.

The phenomenon of certified wood products is one outgrowth of environmental groups and others pushing for "sustainable" forestry, which by their definition often rejects some fairly common forest management practices, such as widespread clearcutting or extensive use of herbicides. But in recent years there have been extensive debates - and still no clear consensus - about who should do the certifying of wood, with what exact criteria and how the process should be handled.

Those disagreements and lack of infrastructure have limited the growth of this movement, Hansen said. Wholesalers are reluctant to push certified wood products without a dependable supply. Forest product companies are unsure what management regimes would be acceptable and unwilling to make costly commitments. And consumers can't buy or become informed about products that aren't on the shelves.

Hansen's analysis was done in collaboration with four other faculty from the OSU College of Business and Forestry Extension, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and was part of a larger research effort involving several universities and private agencies.

Among the study's observations:

  • An assumption that certified wood products will command a higher price in the retail market may not be true, and in some cases certified products have actually sold for lower prices.
  • Consumer demand and knowledge about certification issues is still largely undeveloped in the U.S., although a small group of consumers have sought out such products.
  • Most demand for these products so far has been generated by retailers and wholesalers, sometimes to avoid criticisms that they are insensitive to environmental issues, sometimes to gain a marketing advantage, and sometimes simply to "do the right thing."
  • Some participants in these "buying groups," which are fairly prevalent in Europe, believe consumer demand for certified wood products will improve once supply becomes more available and consumers become educated.

     

Certification is still a controversial topic in many industrial circles, Hansen said.

Many companies don't want to get involved until the situation stabilizes and one certification system becomes universally accepted. They're reluctant to become allies with some environmental groups that in the past may have been their harshest critics. And they fear costly changes in forest management practices that may not be recovered by higher prices at the retail level.

So far, he said, not a single large industrial company in the U.S. is involved with "third party" certification, which many see as the only credible approach to satisfy a suspicious public.

And the dollars and cents haven't always penciled out, he said.

"One of the underpinnings of certification is the premise that concerned citizens will willingly pay more for products and approaches they believe are environmentally sound," Hansen said. "They have said just that in some research surveys, but it hasn't always played out in the marketplace."

Home Depot recently sold some "certified" pine shelving for a lower price than its regular pine shelving, Hansen said. And Lexington Furniture in the U.S. recently tried to market a certified furniture line. It failed to generate sufficient sales and was canceled after its first year.

A commitment to certified wood products can have a positive impact on a company's public image, Hansen said. "Environmental marketing" factors such as this will become more important in the future, he said, and it's difficult to predict how the trends may evolve.

"I tell representatives of private industry that even if they don't agree with all of the concepts behind forest product certification, they can't afford to ignore it," Hansen said. "Just recently a certified timber producer was telling me that things seem to be looking more positive. And the movement in Europe, especially Sweden, could create competitive pressures in a global marketplace.

"This movement may yet become more of a force and affect the mainstream industry," he said.