Will we see more "ecolabels" on U.S. forest products?


CORVALLIS, Ore. - People are used to looking for the recycling "ecolabels" on paper products, but not on less processed forest products such as lumber - at least not in the United States.

According to Eric Hansen, a forest products marketing specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, this may change.

Hansen said that it's possible to go to some European retailers, similar to the Home Depot stores in the United States, and pick out a two-by-four that carries a label from the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization based in Mexico that oversees certification of forest products. The label certifies that the lumber comes from a well-managed forest.

"There are a lot of market forces converging to push toward forest management certification. The globalization of the economy, the strength of the 'green movement' in Europe and the creation of demand through buyers' groups may influence the U.S. forest products industry towards certification," Hansen said.

Forest product certification is more of a concern in western Europe than in the United States, Hansen explained. German publishers, for instance, aren't just interested in recycled paper. They want to see the forests where the trees are grown for paper pulp to make sure that the trees are being managed in an environmentally friendly way.

Buyer groups that started in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands are driving the demand for green products, rather than individual consumers, he said.

According to Rick Fletcher, an OSU Extension forester, issues of sustainability, both for forests and the communities they support, are being examined under the close scrutiny of third-party certification programs such as the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Consumers see third-party, independent certification as much more credible, he said.

"Stora, a large integrated forestry company in Sweden, is a good example of a company that has undergone third-party certification," Hansen said. "As a nation, Sweden started looking at the ability of forests to sustain wood production in the future as early as 1903. Slashing of young forests was banned by 1923. During the early 1970s, public pressure led to the ban of herbicide use in forests."

A new forest management act passed in Sweden in 1993 put equal emphasis on managing forests for wood and other values.

"Sweden's work towards more environmentally friendly forestry called for restoring damaged land and setting aside some forested land for wildlife habitat," Hansen explained. "Stora didn't change its forest management practices to meet certification requirements, but it coincided with the European trend in that direction."

Stora received its certification from the Oakland, Calif.-based Scientific Certifications Systems, a company that got its start certifying organically grown foods in California, Hansen said.

Four other certification groups worldwide are accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council. One, named SmartWood, certifies forests through its regional affiliates such as the Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy in Ashland.

Will forest products companies be able to recover the costs associated with third-party certification?

"It's hard to tell," Fletcher said. "The direct costs right now range widely, from 15 cents to several dollars per acre for the initial forest assessment. Annual audits after that can add another 20 cents or less to several dollars per acre. These costs do not account for land taken out of wood production to meet the conservation goals of the certification program, nor the staff time and resources necessary for adequate documentation of their forest management system.

"The other big issue," he added, "is maintaining a chain-of-custody for forest products as they change hands between the forest and the consumer. Certification requires a paper trail leading back to the forest where the tree was cut that ended up in your individual magazine or cardboard box. Forest product manufacturers are currently examining costs associated with this extra record keeping and inventory management."

Although Oregon currently exports only about one percent of its forest products to Europe, certification will likely be part of the growing trend toward globalizing of the industry, Hansen predicted.

According to Fletcher there are a little less than 80,000 acres of certified forest land in Oregon right now, but millions of acres worldwide. The Lakeview operation of the Collins Pine company makes up the bulk of Oregon Forest Stewardship Council-certified land, but it is not the only certified forest land in the state.

"In the United States, large areas of forest are currently certified in the Great Lakes states and New England. Recently, three large British Columbia companies announced that they would seek third-party certification through FSC," Fletcher said.