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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sustainable Timber

Air Date: Week of

Home Depot began a trend in the lumber industry when it announced last summer that it would begin selling wood only from certified sustainable timberland. But, as Jeff Hoffman reports, the big timber companies have been slow to change their ways.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since humanity's earliest days, people have relied on wood for everything from homes to weapons to warmth. It's a great resource that could keep giving forever, as long as the trees are allowed to grow back as quickly as they are logged. But today, the demand for lumber seems insatiable. Most of the ancient trees in the U.S. and Europe are already gone, and those in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are rapidly going. The sustainable forestry movement in the lumber business aims to halt this downward spiral. And as Jeff Hoffman reports from San Francisco, the retailing giant Home Depot and other corporations are joining the trend.

(Beeps; change clanks)

HOFFMAN: The pungent smell of lumber fills the air at the Home Depot store in East Palo Alto. Stacks of raw Douglas fir, mahogany doors, and other wood products fill about a quarter of the aisles. This center and a few other Home Depots have recently begun carrying wood stamped with the checkmark tree logo of the Forest Stewardship Council. The nonprofit group guarantees that such products don't come from threatened forests, and are harvested from timberland managed in an environmentally responsible, sustainable way.

APPLE: See that Columbia Forest Products hardwood plywood, the FSC label? That's how it comes wrapped to the stores. And then...

HOFFMAN: Last August, Home Depot touched off tremors in the lumber industry when it announced it would stop selling wood taken from endangered forests, such as Indonesian luann and British Columbian redwood, by 2002. Meanwhile, the company is phasing in certified products. Suzanne Apple oversees Home Depot's environmental programs.

APPLE: Our challenge is getting the volumes. I mean, you look up and down this lumber aisle, there's a lot of lumber in this aisle. So, we have an enormous demand for wood. If a supplier can supply Seattle or Portland or Reno, then we're putting them in those markets and making that product available, and promoting it in our advertising.

HOFFMAN: Getting big timber to change gears quickly won't be easy. But Home Depot's competitors are responding. In November, do-it-yourself chain Home Base announced its own commitment to sustainable forestry. So have furniture retailers Wickes and Ikea. Recently, Centex and Kaufman & Broad, two of the country's largest home builders, said they would review their wood buying practices. Collectively, these companies purchase billions of dollars worth of lumber each year. The move stemmed from a combination of altruism and self-interest. Suzanne Apple.

APPLE: We're talking about the sustainability of the environment, but we're also talking about sustainability of our business. If forest practices don't change, and we aren't sustainably harvesting wood, then how are we going to have lumber and wood doors? I mean, if you walk our store, you see there's wood in every aisle, just about. How do we make sure that we have wood for generations to come? The wood is a renewable resource, so we need to be renewing it.

HOFFMAN: For now, the company isn't charging more for certified wood. In fact, she says Home Depot will absorb the slightly higher cost.

APPLE: We want to help create the market for this product, and we don't want the consumers to have to pay a premium. And we think if we can create the market and demand, then the pricing will balance out, because we'll have the supply.


MAN: Who's the guy in charge?

MAN 2: Nobody's in charge, but --

MAN: Okay, then, who's calling the shots?

MAN 2: You can talk to me. Everybody calls their own shots; if you need to talk to me, you can talk to me.

MAN: All right. Okay. One thing you can't do is you cannot block the entrance to the front of my store.

MAN 2: All right.

MAN: Can't have that done. You cannot block the driveway here. So make sure --

MAN 2: Are you the manager?

HOFFMAN: Home Depot's action comes after several broken promises on old growth timber -- false starts that drew loud protests from environmentalists until last summer.

MAN: We've been in negotiations for six years. For six years Home Depot has promised to stop the practice of destroying ancient forests. We've had enough words...

HOFFMAN: In 1998 Greenpeace and a member of British Columbia's Nuxaulk nation demonstrated at a store in Seattle and tried to reclaim wood they said was illegally taken from tribal lands.

(Crashing sounds; voices in a crowd)

MAN: That's stolen property. Leave my property or be arrested, period. Period. You either leave the property, stop blocking entrances and the exit to my store, or be arrested.

WOMAN: We're here to take --

MAN: It doesn't matter --

WOMAN: -- stolen goods back to the people...

HOFFMAN: Now, organizations like the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network are offering cautious praise. Michael Brune directs the group's old growth campaign.

BRUNE: Certainly, Home Depot has taken a pretty aggressive stand, and we hope that they implement it. Logging companies and wood products companies are beginning to meet those standards and are changing their operations to do so. And we're truly seeing a revolution in the wood use sector. Most people don't want to buy wood or paper from destroyed old growth forests, and they certainly won't support companies which are playing an active role in rainforest destruction.

HOFFMAN: Even so, it could be years before Home Depot and other big wood buyers have enough certified lumber to meet their needs. Only a tiny fraction of the world's timberland is certified. In the United States, less than one percent of production forest, an area smaller than Rhode Island, gets audited by one of three certification agencies sanctioned by the Forest Stewardship Council. FSC started in Europe's rainforest protection movement in the early 1990s. Hank Cauley heads its U.S. arm.

CAULEY: When the FSC first hit the shores of the States, a lot of large companies looked at it, were quite fearful, and many of these large businesses, you know, the Weyerhaeusers, the Champions and so forth, you know, really took a step back. We've been able to attract here our more medium and small land-owners. You know, we've made progress with those, but we obviously have a long way to go.

HOFFMAN: The powerful American Forest and Paper Association, which represents 90 percent of U.S. wood production, has set up its own certification system. But its standards are not as rigorous as those of the Forest Stewardship Council and are not approved by any major environmental group. Nor are they accepted by Home Depot. Hank Cauley says that will push the industry mainstream toward higher standards.

CAULEY: To get a major company like Home Depot is a major watershed for the whole environmental movement. We are really getting calls on a weekly basis from much larger companies looking for advice on how to get into certification.

HOFFMAN: Seeking advice, perhaps, but still a long way from actual certification. That's partly because the audit process isn't cheap. But sustainable management also means longer harvesting cycles, erosion prevention, wildlife habitat maintenance, and other measures that could cost a large operation millions of dollars. It's far more profitable to simply clear-cut a forest. Some experts say timber producers will just have to accept those costs as the price of doing business in the new marketplace.

FORD: What we're looking at in the kitchen is a plyboo floor, which is a flooring made strictly out of bamboo, which is a sustainable product. The veneer on the cabinets is a cherry, which is a certified cherry.

HOFFMAN: David Ford heads the Certified Forest Products Council, a nonprofit that works to convince big wood consumers to buy green. He's visiting a Palo Alto demonstration house built with certified wood. The challenge, he says, is figuring out how to distribute the price increases to reflect the true costs of sustainable management.

FORD: Frankly, moving the marketplace through a voluntary mechanism like this really creates much quicker change and creates a real opportunity for the full value chain, from the forest all the way to the user of that wood, to have a play in how we're going to manage our forests in the future.

HOFFMAN: Ford says he expects the U.S. to follow the example set by Europe. At home centers in Britain, where certified products make up 20 percent of the market, one can buy two-by-fours, cabinets and tools stamped with the Forest Stewardship logo. David Ford is optimistic that American consumers, given a choice, will opt for sustainable products.

FORD: The more we connect the wood that we see here in a house like this back to the forest, people generally do have emotional reactions to forest and to wood. People will, over time, ask that most fundamental question: where is the wood coming from? Where is this wood coming from? Am I helping destroy a forest, or am I helping assure that there's good management going on in the forest?

HOFFMAN: That kind of consciousness about wood is a way off, he admits. Ultimately, the success or failure of the movement in the U.S. depends on consumer demand and economics that have yet to be proven in the market. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman.



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