Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash

understanding labels label wars photo sfi

Part of a series looking at green labels: what they mean and how they work. See also Understanding Labels Part 1: Are They Green or Greenwash? Yes.
1. SFI vs FSC

Who can forget the smug guy standing on the lawn in front of his monster home in his pyjamas, the new environmentalist who chooses newspapers printed on SFI paper, looks for a home constructed with wood from SFI certified forests, and even demands that his bathrobe be shipped in packaging made with paper from SFI forests.

So why was the Sustainable Forestry Initiative spending so much money in the New Yorker and other magazines and papers?

understanding labels label wars photo fsc
It's all part of a label war that has been going on for fifteen years, between the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the SFI, two competing certifications for lumber.

FSC started "In the wake of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 1992
(Rio Summit), concerned business representatives, social groups and environmental organizations got together and established the Forest Stewardship Council. Its purpose is to improve forest management worldwide."

There are ten guiding principles, which include "Reduction of environmental impact of logging activities and maintenance of the ecological functions and integrity of the forest." They also have principles that include "Recognition and respect of indigenous peoples' rights" and "Maintenance or enhancement of long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities and respect of worker's rights."

The growth of FSC in the early nineties put pressure on the industry, so the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA;) founded SFI. Bishop Grewell writes in Keeping Forests Green:

"The SFI originated with the realization that the forest industry lacked credibility with the American public," explains Jimmy Bullock, who promotes and coordinates SFI certification for International Paper's southeast U.S. forest lands. "And we realized that unless we regain the public's trust, that ability to gain access to fiber and a fair regulatory playing field could become a problem."

Big lumber also had no time for the FSC preoccupations with indigenous peoples, social impacts and workers rights; this is America and there are laws for that. Grewell writes:

The forest industry considers the FSC standard impractical, its social objectives unreasonable, and its environmental agenda unscientific. The industry objects to the FSC's bias against plantation forestry.

In 2000 tthe AFPA spun off SFI so that it could stand on its own as a third party certifier. Ten years later it is still dominated by the lumber industry, and many claim that its certification of lumber is not as rigorous as FSC. Certainly when it comes to the social issues, there is no comparison.

Although it is a non-profit, SFI spends a large portion of its income on advertising, including its recent campaign to get the USGBC to consider its lumber accepted for LEED points for sustainably harvested wood.

understanding labels label wars photo leed ad

After they lost the battle for LEED, Kathy Abusow of SFI said:

For now," Abusow said, "the building community should forgo the one point in the certified wood credit and use SFI-certified products in LEED buildings to demonstrate their pride and support for North American forests, communities, and jobs

So the next step for the American lumber industry, instead of getting FSC certification for their forests, is to wrap itself in the flag and portray the FSC as a foreign socialist world government wobbly plot, and in the current political environment, it will probably succeed.

TreeHugger has covered FSC vs SFI forever, so I will not go into the detailed argument about which is better or worse. The lesson here is that the SFI standard was developed for a reason: a response to FSC, which was a direct challenge to the way Big Lumber operated in the USA. So they created their own competing standard, spun it off so they could call it third party, and continue to promote it over FSC. If the lumber industry wanted to get their wood accepted for LEED, they could go for FSC certification of their forests. Instead, they will market themselves to the public and government as a good-enough Made in America standard without the socialist claptrap.

More on FSC vs SFI
Rick Fedrizzi of USGBC on the Sustainable Wood Rating Debate
Rumble in the Lumberyard: FSC vs SFI
A Picture Is Worth: FSC vs SFI Forests
The War over Eco-Certified Wood
The TH Interview: Ned Daly of the Forest Stewardship Council in the US
2. LEED vs Green Globes

understanding labels label wars photo

We talk on TreeHugger a lot about LEED, the building rating system developed by the US green Building Council. Everyone loves to complain about LEED; how tough and bureaucratic it is, how difficult and expensive it is to get a building certified, how much is wrong with it.

There are others who complain about LEED as well, notably the lumber industry because it only accepts FSC lumber, and the plastics industry, which is worried about the future of PVC in green building. So back in 2005 they had an idea: start up another building rating system, the sort of LEED lite that would be faster, cheaper and wouldn't be so tough on those materials.

understanding labels label wars photo greenglobes

It's called Green Globes, from the Green Building Initiative. If you google "LEED vs Green Globes" you will get a dozen references to "Coke vs Pepsi," that they are two similar systems that do much the same thing. They are not.

The GBI was put together by Ward Hubbell, a former Lousiana Pacific lumber executive running flack shop Hubbell communications. He specializes in "Grassroots and Grasstops mobilization." (I had to look up grasstops; definition: "If the grassroots form the base of the political pyramid, the grasstops form the apex, the small group that consists of the elite and powerful members of the body politic.") He describes how he built the Green Building Initiative in a case study on his website:


Overview: The rapid expansion of the green building movement brought about the need for a credible, national voice on green building, along with affordable and practical options for assessing green design and construction.

Solution: Hubbell Communications formed the Green Building Initiative, a charitable non-profit dedicated to promoting practical and affordable methods of assessing and certifying green building in the commercial and residential sectors.

Result: The Green Building Initiative has become a leading national voice in the area of sustainable design and construction. The GBI has been featured in national publications such as The New York Times and Washington Post and other national media. GBI representatives are quoted widely and are regularly called upon to testify before the US Congress and state legislatures. The GBI's rating tool, Green Globes, is a nationally recognized standard and has been used by numerous federal and state agencies, corporations, universities and non-profits.

Hubbell wears two hats; besides the flack shop, he runs the Green Building Initiative out of the same office. In his president's message, he notes that eleven states now are "rating system neutral", accepting Green Globes to be an equal option besides LEED. He writes:

There is abundant evidence to support the fact that Green Globes and LEED cover the same ground and provide roughly equivalent ratings. For example, a recent study by the University of Minnesota concluded that the two systems "are quite similar" and that "both include a common set of potentially impactful design elements that contribute to the improvement of a building's green performance." Of the six buildings we know of that have been dual certified, all but two received similar ratings using LEED or Green Globes.

You can download the Minnesota study here. it acknowledges that there are some "moderate dissimilarity" in point allocation in the two systems, citing that "Green Globes emphasizes Energy Use above all other categories. In contrast, LEED allocates comparatively more points to the Materials section."

But that is exactly the point; LEED only gives points for FSC lumber; Green Globes allows SFI, American tree farm, CSA as well.

understanding labels label wars photo supporters

When one looks at the board of directors of GBI, it is stacked with members from Dow Chemical, The Vinyl institute, the Resilient floor institute (Vinyl) the Lumber industry , the gas associations. When you look at their members and supporters, it includes the American Chemistry Council, SFI, The American Forest & Paper Association and the Chemical Fabrics and Film Association.

So what we have here is a Third Party Standard that is officially approved by ANSI, "highly regarded consensus-based guidelines, which are among the world's most respected for the development of consensus standards and ensure a balanced, transparent and inclusive process."

Yet is is founded and run out of the office of a public relations company, supported by the chemical and lumber industry, and exists for the sole purpose of being an alternative to LEED that does not now nor will it ever restrict SFI or ATF lumber or vinyl. Another reason why one has to look behind the labels, or you will get pure Third Party ANSI Approved Greenwash.

Previously in this series:
Understanding Labels Part 1: Are They Green or Greenwash? Yes.

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Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash
Who can forget the smug guy standing on the lawn in front of his monster home in his

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