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A typical house in North America uses a lot of lumber, and many homes aiming to be more sustainable are not much different in terms of the actual amount of lumber used. Given the demands on our forests, lumber can only be considered a sustainable material if it is properly harvested and processed to minimize damage to forest ecosystems and to ensure continued supplies of wood for the future.

One means by which a buyer of lumber (and other wood products, including paper) can have some assurance that sustainable forestry practices are being used is to purchase wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or FSC. The not-for-profit FSC does great work in ensuring that sustainable practices are used in all aspects of a wood product’s movement from standing tree to finished product.

This should mean it’s easy to get sustainable wood, right? Well, not necessarily. We’ve already documented our trials in sourcing FSC certified plywood for the project (The Plywood Dilemma). Things didn’t get easier when it came to ordering framing lumber…

We knew we wanted FSC certified wood, and we knew that meant more than just a FSC stamp on the 2×4. In order to be FSC certified in a way that’s meaningful for LEED or the Living Building Challenge the wood must have an FSC “chain of custody” certification, meaning that the forest, the mill, and all handlers of the wood, including retailer, must be FSC certified.

Our first delivery of “FSC certified” wood turned out to not be FSC wood at all. The distributer had an FSC chain of custody certification, which they took to mean that any wood they handled was automatically FSC. Not the case… lumber gets returned.

Our second delivery of FSC certified wood was actually harvested from an FSC certified forest, milled at an FSC certified mill and handled by an FSC certified distributor. All good, except the wood had no markings on it whatsoever that would indicate that it is FSC certified! After our first experience, we were nervous to accept that these 2x4s that had no markings that aren’t on any other 2×4 were FSC certified. But it turns out that sometimes the lumber isn’t stamped with an FSC stamp.

Between our first and second deliveries of wood, we needed some 2x4s to keep the project moving. One of our local retail lumber stores was fully stocked with FSC certified wood. Each piece on the shelf featured a prominent FSC stamp, and from the numbers on the stamp we were able to tell which mills they came from. Great… except that the retail store is not FSC certified. So is the wood good wood or not? It came from good forests, was milled at good mills, and was shipped to the retailer from a good distributor. What happens at the store itself to make the lumber less good? We still don’t know the answer. But we do know that if we’d ordered in advance from the local retailer, they could have provided us with a FSC chain of custody certification.

To make matters more confusing, some lumber products (floor joists, roof trusses) are made with FSC stamped lumber, but the manufacturer of the product is not certified, so the actual end product cannot be considered FSC certified. Certification can be expensive, and many small, local foresters, mills and manufacturers cannot afford the process, even if their practices meet or exceed FSC standards.

If it’s difficult for committed sustainable builders to work their way to an understanding of all of this, it’s no wonder that it’s not yet common practice for all builders to make sure they’re using the best wood available. Here’s to hoping that the excellent start made by FSC and the efforts of many foresters, mills and manufacturers is rewarded with consumer loyalty in a meaningful way.

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