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Does LEED Kill Jobs? Lobbyist Claims Don't Hold Up

FSC and LEED, with its certified wood credit, are hurting the economy, claim the governor of Maine, a U.S. Senator, and SFI. We take a look at the evidence.
Paula Melton
August 21, 2012

 This is Part 1 in our "Wood Wars" series.

Part 2: FSC and Beyond--LEED 2012 Buries the "Wood Wars" Hatchet

Both of these decisions stemmed from a common root: the "wood wars" between advocates of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). An FSC victory of sorts was declared in 2010, MRc7 in LEED for New Construction 2009) to the exclusion of other certification systems, but that turns out to have been just one more battle in an ongoing conflict. As you may know, the U.S. Congress tried to restrict the military's use of LEED in its recent budget law (it's probably not going to work, as we reported a couple weeks ago). Around the same time, the governor of Maine made it illegal for State buildings to pursue LEED certification at any level.

Senator Roger Wicker and Maine Governor Paul LePage both attempted to make an economic argument for their choices. By promoting FSC lumber, the claim goes, the LEED rating systems harm producers of homegrown forestry products--hurting the economy and killing jobs.

Global vs. domestic certification

Exhibit A in the economic case against LEED's preferential treatment of FSC is the fact that most forestlands certified by FSC are outside the U.S. "100% of SFI-certified forests are in North America," said Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. "90% of FSC forests are outside the U.S. You don't have to be a statistician to know that not recognizing SFI is a problem for domestic forests, communities, products, and jobs."

You also don't have to be a logician to see that Abusow's conclusion does not follow from these facts. While it's true that FSC certifies forests around the globe--and also that SFI currently certifies almost 30% more forestland in North America--what we really need to know is whether architects are specifying imported lumber instead of domestic lumber because of LEED's FSC-only policy.

Corey Brinkema, president of FSC–US, argues that it's not cost-effective to import dimensional lumber--which means that people who are specifying FSC lumber are unlikely to add to the cost premium by getting it from overseas. Furthermore, he said, "There is plenty of FSC-certified supply in the U.S. to be able to provide the necessary wood for all the green buildings in the U.S. and many other industries that are desiring responsible wood."

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When I pressed her about whether foreign dimensional lumber is really in competition with domestic dimensional lumber, Abusow simply stuck to her guns: "90% of FSC certifications are abroad, and I don't need to go into depth to know that that's an issue. And so I don't."

Getting credit for local wood

Apparently the Maine executive branch feels the same way--not least of all because SFI has been lobbying in the state, as Abusow confirmed during our call. She claims that LePage's executive order means "wood products from Maine can definitely be used in Maine green buildings."

Bill Beardsley, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, echoed these sentiments in a press release about the "expanded use of green building materials," explaining that the move "means that the local community college will be able to build using the certified-wood products from the local sawmill."

Let's also keep in mind that LEED doesn't require you to use any wood at all. Certified wood, local wood, rapidly renewable materials: these are all things you can get credits for if you choose to. They are not prerequisites that you must achieve in order to seek LEED certification. Buildings made of concrete, steel, and other materials achieve LEED certification without so much as an FSC-certified toothpick in them every day.Anyone familiar with LEED, however, knows that there are credits for both locally sourced and rapidly renewable materials. You can get credit for wood products from the local sawmill regardless of whether it's certified wood or not.

If anything, it could be argued that LEED has stimulated the wood market by incentivizing those buildings to include some wood veneer here or wood flooring there to make them eligible for any or all of these three credits.

Outlawing LEED might hurt Maine paper mills

"We have some 4.7 million acres of certified lands in Maine," said Brinkema at FSC–US. "The state truly has a competitive advantage in providing responsibly sourced forest products to the LEED marketplace. With that executive order, they are more or less giving up that competitive advantage."

It's not just the lumber market that could be hurt, according to John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. "To me it's misguided," said Gunn. "In Maine still, the engines of the forest economy here are the coated paper mills--the mills that make the magazine and catalogue paper. Especially in the downturn here, the FSC component of their market share has been critical."

Given the fact that pulp wood and lumber often come from the same tree trunk, Gunn is concerned about the implications of the order: "If the government reduces demand for the FSC lumber side, that could reduce availability for the paper side," he said. "For example, if some landowners were to drop their FSC certificates because of that, it could reduce the amount of available FSC pulpwood, which endangers pulp mills. It is a narrow view of the implications for the forest products sector."

Does a life-cycle approach make a difference?

After we'd first reported on the military appropriations bill, it came to our attention through Chris Cheatham's Green Building Law Update that one of the people instrumental in getting LEED restrictions added to the bill was Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi--and that LEED's preferential treatment of FSC was apparently behind his reasoning.

"Standards should take into consideration the full life cycle of wood products, including the environmental benefits provided by our domestic reforestation programs," said Wicker in a statement. "After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products."

I'm still trying to puzzle out just what Wicker is trying to say here, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the new transparency credits that are being hashed out in the LEED 2012 draft. (Watch EBN for coverage of the third public comment draft soon!)


As we discussed in our recent feature article on product transparency, life-cycle assessment does not do a very good job of capturing the local impacts of harvesting raw materials, like wood and minerals, which is one of the reasons we favor a combination of life-cycle assessment and third-party certifications like FSC and SFI. We'll be keeping a sharp eye on any attempts by third-party certifiers to use life-cycle assessment as an excuse to settle for lower standards. (FSC fiercely opposes the transparency credits in the 2012 draft precisely because it fears life-cycle assessment could make SFI's standards for forestry practices look just as good as FSC's.)

What's your verdict?

I've probably made it pretty clear where I stand on the LEED-as-job-killer line. I don't think the arguments hold up under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny. I began my research in good faith and gave SFI a chance to make a credible argument that might justify its lobbying efforts.

I'm afraid SFI's president telling me "I don't need to go into depth" just doesn't cut the mustard.

But I could have missed vital evidence. Might LEED really be a job killer? Could FSC be an accessory to this chilling crime? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.


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September 24, 2012 - 9:46 am

USGBC and FSC need to keep getting the factuall comparisons out there to the public, otherwise, I am afrid that the industry lobbying money is going to eventually steamrolll LEED and FSC.

Thanks to Bill Swanson and JAson Grant for the succinct comparisons of the two programs.

August 22, 2012 - 10:52 pm

The SFI certainly seems to have a boat load of money to convince politicians how bad LEED is. Getting states to change regulations is not a low cost undertaking. If you try hard enough you might get lucky and bend the right ear, just the right way.

It certainly doesn't help that several government agencies are opting out of LEED. That adds fuel to the fire the SFI is setting.

August 22, 2012 - 9:19 am

This is going to keep occuring. There are probably a dozen more States right now that SFI is activly lobbying to end LEED. We can already hear the arguements being made over and over again. If jobs is the motivator behind this legislation then FSC is going to need to get ahead of it.
- Create a list of forest acres and jobs by FSC certification on a State by State basis.
- How much State tax is collected from FSC vs SFI land.
- Show where the FSC wood originated from for the last 10 State owned LEED projects. Prove it's domestic wood. Bonus if it's from the same State. Can SFI ever prove this level of source accuracy?
- FSC needs to step up their branding efforts. I still couldn't explain the differences to someone else if my life depended on it. Paula gave me a couple links a few months ago in one of the articles and it didn't help my understanding at all. If the branding just boils down to who you trust then you've lost the political war because money buys favor.
- Well intentioned politicians do try to be fair. If all they see is one standard getting prefered treatment with no justification or seen benefit they will absolutely push for equality between the various standards. Sell why FSC is better for the State in terms that matter to politicians. Is it a choice between jobs today at any cost, or jobs today and jobs tomorrow for our children?
- Tell the politicians that if SFI is misleading about FSC not being American wood, then what else are they misleading about? Fool me once...

p.s. - I've noticed many people seem to have an opinion that "fair news" is just a stenograph repeating what they are told. Challenging what I say or going more indepth means you are now biased. If I say the sky is pink then you better report that there is still an on going debate about what the color of the sky is. Picking sides is unfair and below a true news organization.

August 24, 2012 - 11:17 am

Sadly, this is all part of a much larger and very well-funded lobbying effort that now includes the chemical industry. Fighting that is going to be really difficult for any organization, which means a lot of this is going to be up to consumers.

August 23, 2012 - 7:30 pm

This is all too true. I'm not sure if you saw, but a few years back ForestEthics did a report that contains a sort of diagram of the lines of funding and influence between the major timber companies and SFI:


August 23, 2012 - 6:51 pm

"FSC lacks the resources to do a state-by-state lobbying effort. FSC US has a full-time staff of 6."

This tells you that the SFI has more funding for lobbying adventures. That money is all, or nearly all, provided by the industry members supporting SFI. If you could follow the money-chain to the supporters/donors you are likely to find companies that do not comply with FSC. They either tried and decided that the effort to comply was too expensive, or they never tried at all.

August 23, 2012 - 5:21 pm


I would amend your list as follows:

- Open membership and democratically elected governing board with 3 equal chambers (environmental, social, economic). BoD majorities required in all three to make changes. Major decisions are put to the membership, where each chamber has equal voting power.
- More rigorous standard and audit process. Typical forest management audit is done over 29 days by 5 people (1160 hours) with an average 51 page public summary.
- Audits focus on on-the-ground performance
- Requires 3rd party certification.
- Harvest never exceeds growth.
- Clearcutting not allowed in some forest types and limited in others. In natural forests in the U.S., max. clearcuts 2-20 acres based on region. Max. clearcut size 80 acres for plantations
- Prohibits changing forests into tree plantations.
- Protects old growth
- FSC labeled product lines require inputs from FSC-certified forests into the production process (relative quantities depend on whether it is FSC 100% or MSC Mix)
- No GMO’s are allowed to be planted.
- Goes above and beyond laws and state-level "best management practices" to protect habitat, species, and use of chemicals.

- No membership and self-appointed governing board with 3 chambers. BoD majorities required in only two to make changes.
- Typical audit is 6 days by 2 people (96 hours) with an average 5 page public summary of mostly boiler plate information.
- Audits focus more on systems/process than on-the-ground performance.
- Allows self-certification with an option for third-party certification.
- Harvest can exceed growth over a rotation or longer and offers no protection against cumulative depleting activities. Harvest level is calculated by ownership rather than at the planning level, thereby allowing over-harvest on portions of large ownerships with 'compensatory' growth far away.
- Clear cutting common no size limit on individual clearcuts. Clearcuts must not exceed a 120 acre average across an entire ownership which may span multiple states. This can be manipulated by combining larger clearcuts with much smaller ones in the same harvest period.
- Allows converting native forests into tree plantations.
- Requires "plans" to protect old growth, but this can be satisfied by, for example, supporting the protection of old growth in nearby parks. No specific requirements for protecting old growth on the ownerships of SFI-certified companies.
- Products with the SFI fiber sourcing label can contain zero inputs from SFI-certified forests into the production process of the labeled product(s)
- GMO’s are allowed to be planted.
- Does little beyond the legal minimum to comply with protecting habitat, species, and use of chemicals.

Paula, your points are good ones, but FSC lacks the resources to do a state-by-state lobbying effort. FSC US has a full-time staff of 6.

August 23, 2012 - 4:33 pm

Or try asking questions. How is it an environmental label if it's only doing the legal minimum to protect habitat, wildlife, and use of chemicals?

August 23, 2012 - 4:23 pm

Jason, that is indeed a good list regarding environmental impacts and governance, but it says nothing about local economies. I like Bill's idea of FSC fighting back with statistics. They don't win over the public, generally speaking, but they can be good for educating legislators. I don't think it will stop SFI's attempts, but it might convince enough of the right people. Additionally, I think FSC could do a lot of education about local environmental impacts, telling some stories to legislators in targeted states about how FSC protects specific habitats and species that tourism dollars rely on. But deciding to spend those dollars on lobbying instead of on directly protecting forests is something they must struggle with.

August 23, 2012 - 2:10 pm

Thanks for the links. My once over of the documents gave me this understanding of the differences.

- Democratically elected governing board with 3 equal chambers. Majorities required in all three to make changes.
- Typical audit is 10 times more rigorous than SFI, done over 29 days by 5 people (1160 hours) with an average 51 page public summary.
- Audits affect work.
- Requires 3rd party certification.
- Harvest never exceeds growth.
- Clear cutting rare with limits of 2-20 acres based on forest type.
- Prohibits changing forests into tree plantations.
- Protects old growth
- Products with FSC certified source must be completely certified.
- No GMO’s are allowed to be planted.
- Goes above and beyond laws to protect habitat, species, and use of chemicals.

- Self-appointed governing board with 3 chambers. Majorities required in only two to make changes.
- Typical audit is 6 days by 2 people (96 hours) with an average 5 page public summary of mostly boiler plate information.
- Audits rarely affect work.
- Self certification.
- Harvest commonly exceeds growth by playing number games by counting State and Federal Park land nearby in the growth column.
- Clear cutting common with a limit of 120 acre “average”.
- Allows converting native forests into tree plantations.
- Promises to protect old growth.
- Products with SFI certified source can allow material to be 100% non-certified. Source based on company, not wood.
- GMO’s are allowed to be planted.
- Does the legal minimum to comply with protecting habitat, species, and use of chemicals.

August 22, 2012 - 12:16 pm


Your list of things that FSC should do to push back on SFI's propaganda is a good one. Facts such as those you call for won't stop SFI and its allies from pressuring states and federal agencies to turn away from LEED and to favor instead Green Globes and NAHBGreen (the SFIs of green building), but they will equip LEED and FSC's supporters and allies with a better set of arguments in what should be a vigorous countervailing effort to defend and promote high standards, whether for green building in general or forest management in particular.

Regarding comparisons of FSC and SFI, here are a links to a couple of recent pieces that I think do a pretty good job of laying out the key differences: