Certification of Building Materials: Important or Not?

Lead Author: Dr. Jim Bowyer

Publish date: 02.16.2009


A constant theme in green building programs of North America is certification of wood. There appears to be a near consensus that “green” credits should only be awarded when it can be demonstrated that any wood used in a structure has been responsibly produced.


The meaning of the term “responsibly produced” varies, but in the forest certification program most often specified in North American green building programs – the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification program – critical elements of responsible production are identified as basic principles and are reflected in program requirements. Among these principles are compliance with laws; operation under a management plan that ensures appropriate protection of flora, fauna, water quality, soil productivity, historic areas, old trees, and more; maintenance of high conservation value forests; attention to indigenous people’s rights and to tenure and use rights and responsibilities; attention to rights of workers and to the well-being of local communities; attention to who receives benefits from the forest, with the objective of ensuring that benefits are not siphoned off by large corporations or others to the detriment of local peoples and communities.


It is time for those involved in the green building movement to seriously consider whether the elements of responsible production are important or not. For example, is it really important that materials used in building construction in North America be sourced such that indigenous people’s rights are protected? Such that workers are fairly paid and that child or slave labor are not used in procuring or processing raw materials? Such that local peoples and communities are not unfairly treated as local resources are extracted for use elsewhere? Such that forests, wildlife, waters, and other aspects of the environment are managed and protected with long-term sustainability in mind? If so, then it is time to ask why such assurances of responsible production, and everything that responsible production has come to mean, are not expected for building materials in general.


If steel used to frame a house is sourced from a mining operation that has obliterated millions of acres of tropical forests, including old-growth forests, over the past decade in accessing the iron ore, is it OK to use that steel in a “green” building? What if that ore was reduced in a blast furnace fueled by charcoal that came from the clearcutting of vast areas of tropical trees and by an industry characterized by the pervasive use of slave labor? Suppose that the cement used in an ICF wall originated in a mining operation known for excessive consumption of energy and ground water, and air and water pollution well beyond international norms. Can that cement be viewed as a green material? What if the aggregate used in making the concrete in that wall came from a river in which extraction of gravel is devastating salmon populations and increasing the incidence of flooding of river communities? Can that be considered a “green” material?


The answer to all of the questions posed above is that today it is a virtual certainty that high environmental impact, high social cost products are routinely finding their way into buildings certified as “green.”


There are no requirements or incentives of any kind that a purveyor of steel, aluminum, concrete, plastic, glass, bamboo, or any material other than wood demonstrate environmental and social responsibility in management or resource extraction, despite the fact that substantial environmental and social impacts are associated with production of all of these materials.


Change is long overdue. The responsibility for initiating that change lies squarely with the leaders of green building programs, executives of the largest building materials distributors, environmental organizations, and environmentally concerned citizens.