Commentary: Opportunities USGBC & LEED Offer Wood Industry

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 03.31.2005


What Green Building has to do with Ants at a Picnic and a Billion Chinese


The green building movement in general and the LEED program of the USGBC in particular, present a tremendous opportunity for the forest products sector. For the first time the potential exists that materials will be evaluated based on their true environmental impacts and benefits. Compared in this light, renewable materials in general and wood products specifically should clearly do quite well. Yet these evaluation systems are still immature, and there has been some legitimate criticism of the green building movement and the specific standards employed by the USGBC's LEED program. Particularly, many within the forest sector have expressed the opinion that LEED inadequately recognizes wood as a green building material, inappropriately discriminates between the various forest certification systems, and holds wood to a higher standard than other materials. We must recognize these concerns as areas for improvement rather than terminal problems.


At this writing, industry appears to be resisting and even in some cases obstructing the opportunity that LEED represents. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) commented that “the anti-harvesting, preservationist sentiment of the past two decades has manifested itself at the U.S. Green Building Council. [1] ” There is truth to the statement that the green building movement arises from a history of concern over environmental practices and the impacts of material extraction of all kinds. But the green building movement also arises to provide a positive solution to the unmet need of the market for environmentally friendly materials, a market that is growing at a significantly greater rate than the market for products in general. Additionally, the public, represented by the USGBC membership, continues to have unresolved concerns about wood products, continues to perceive forest management and logging as bad, and in the absence of adequate solutions from the forest sector, has created their own answer.


It is valuable to note that most other sectors of the building industry are being asked to respond to the LEED program as well, and innovation is being stimulated as a result. Paint, coatings and adhesives companies are making products without volatile organic chemicals (VOCs); fiberglass insulation is being produced without Formaldehyde; there are water-free urinals; and manufacturers of a wide variety of products are increasing recycled content. These are just a few of the many changes that are occurring to create better work and living environments for people and, in large part, these changes are in response to the green building movement.


Much has been written in recent years about the need for a customer focus in the building materials industry. This need is illustrated in the NAWLA [2] Sales Training Course through a story about a diner who orders apple pie for dessert. “Sorry,” the waiter replies, “everybody orders that, but we don't sell it.” This response could only have been worse had the waiter attempted to belittle the customer for requesting apple pie. Yet this appears to be the reaction of many working in the building products distribution industry today.


A growing segment of the construction market is interested in products that meet LEED standards. Given this expanding market, it is imperative that the forest products industry finds a way to take advantage of the opportunity provided by LEED. The LEED standards address critical needs including energy conservation, water usage and runoff, and indoor air quality. It must be remembered that communities and government organizations aren't adopting LEED because it distinguishes between FSC and SFI certified wood. They are adopting LEED because, as imperfect as it is, it is a straightforward process for addressing a complex series of issues and potential liabilities.


To a certain extent, wood products companies complaining about LEED requirements for commercial buildings are like ants complaining about the sandwiches at a picnic. In my view, what the forest products company needs to do now is to figure out how to work with and within LEED, rather than against it. Efforts should be directed toward refocusing the discussion on comparison of environmental attributes of wood and other materials, and on the public's misperceptions of the benefits of material substitution, rather than on the variation between competing wood certification systems. This does not mean that the debate about broader inclusion of forest certification systems is a bad one. On the contrary, it is a great one. The important point is that it is an opportunity for industry to listen to the details of what may or may not be missing in alternative systems and to develop a real understanding of customers.


Finally, it is important that industry avoid activities aimed at suggesting that the “green” movement is foolish, as in trying to discredit LEED. When a customer requests building materials with LEED qualifying attributes it indicates that he or she has environmental concerns and is interested in issues as defined by LEED. Attempts to discredit LEED in effect belittle the customer's concerns, and make closing a sale doubly difficult. A far wiser strategy would be to do whatever possible to provide what the customer wants. In this regard, when the opportunity arises to sit at the table and listen to the concerns and interests of customers that are participants in the green movement, it is important to remember that there are about a billion Chinese waiting at the door.



[2] North American Wholesale Lumber Association


Dr. Jeff Howe