Commentary: The Survey Results Are In

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 01.01.2006


It's Time for 10,000 Voices to be Heard!


In the fall of 2005 Dovetail undertook its first online survey. We asked our readership to respond to three questions:


  • What are the three most important goals of certification?
  • What are the three most important accomplishments or impacts resulting from certification's existence?
  • What are the three most critical issues forest certification has yet to address?


Overall, readers were very clear on what needs to be addressed in the future, but less united on the goals of certification and what has been accomplished to date. According to our readers the three most important goals of certification are to:


  • Create a market incentive for sustainable forestry
  • Promote constant improvement in forest management
  • Provide the ability to identify sustainable wood in the marketplace


These responses were followed closely by the response: “address complex social, environmental and economic issues. The three goals “create long term economic value,” “create consensus around forest management issues” and “influence manager behaviors” tied for 5 th (out of 17). Interestingly, the only suggested goal that no reader picked as one of their top three was “convene diverse stakeholders.”


Our readers also indicated that the following were the three most important accomplishments of certification:


  • Influence forest managers behavior
  • Promote constant improvement in forest management
  • Provide the ability to identify sustainable wood in the marketplace


Our readers also indicated that certification has had significant positive impacts on “providing more information about forest management practices,” “creating long-term value,” “addressing complex social, environmental and economic issues,” and “ creating market incentives for sustainable forestry,” categories which tied for fourth.


Lastly, our readers indicated that there was still significant work to be done, and the respondents were much more united in their responses to this question than in their responses to the previous two. Readers felt strongly that the critical issues certification has yet to address are:


  • Creation of market incentives for sustainable forestry
  • Helping consumers understand where wood comes from
  • Creation of a consensus around forest management issues


The clear fourth choice was “creation of long-term economic value for retaining large areas of forestland.” All other “impacts” were distant trailers to the top four with about half as many votes for fifth place as for the fourth place choice.


It should be noted that our respondents came from a wide range of professions, including the wood product industry, construction, environmental groups, educational institutions, students, government, forestry, and certification organizations. This diversity not only demonstrates the breadth or our readership, but also the breadth of interest in certification issues.


One survey result was particularly intriguing. This involved the fact that the creation of consensus around forest management issues was clearly one of the top three priorities for our readers – yet none of the respondents thought that convening diverse stakeholders was a priority. It is unclear how consensus could be attained without bringing the various parties together to work out the issues.


The second message that seems apparent from these responses is that participation of the consuming marketplace is still missing from the equation. This shows up in both the top two priorities stated by the respondents (need for market incentives and increasing consumers understanding of the source of wood). As yet, consumers, and those in the U.S. in particular, are almost completely ignorant of the existence of forest certification, much less its benefits.


There are two critical points to this discussion about “consumers” that are worth mentioning here. First these consumers are not “the other guy”, but rather “us.” Surveys of forest product and forest industry employees have shown that their relative awareness of environmental issues related to wood, for better or for worse, are little different than the perceptions of the public at large. Certification does seem to be making inroads (informationally speaking) into the forestry profession, but that awareness does not appear to extend very far and confusion still abounds. The obvious question here is whether it is reasonable to expect that any firm is likely to enjoy a significant market for certified products given the reality that the forest products sales force is largely ignorant of what certification or chain of custody involves and what the differences between various certification systems are.


Second, there is a built in assumption that consumers have market power of some type such that a mythical tidal wave of consumer interest is what is needed to push certification to the next level. Yet when was the last time a consumer had any impact on a framing lumber characteristic, or of OSB, or trusses, or any structural wood product – the biggest uses of wood? Let's face it - nearly all new wood products generated in the past 50 (100?) years were driven by the needs of producers and changes in the raw material, not by any interests of the retail level consumer. Certainly we all hear stories about the annoying architect that ordered a special veneer from a specific species for a specific use, but that actually makes up about a tenth of a percent of actual wood volumes consumed.


Experience thus far suggests that the success of certification, and realization of long-sought premiums (whether in the form of actual dollars or increased market share), will be determined by a relatively small group of forward-looking manufacturers and wholesalers who make development of the certified market a priority, who educate their employees appropriately, and who develop targeted marketing strategies aimed at developing and growing certified product lines. In addition, those who are not directly involved in the industry, but who would like to see the certification movement succeed (for all of the reasons highlighted in the recent survey) also have an opportunity to influence the success of certification. If, for example, the 10,000 individuals receiving our monthly newsletter simply committed to asking for certified wood in some kind of product this month at least once it could be the beginning of a small tidal wave that would be the first of its kind globally. Imagine, 10,000 requests for certified wood and paper products this month! Maybe this is the first step to recognizing that “those consumers” are really we. Maybe the first step is, when asked that infamous question “paper or plastic?” the answer now is, “certified paper please!”


Dr. Jeff Howe

January 2006