How to Find Certified Sustainable Wood Products

What Does FSC-Certified Really Mean?

By Rachel Hulan, IIDA, CID

One of the more common certifications in the world of sustainable design is from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). As you begin researching environmentally friendly materials, it's important to understand what FSC-certified means and how it can affect the selection of wood elements for your home.

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Berkeley Mills
To best understand FSC certification, it's helpful to know the three types of certifications used in sustainable design.  "First party" certifications are those manufacturers give to themselves.  Like window dressing, first party certifications may look nice but mean absolutely nothing if you want to know what's inside.

The next level of certifications is "second party."  These occur when an industry trade group creates a certification for some aspect of its product type and then self-polices to ensure the standards are met.  While some of these are useful for determining the environmental and social ramifications of a purchase, they are only as good or as stringent as the trade group wants them to be.

The final type of certification—and by far the most useful and relevant—is "third party."  Here's where the rubber meets the road.  Third party certifiers are independent entities with specifically defined standards and independent testing or procedures.  Because the entities are not associated with the manufacturers or material sources they certify, there is little opportunity for bias or greenwashing.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one of the best examples of a third party certifier.  Founded in 1992 in response to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the FSC has since certified over 105 million hectares (almost 260 million acres) of sustainably managed forest around the world.  Becoming FSC-certified is a difficult process requiring a great deal of documentation, inspection, and effort; but the result is that once a company becomes certified, it can truly claim to be sustainable.

The FSC requires ten different principles for certification, including:

  •   Prohibited conversion of forests or any other natural habitat
  •   Respect of international workers' rights
  •   Respect of human rights with particular attention to indigenous peoples
  •   Prohibited use of hazardous chemicals
  •   Strict adherance to all applicable laws 
  •   Identification and appropriate management of areas that need special protection (e.g. cultural or sacred sites, habitat of endangered animals or plants)

The FSC doesn't mess around!  The sum total of all those stringent requirements is a certification that really means something.

While FSC wood typically costs more than other woods, costs are going down as more and more companies become certified.  Additionally, any type of wood can be FSC-certified with the caveat that it must be a species that can be grown according to the standards mentioned above.

Ask for FSC certification when purchasing furniture, cabinetry, and other interior elements made of wood.  If a company tells you its wood is sustainable but not FSC-certified, ask how the company can guarantee it.  Chances are, it can't.

Check out these options of sustainable wood furniture:

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