I have to admit that I got it wrong. Last September, I wrote here about the battle between the competing forest products certification Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Forest Stewardship Council (SFI). I thought that the fact that seven large companies decided to reject the SFI certification meant that SFI is going to lose this battle, unless it worked with environmental organizations to improve its credibility. I didn’t take into consideration one factor that can change this balance of power and help SFI swiftly recover: friendly politicians.
One of these SFI-friendly politicians is the Governor of Maine, Paul LePage. Earlier this month, he signed an executive order expanding the list of forest product certifications that can be used in state building construction besides FSC, such as SFI and the American Tree Farm System. The implication of this order is that construction projects of state buildings in Maine can no longer use the LEED green building rating system, as LEED gives preference only to FSC-certified wood. It also means SFI is back in the game.
Why would Governor LePage do such a thing? The governor explained in a statement that “by requiring state building projects to use ‘green’ materials under more certification programs, we are increasing the amount of Maine-produced wood available for public construction projects.” According to the Bangor Daily News, the LePage administration also said that the move would allow the state’s forest products industry to be more competitive by getting “green” certification from other programs.
Here’s another version to this story: Maine has been a leading producer of lumber products with a timber industry that supports 55,000 jobs and generates more than $3 billion in earnings annually. At the same time, most of this industry is not FSC-certified. Now, due to an executive order signed in 2003, all new state buildings in Maine have to comply with the LEED standard, which means many timber companies can’t take part in these projects.
The timber companies didn’t like it and so they pressured the governor to change the law and provide equal opportunities to all forest products certifications. It probably wasn’t too difficult to convince Governor LePage, who believes that Maine doesn’t have “a fair balance between our economic interests and the need to protect the environment,” which hurts “job creation and investment opportunities” in the state, and a new executive order has been signed.
Governor LePage tried to make the case that his decision is not only economically justified, but also environmentally: “We are also protecting our valuable natural resources and traditional outdoor heritage,” he said in the press release announcing the new executive order. I guess this was a bit too much to swallow for some environmental organizations.
“Gov. LePage’s executive order is deceptive and potentially undermines the health and long term sustainability of Maine’s forests,” Karen Woodsum, Program Director of the Maine Woods Campaign of the Sierra Club said in response. NRDC’s forestry specialist Sami Yassa was also very critical, “By moving the state’s emerging green-building economy backwards, LePage is attacking one of the bright spots in the economy right now. His support of unsustainable forestry defies the interests of his citizens and common sense.”
Both Woodsum and Yassa also tried to show how LePage’s order is bad for Maine’s economy. Woodsum made the point that “nearly as much of Maine’s forests are certified to FSC’s high standards as to timber industry-backed programs like SFI,” and therefore “FSC today is a major driver for Maine’s economy.” Yassa mentioned that “there are currently over 60 organizations in Maine that are members of the US Green Building Council. These organizations represent the diverse segments of the economy that are part of Maine’s green building industry.”
These arguments have the same problem some arguments in favor of sustainability have – they’re based on long-term benefits that are more difficult to identify in the short term. While the thriving green building industry in Maine will surely be hurt by the new order, it’s not obvious that the economy of Maine will also be hurt. It might even gain in the short term with more local timber activity. Yet, it will surely suffer in the long-term when its forests are depleted due to harmful logging practices and Maine loses its most precious natural resource.
Maine could possibly be a lost battle for now, although if Mainers show their disapproval of the new executive order it might not be the end of this story. In any event, proponents of the FSC certification should look out, as it’s possible a similar change could take place in more states. Last year Governor LePage, along with nine other governors, petitioned congress to require that the USGBC include other forest certification programs in their LEED rating system, so another governor could reveal himself as an SFI-friendly politician and sign a similar executive order.
In all, the battle between FSC and SFI is far from over. One lesson we can learn from the case in Maine, is that FSC proponents need to sharpen their economic arguments, as the environmental arguments might not be enough to win in states where, like in Maine, short-term thinking is still dominant.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.