Consumers wishing to build green should look carefully at what real benefits are provided by rating schemes that verify a building's "green" credentials.
Here at Farm Forestry Timbers we stand by locally produced specialty timber as having the highest green credentials of any building material. Unfortunately the Green Building Council's materials rating scheme currently fails to reflect this. We believe this scheme actually disadvantages timber and does not provide an environmental incentive to use locally produced, sustainably managed and grown specialty timbers in green building projects.
We have tried working with GBC to ensure locally grown specialty timbers are appropriately rewarded for their environmental benefits, but got nowhere. Their review of timber materials credits took place during 2012 and we were told we'd have representation in that review, but have not received any contact from them since (page last updated 2016).
Forests and timber - the domestic situation
New Zealand has comprehensive legislation which governs environmental requirements
The existing high standard of forest management
Environmental benefits of forests and timber
Forests provide many environmental benefits to society. These include improved water quality and reduced soil erosion, along with landscape, biodiversity and recreational values. Healthy forests in critical catchments reduce flood damage downstream and therefore reduce the cost to society from such events. By encouraging the use of timber and timber products, these wider environmental values are recognised.
Unlike other building materials, wood is a renewable product. This is in direct contrast to concrete and steel, where the raw materials are mined. Once mined, no new raw material is generated. In human timescales, timber is a renewable resource, while concrete and steel are not. Forests offer soil, water, recreation and biodiversity benefits that non-wood products do not. Forestry and wood processing is a significant source of sustainable local employment. Wood processing even utilises substantial amounts of wood residue for renewable bioenergy.
When timber reaches the end of its useful life, it will eventually decay and return the previously stored carbon back to the atmosphere in a process of recycling, driven by solar energy.
Our timbers have special properties including natural durability and strength, adding to their green credentials.
Deficiencies in NZ Green Building Council's current materials rating system
We ask the Green Building Council "What feature of the certification requirements do you want that is not already in NZ law, and if there is none, why do you want to load the cost of certification on to local forest growers, particularly the smaller ones and those not involved with exports?"
Materials used in the structure (timber, concrete and steel) can achieve a maximum of 1 point in the rating tool. To do this the material needs to be: NZ made (0.25 points), have recycled content (0.25), recognised eco-label (0.25), and be reused (0.25).
The renewable nature of wood is not recognised in the rating system, while recycling is recognised for non-renewable materials such as concrete and steel. For equity across these products timber should always achieve recognition for being renewable and automatically gain points on that basis.
Locally produced specialty timber produces a minimal carbon footprint. Unfortunately life-cycle analysis is not used by GBC in their rating system. Life-cycle analysis is essential to determine the relative merits of different materials when assessing environmental impact. By choosing to ignore this in their rating tools, materials with a high carbon footprint like concrete and steel are favoured.
To summarise, the GBC's current materials rating scheme does not reflect a consistent approach to environmental assessment of different and competing construction materials. There needs to be equivalence between competing construction materials for the scheme to be equitable.
The GBC restricts awarding of points to only FSC certified wood. Unfortunately, smaller growers of specialty timber in New Zealand would incur excessive compliance costs because of economies of scale. Such compliance costs for 3rd party certification are unnecessary and unrealistic for smaller local growers who undisputedly practice good stewardship of their land. This is counterproductive for environmental sustainability in New Zealand.
Wood from New Zealand forests, Both FSC certified and uncertified, are grown and processed in accordance with the RMA and other New Zealand legislation. We are not aware of which part of New Zealand’s environmental or employment law the GBC finds unsatisfactory, to the extent that it imposes FSC requirements on our forest growers, along with resulting additional costs
Local communities depend on local renewable resources, employment and local trade, all critically important components of sustainability. Unfortunately there has been an increase in imported forest products with four times more imports into New Zealand in 2007 than 1990. Much of this has come from unsustainable and illegal logging practices and deforestation of natural rainforest with resulting cheap timber supplies. Local growers cannot compete with such destructive practices. We'd like to turn this around with clear consumer awareness of the green credentials of locally produced specialty timber. Unfortunately the GBC rating tools currently provide no such "green" incentive to the consumer.
The alternative supply, from imported timber, including certified tropical hardwoods, is far more likely to be from practices destructive to the natural environment and produced under much poorer conditions than practiced by NZ farm foresters. Certification schemes must deliver real change in forest management to be considered successful. Unfortunately, many schemes are failing to do this; buyers should beware of greenwash when considering certified wood products. A recent report found that some forestry green certification schemes:
- Failed to protect forest values such as key habitats and endangered ecosystems.
- Failed to consider adequately the needs of local and indigenous communities dependent on forests.
- Failed to prevent the conversion of natural ecosystems to industrial tree plantations.
The study concludes that forest certification does not necessarily provide the reassurance that certified forests and products are being managed sustainably. Buyers of these products are at risk of purchasing products that do not meet the ecological and social standards they could reasonably expect when purchasing a ‘certified' product.
Greenpeace also recently condemned FSC for ignoring human rights violations in the Congo.
In contrast consumers can be assured that buying our specialty timbers supports a vibrant community of ethical producers.
The Fair Trading Act and GBC environmental claims
Environmental claims must comply with the Fair Trading Act. The publication 'The Fair Trading Act - Guidelines for Green Marketing' is available for download from the Commerce Commission website under Guidelines for Green Marketing. These guidelines encourage businesses and marketers to be honest, to specify which part of the product or process the green claim is made about and to use language consumers can understand. Likewise, businesses and marketers should explain the significance of the green claim and ensure that any claim can be substantiated. Consumers have a right to accurate information on which to base their purchasing decisions.
The GBC rating tools "assess the environmental impact" resulting from a buildings site selection, design, construction, and maintenance. The framework has categories which contain credits to address initiatives or products that improve or have the "potential to improve a buildings environmental performance". Each category is weighted "to reflect the different environmental impacts". The GBC claims these tools set standards of best practice through environmental rating. Consumers have the right to accurate information about such claims, yet the GBC's rating system does not appear to reflect a consistent approach to the relative environmental performance of different and competing products and does not provide a clear, consistent approach
In the absence of accurate information ahead of subjective judgement, a rating tool becomes merely a form of product or brand promotion. The determination of environmental performance should be a matter of scientific and empirical judgement and recognise without question