There was a time when consumers and lumber retailers gave little thought to where the wood they built homes with, or the furniture they purchased, came from. Did it come from a clear cut old growth forest? Was wildlife habitat destroyed? Were the cultural rights of indigenous people respected during harvesting operations?
That has all changed with a growing international consumer trend to demand that forestry companies follow socially and environmentally responsible guidelines.
Forest products companies are now vying for the coveted logo of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international body that sets stringent ecological certification standards in spelling out the practice by which trees must be harvested.
Forest products are a $60-billion a year industry in Canada with more than half the fibre harvested being exported.
But the world's perception is that Canada overlogs, forcing forestry companies to bow to the environmentalist, consumer and retail pressure to change their ways.
While only one per cent of the available wood supply is eligible to be certified, this trend may eventually shut out some companies out of the international marketplace.
The certification message really hit home when Home Depot, North America's largest lumber retailer, announced by the late 2002 it will only sell wood that meets FSC standards.
Other lumber and furniture manufacturers like Ikea and Lowe's have made similar pronouncements and some of Britain's largest retail lumber chains have followed suit.
"It's about demonstrating their social and environmental responsibilities to shareholders," says Jim McCarthy, executive director of FSC Canada, "and certainly some of that comes from pressure out there about whether people are illegally harvesting wood from rain forests and tropical and rare wood products.
"Companies at the end of the supply chain in many cases are relatively unaware of what might be happening that allowed them access to that wood supply."
Consumers who buy a product stamped with an FSC logo are assured that wood comes from a sustainably managed forest that has been monitored by independent auditors, McCarthy explains.
These standards are among the most recognized and toughest in the world, based on a company's performance and forest management plan from a social, environmental and economic perspective. Particular emphasis is placed on Aboriginal people's cultural, spiritual and economic rights.
Instead of following past practices of highgrading - taking only the best trees - priority is placed on maintaining a forest stand's proportion of high quality wood, such as white pine and maple, and lessening the impact of mechanization on the ground.
Though FSC standards vary from region to region, in the boréal forest region, which covers most of Northern Ontario, companies like Tembec are experimenting with different harvesting techniques. Tembec has implemented techniques such as using very wide 72-inch tires on their skidders, harvesting in the wintertime and finding ways to mulch topped trees and branches back into the wood as fertilizer so as not to impede new growth.
"It's basically about taking an ecosystem approach to forestry," says forester Chris McDonell, Tembec's director of environment in Callander. That includes marking trees that wildlife is dependent upon such as standing dead trees for woodpecker habitat, being careful around young growth and cutting around stands next to water courses.
In central Ontario, contractors on FSC private lots take out single and diseased trees, leaving behind green trees to harvest in 50 years time.
"It's about managing the forest to allow it to retain its natural ecosystem and diversity," says McCarthy, "as opposed to being plantations managed for timber product that gradually changes the nature of that forest."
Though logging companies in the British Columbia interior are slow to come into the certification fold, Tembec in Ontario is the first Canadian company to have FSC-certified products. Its strip hardwood maple and beech flooring and hardwood lumber is harvested from about 30 FSC-approved private woodlots in the Huntsville area.
In the next two years, Tembec aims to be FSC certified in all of its licensed areas throughout Ontario. Forest products giants Domtar and Columbia Forest Products are also on board in working with FSC in writing standards papers or retaining auditors to receive opinions on how their practices can meet the standard.
McDonell, who also sits as chair on FSC's board of directors, has witnessed first-hand this market trend during trips to Britain with corporations like Nike and The Body Shop, that indirectly sell wood products on packaging. These companies are pressured to research where their paper products came from and how they were harvested, says McDonell.
"Even those companies are being challenged by social change groups, customers and interest groups to take leadership positions and develop procurement and environmental policies."
McDonell says FSC is likely the first standards organization he has encountered that has enjoyed success in bringing both loggers and interest groups like the Rainforest Action Network around the same table to achieve some consensus.
"This movement is one of the dynamics in the retail market and certain companies are taking stock of what they produce," McDonnell says. "Pressure tactics aside, becoming FSC certified is going to improve forestry practices with the end goal of bringing it in line with social considerations and environmental interests. "It will result in better forests and greater economic viability."