Thursday, February 4, 2010


Recently I have been asked my opinion on the value of FSC certification for small woodworking shops.
It’s difficult for me to offer advice to other woodworkers as to whether or not they should get certified but I can share with them my own experience.
About six years ago I was contacted by an architect named Omer Arbell, who was working at the time for Busby Associates, a firm specializing in “green” or “sustainable” design. Omer was looking for FSC certified woodworking firms to supply millwork for a demo project they were doing called “The Sustainable Condo”. It was a full size mock-up of a small condo designed to be “sustainable” or “green”. Omer was lamenting the fact that at the time his choice was limited to one firm, Ornamentum.
Given the very tight time constraints there was not much I could do to help with this particular project, but I did get the impression that this was a growing field and that demand for FSC certified millwork and wood products would grow. I also thought that this might be a new segment of the industry where the focus was not only on cost and a fast turn-around time, but that there was a new emerging community of like minded businesses interested in doing the right thing, not necessarily to increase profit, but to have a positive effect . It seemed like an opportunity to become part of a new progressive community.
I did some research into the process and decided to make the investment in time and money to get my shop certified. For a small shop like mine this involved putting in place procedures to maintain the chain of custody for FSC certified materials from the point of purchase through the manufacturing process and sale to the customer. It also involved re-arranging my shop to accommodate these materials and keep them segregated from non FSC certified materials and set up a system to provide documentation for annual audits by the certifying body.
One of the first things I learned was that because of the altruistic associations with FSC, green, sustainable and environmentally appropriate things, there was an expectation on the part of design professionals in the field that you would provide your services for either a discounted price or for free. Many so called “green” design professionals clearly expected us to discount our work in exchange for the “opportunity” to work with them.
Another thing I learned was that the segment of the public who were concerned about the environment and making a “greener” choice were not the same people who could afford custom, high quality woodwork. Often they turned out to be people who would buy from us if it didn’t cost more than other suppliers within their budget, such as Ikea.
Another important issue that I did not fully appreciate was the lack of supply of FSC certified material. I did speak to some of my regular suppliers about it and many of them such as A & M Wood Specialties, PJ White Hardwoods and General Woods had at one time either been certified or had considered it but not pursued it. At the time, there was only one certified materials supplier in Vancouver and that was the Eco Lumber Co-op. They carried a variety of certified products including flooring, veneer and lumber. However, shortly after I became certified The Eco Lumber Co-op dropped all of these products with the exception of flooring. Not long after that, The Eco Lumber Co-op went out of business, apparently because their sole supplier lost their FSC certification. At that point we were left with no suppliers for FSC certified material, at least not smaller quantities locally available.
Another problem was the reliable availability of sheet goods to substitute for traditional products like mdf and particle board. At the time I was using a Canadian product called ISOboard, made from corn stalks left over from the harvest. Apparently, this company got into trouble and was bought out by Dow Chemical, the company that had been providing them with the adhesive for the strawboard.
At first this seemed to be a good thing. They improved the quality and distribution of the product. Soon it became available with a melamine coating making it suitable for kitchen cabinets. They gave the product a new name “Woodstalk”, a play on words relating to the hippy, back to the land culture of the Woodstock nation and the corn stalks from which the product was made. I thought this was somewhat cynical because I associated Dow Chemical with napalm during the Vietnam war.
Just when it seemed like Woodstalk had become the industry standard for FSC projects, Dow closed the company and we were left without a suitable alternative.
It seemed only like months after receiving my FSC certification that I got notice from “Smartwood” the company that carried out the certification process, that we were due for our first annual audit and that it would cost something like $1500 to $2000. I was shocked as I had yet to complete a single project requiring FSC chain of custody. After some negotiation it was agreed that the audit would be conducted by phone rather than in person and the price would be reduced to $600.00. The only thing to be audited was a single receipt for a few hundred square feet of FSC certified veneer.
When the next annual audit came due, having done no subsequent FSC work, I declined and gave up my certification.
Although I haven’t spoken to other small FSC certified shops in the Vancouver area (I think there are only two or three) I suspect they will have a similar story. Ornamentum, the first one to be certified is no longer in business.
Some of the materials suppliers, such as PJ White have become re-certified and I think some of the larger shops are considering FSC certification, probably with an interest in satisfying more serious interest south of the border.

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