The Green Building Battles As Eco-friendly Building Takes Off, the Fight Is on to Define What It Means to be Green

As many as one in every five new homes and a quarter of municipal buildings and office towers are expected to qualify as “green” buildings two years from now. But what does that really mean?

There is no single standard. Instead, a broad array of organizations has emerged to certify the “sustainability” of everything from component parts (such as windows and rain gutters) to entire houses and offices. Right now, there is intense competition between these “green building” logo programs to determine which will gain market preeminence.

The stakes are high not just for the country’s environmental future, but for the construction industry, also. Green building, which represented just 2% of the construction market in 2005, will comprise as much as 20% of the residential construction starts and 25% of commercial starts by 2013, according to McGraw-Hill Construction’s Green Outlook 2009 market intelligence report. By then, green building will be worth between $93 billion and $140 billion a year, estimates McGraw-Hill.

With so much money riding on green building, one of the most heated fights is taking place in the logging industry, where a long-running rivalry between the country’s two most successful forest certification bodies erupted in 2009. Wood is used in 90% of the homes built in the U.S. It takes the equivalent of one acre of clearcut forest to build a single 1,700-square-foot wood-framed home. Much of it comes from U.S. and Canadian forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), founded in 1993, is the oldest and most widely respected of a half-dozen or so sustainable forest certifiers in the country. But FSC has not had as much success expanding the number of acres bearing its label as its chief rival, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, or SFI, launched by the American Forest & Paper Association in 1995. After decades as a satellite outfit of the timber industry’s largest trade organization, SFI became independent in 2007 and has poured millions of dollars into advertising its pine tree-and-leaf logo.

SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow is fond of comparing the difference between her organization and FSC to a sort of “Coke vs. Pepsi” debate. She points out that only 10% of the world’s forests are certified, so all efforts to protect them should be welcomed.

This green house was certified by Vermont Builds Greener, and it can cut energy costs in half. © Peter Schneider, VT Energy Investment Corp.

Not everyone agrees. Last fall, ForestEthics filed one administrative complaint against SFI with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and another with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The FTC filing accuses SFI of false advertising and deceptive trade practices—essentially greenwashing—while the IRS complaint questions SFI’s very status as a nonprofit charitable organization.

A few weeks later, the Sierra Club took on the SFI’s internal complaint process by lodging a grievance with SFI against one of its most prominent members: Weyerhaeuser, one of the country’s largest timberland owners and a member SFI’s board of directors. A coalition of about 500 logging companies and forest owners, including Weyerhaeuser, responded with a counter complaint to the FTC, accusing the FSC, among other things, of conspiring with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to prevent SFI and other forest certification programs from competing in the growing green building market.

What’s USGBC got to with it? It is the organization that created LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the country’s leading green building standard. Since its start in 2000, the USGBC has only recognized FSC wood, but for the last several years the council has been embroiled in a controversial effort to revamp its wood rules so than any of the existing certification bodies could apply.

The push and pull over what the new rules would look like has been intense, with each new draft generating thousands of comments. Thomas C. Collier, Jr., the Washington attorney who filed the FTC complaint on behalf of the Weyerhaeuser coalition, says his clients are concerned that the USGBC is leaning toward new rules that would continue to shut them out while giving unfair advantage to imported FSC wood from Russia and Sweden.

“Frankly, we are suspicious,” Collier says. “We have concerns that they will just come out and certify FSC again.”

But the attorney representing Forest-Ethics and the Sierra Club says the stakes are much higher than SFI’s ambitions to qualify for LEED status—the future of sustainable forests in the U.S.

“If SFI succeeds in its Coke-Pepsi strategy, FSC is doomed,” says Peter Goldman, director of the Washington Forest Law Center. “This greenwashing is destroying FSC. This is all about the future of green forest products and really about the future of many things green.”