Green, Greener, Greenest

An ASTM standard provides a roadmap for specifying environmentally preferable forest products. Now recognized by LEED and the USDA BioPreferred program, the standard is gaining traction.
Cassie Phillips

Let’s say you’re buying lumber, paper, or another forest product, and you want to know it came from a well-managed forest. You could buy a product labeled under a forest certification program such as the Forest Stewardship Council, Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification, or Sustainable Forestry Initiative. But a certified product may not be available or may not fit within your budget.

…Or say you’re a standards developer, and you want to create a specification for certified forest products. If you’re following the American National Standards Institute’s Essential Requirements: Due Process Requirements for American National Standards, you won’t want to specify them by brand name (ecolabel) because the document prohibits the use of commercial terms: The “appearance that a standard endorses any particular products, services, or companies must be avoided.”

…Or say you’re a U.S. federal procurement officer and you want to specify certified forest products in a request for proposals. You know not to specify them by ecolabel, because that would violate the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Government Procurement. It prohibits “technical specifications that require or refer to a particular trademark or trade name,” unless there is no alternative. And even then, the specification must include “or equivalent” to allow alternative means of proof.

The right thing to do in all these cases is to specify criteria, and accept ecolabels as one — but not the only — form of proof of compliance. But, assuming you are not a forest certification expert, how can you know what criteria to use to define not only good forestry, but the means of product verification and tracing?

ASTM International’s committee on wood (D07) created a roadmap that answers this question — Practice for Categorizing Wood and Wood-Based Products According to Their Fiber Sources (D7612).

Why the Roadmap Matters

D7612 is a way to describe, based on sustainability attributes, three categories of wood and fiber sources: certified sources, responsible sources, and non-controversial (or “legal”) sources.

Each category has four sets of criteria: the substantive content and governance system for acceptable controls over forest practices and the traceability and verification requirements for acceptable documentation.

In other words, D7612 is not a new forestry standard; it’s a “meta standard,” or roadmap, to the use of other controls. Rather than relying on brand names, it allows for specification by categories, which provides a shorthand way to specify their underlying criteria.

D7612 was developed by Subcommittee D07.08 on Forests, whose members wanted to make it easy, not just feasible, to buy products from producers that use good forest practices. They wanted to help increase demand for certified products while also leveraging other controls, including regulations, to reinforce good programs and avoid redundancy. They also wanted to meet policy and legal requirements — supported by WTO and other national and international standards organizations — that technical specifications be nondiscriminatory, be objective and verifiable, and avoid unnecessary obstacles to trade.

How It Was Made

The subcommittee didn’t invent the categories and criteria out of whole cloth. Rather, they pulled together conventions related to sustainable forestry that evolved over 50 years of regulation and 20 years of voluntary certification.

For example, starting in 1997, the United Kingdom pioneered the practice of distinguishing “legal” from “sustainable” sources in its government wood procurement policies. Twenty-six countries have since adopted wood procurement policies, nearly all following the U.K.’s framework. Subcommittee D07.08 adopted the same distinction, with slightly different terminology.

Similarly, the subcommittee derived the criteria related to illegal logging from the 2008 amendments to the U.S. Lacey Act, which made it illegal to trade in illegally logged wood. The non-controversial (legal) sources category in D7612 is defined more broadly but incorporates the Lacey Act’s approach to enforcement, which requires the exercise of “due care” in avoiding high risk sources of wood. Lacey’s “due care” requirement is developed in much more detail through a settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Gibson Guitars and a comprehensive 2015 American National Standard for Due Diligence in Procuring/Sourcing Legal Timber. As an example of its impact, one requirement of the Lacey Act is that wood sources must be traceable to the country of harvest. If not, they are viewed as “unknown” sources and not covered by D7612.

A Special Category

Another category in D7612, responsible sources, captures the controls needed to address classic “externalities” — i.e., environmental impacts on public resources such as air and water. In forestry, the most important of these are impacts on water quality and wetlands, chemical use, and threatened and endangered species. Best management practices to protect water quality are not always directly regulated (i.e., not covered by criteria for non-controversial (legal) sources), so a responsible source must fill this gap. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative pioneered this approach in its Certified Sourcing standard, making best management practices a requirement in wood purchasing contracts. D7612 expands the potential controls to include federal, state, and provincial programs that require best management practices, through regulation or other binding means. Implementing these latter controls will require two new third-party verifications: that a government program satisfies the criteria in the standard and that a producer can trace its wood to that program. The state of Oregon has recently developed both verifications, providing a potential model for other government programs to qualify the wood produced under their jurisdiction as a responsible source.

If legal compliance is the baseline and full certification is the aspiration, why did the subcommittee include this middle category for responsible sources? The answer is in part practical. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, only 14 percent of the wood harvested in North America is from certified forests. Furthermore, the opportunities for growth are limited because over 90 percent of commercial wood supply in the United States comes from privately owned lands, and most of that from forests owned by families and individuals in small parcels. While many are certified under the American Tree Farm System, this is still a small percentage of supply.

The other reason is motivational. The responsible sources category gives both forest owners and government agencies an incentive to increase the use of best management practices, whether through voluntary certification or reliable staffing and enforcement of government programs. The benefit of increased compliance with these practices is real. As recently as July 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that no additional regulations are needed for forest roads under the Clean Water Act, in part because of the contribution of programs like SFI’s Certified Sourcing program.

How It’s Being Used

D7612 was first used publicly in the 2012 International Green Construction Code as a potential source of credits for construction materials. The IgCC gave equal credit for both responsible sources and certified sources. Next, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published revised guidelines implementing the BioPreferred label program, which helps increase the purchase and use of biobased products. These guidelines incorporate the D7612 categories, stating that wood products from all three sources (non-controversial, responsible, and certified) meet the program’s requirement for innovation. They can then qualify as biobased products if they undergo content testing.

And just last year, D7612 gained more visibility when the U.S. Green Building Council announced new pilot “Alternative Compliance Paths” for forest products in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, using D7612’s categories. Previously, only FSC-certified products could earn LEED credits. The pilot ACPs, however, allow credits for all certified sources, provided they are “bundled” with two other requirements: 100 percent of the wood and fiber used on the LEED project must be from non-controversial (legal) sources, and 70 percent must be from responsible sources.


D7612 is giving the marketplace better tools to encourage the use of products from well-managed forests, and thus expand the use of sustainable forest practices globally. ASTM’s wood committee was the ideal place to do this because of its members’ technical expertise and because it develops standards through open, consensus processes that meet ANSI and World Trade Organization requirements.

Being developed in the private sector, the standard thus meets the requirements of the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-119, which directs U.S. government agencies to use voluntary consensus standards when possible rather than government-unique standards. This approach also follows guidance from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that “green” marketing claims be based on voluntary consensus standards. As an international standard, under the Government Procurement Agreement, government agencies may — or are even required to — use it as a basis for technical specifications.

Before D7612, specifiers had few alternatives to using ecolabels. Now, they have a brand-neutral platform with more and better choices, making it easier to specify and buy products from good forest practices and make a real difference in the world’s forests.

Cassie Phillips is the director of the Private Environmental Governance Initiative at the Environmental Law Institute. She was previously Weyerhaeuser’s vice president of Sustainable Forestry. Phillips has over 30 years of experience on both regulatory and voluntary approaches to sustainable forestry, and she is a member of ASTM Committee D07 on Wood.

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