Posted by on Oct 13, 2013 in Food For Thought |

A Wood Chooser’s Guide – A Resource for Better Aligning Values and Choices:

DRAFT – 7.9.2013

We all make daily choices about what products from trees we will and won’t use; we are all “wood choosers” and our choices, no matter how small, shape the future of forests.  An increasing number of us express a will to become more mindful, deliberate, and educated about the choices that we make – because impacts we have on forests near and far matter to us.  But how will we find the information and frameworks of thinking we need to become better wood choosers?  The aim of this guide is to help fill that need.  We invite you to give it a try and make suggestions on ways to improve it.  In the interest of keeping things simple, the guide is made up of three sections –  Points to Consider,  Forks in the Road, and Activities.  Since the point is to be of service to you, feel free to jump around and explore the guide in whatever way works for you.  Happy exploring!

Some Points to Consider:

1)      Choice – Whether we’re choosing Wheat Thins (original? Low salt? cheesey?….), jeans (standard? Slim fit? Husky?..), or something as apparently simple as a cup of coffee, consumers are confronted – and challenged – by an increasing variety of choices.  In the world of wood products this is a welcome change.  In more and more places, wood choosers have the opportunity to buy wood that is well aligned with their values and needs.  All across the region and planet innovative risk takers are bringing responsibly grown wood to market.  Success hinges on consumers voting to support these new options with their purchasing dollars.

2)      You Are Powerful – The choices you make shape wood markets, which, in turn, shape forest landscapes and related human communities.  Whether you are aware of it or not your current and future choices help determine what types of forestry are feasible and profitable and which are not.  In 1928 Aldo Leopold got it right when he observed: “The long and the short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.”  What role do you want the power of your choices to play?

3)      Knowledge – In the same way that choices are now available to you, the information and knowledge needed to make good choices is now increasingly available.

4)      Sorting Good From Bad – These are relative terms where judgment is determined by your unique set of values.  Accordingly, instead of relying on a green label to tell you what you should or should not buy (they all have green labels now anyway), you need to be the judge.  This guide aims to help you build the basis for making your decisions – not to dictate what choices are best for you.

5)      The Power of Partnership – In the same way that my safe deposit box at the local bank only opens when my key and the bank’s key are both inserted and turned, systems of forestry are exist only when the producer chooses to grow a tree in a particular way and a consumer chooses to buy products from trees that are grown in that way.  A land ethic is only possible when it is married with a consumption ethic and, conversely,  irresponsible forestry will continue only as long as people continue to be willing to buy the products that are grown in this way.  When local travelers respond to the sight of a large clear cut by indignantly asking “how could they do that?!”, the answer is simple – these practices continue because the landowner safely assumes that consumers continue not to care enough to create problems in the marketplace.

6)      The Power of the Story – For too long consumers had no choice other than to see wood products as anonymous commodities – who knew where that 2×4 came from and whether my choice to buy it left the place it came from better or worse off?  Choices now available to us give us the chance to reclaim this lost component of value.  What value might we place in going to sleep in a bed made of wood that came from a forest that you know and feel good about supporting?

Forks in the Road:

The most important steps you can take toward becoming a more responsible wood chooser is becoming more aware of, and intentional about,  the choices you can make and the consequences of those choices.  Not unlike drivers speeding down the road and asking one another “was that an intersection back there?  I didn’t notice it”, in choosing wood, it takes skill and patient persistence to recognize the “intersections” as they come up and to pause at the crossroads long enough to make an informed and deliberate choice.  In this section we will explore some of the major forks in the road and ways that you can spot them and understand them.

1)      What Forestry System Will I Choose to Support With My Purchase?  For starters, there are three basic categories of forests: 1) Commonwealth Positive – These are forests that are treated in ways that result in commonwealth values (characteristics that we all depend on but no one can own – water, biodiversity, air…) increasing over time, 2) Commonwealth Neutral, and 3)  Commonwealth Negative.  The discerning consumer finds that wood and forest products may be divided based on the six forestry systems which produced them.  In general, two of the types are commonwealth positive, one Is commonwealth neutral and three are commonwealth negative.  They are outlined below along with clues on how to spot them in the showroom or lumberyard:

Type A – Reliably Regenerative, clearly commonwealth positive forestry. Indicated by significantly exceeding the standards of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) 100% certification.  One example is the Wildwoods Forestry Standard.

Type B – Commonwealth Neutral.  Indicated by FSC 100% and non plantation.  In NW Oregon, reliable suppliers of these first two types are businesses that are members of the Build Local Alliance.

Type C – Locally Legal but Commonwealth Negative – Equal to or better than the legal minimums of forest management regulations.  Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) , Tree Farm, and FSC plantation-grown certifications are examples of this.  Evidence of this being commonwealth negative includes continuing declines in forest-dependent biodiversity across the state and herbicides commonly sprayed in local forests ending up in residents’ urine. (footnotes to be added)

Type D Legal Somewhere, But Not Here – With only eleven states having forest practices acts, US grown wood may be sold in your area which does not meet your state’s legal minimums.  An example is the large amount of tropical hardwood lumber that is sold in the United States.

Type E Legal Nowhere – Unfortunately illegal logging is common throughout the world and wood from this logging regularly finds its way into US markets and products.

Type R Reused Lumber is creatively used in an increasing number of projects.  Examples include beams from demolished buildings being salvaged and remilled to give the wood new life.

This fork in the road gives you the chance to decide which of the six types of wood is best aligned with your unique values.  Thanks to emerging new markets, the choice is yours; how will you cast your wood buying vote?


2)      From Where?  Your decision about the point of origin of your wood product has consequences.  Examples include the real cost of transport not being included in the price you will pay, and the relationship between the distance the wood has travelled and the difficulty in your ability to know the story of the wood’s growing and processing.

3)      Cost vs. Price?  As consumers we need to decide whether we will base our decisions on the true cost of the product or only on the price.  True cost includes the “externalized” costs of providing the product, such as habitat destruction, exploitation of cheap labor,  and carbon released to the atmosphere, whereas the sticker price is only the amount of money required to purchase the material.  Do externalities of wood production matter to you or not? This question of personal responsibility is one that only you can answer.

4)      How High On the Hog?  Much like a pig being slaughtered, all trees, when they are milled provide lumber in a variety of qualities – ranging from boards with knots and other character to uniform wood with little character.  Years of ready supply of lumber coming from logging of old growth forests has led to many consumers having a strong preference for clear (no knots), vertical grained (all of the rings close together and aligned) lumber.  Though it is hard to resist it or say that it is not beautiful, as a wood chooser you should know that the choice to buy it is nearly always a vote for continuing logging of old growth.  If your aim is to support local, responsibly cared for forests, one of the most important things you can do it is learn to value – and buy! – the wide range of wood that comes from these forests.  To do otherwise is like buying only the tiny cheek meat from the halibut while leaving the fisher to find a way to sell the remaining 100 pounds of the fish.

5)      The Wonder of Workers – As with so many other products, some wood comes to you through the hands of workers that are well treated and fairly paid, while other wood comes through the hands of those who are not.  At this fork in the road you are challenged to decide whether this matters to you or not.  How can you tell the difference?  Though sorting this out can be tough, the option of buying local wood that comes to you as directly as possible gives you the greatest chance to assess this variable.  In general, it is safe to assume that the long distance transport of a cheap wood product to you is only made possible through undervaluing of labor and/or land health.

6)      The Genius of Genus and Place – There are many ways to celebrate and become native to the place you call home.  One of the best is to come to know and appreciate the trees that grow nearby.  This can be done by both familiarizing yourself with the smells, look, feel, and cycles of the living trees and through finding ways to bring the wood from these trees into your daily life – through the table you eat off of, the chair you read in, the firewood warming your hearth, or the box your ashes come to rest in.  Every place has its own unique genius, and trees and forests often play a powerful role in it.  At this fork in the road you have the chance to decide, once again, whether this matters to you – or not.

7)      Transparency – In the same way that our trip to the market may present us with the decision on whether to by the grapes in a clear bag that allows us to look closely at what we’ll be buying, or the non transparent bag that leaves us to guess about what we will buy, wood products vary widely in terms of how well we can know and judge the circumstances under which they grew and were brought to us.  Two of the many strengths of transparency are 1) for many of us the positive nature for the knowable story of the wood adds significantly to the pleasure we take in including the wood in our lives, and 2) the details learned through transparency provide the basis that many of us need on which to make the decision on whether or not to buy it.  As with the parallel world of food, consumers of wood are making the transition away from accepting anonymity of the wood products they buy to caring about and demanding transparency.  How much does this matter to you?

8)      The Value of Integrity – If we define integrity as the alignment of ones values and ones actions, we can safely wager – and admit – that complete integrity is impossible and none of us can duck the charge of occasional hypocrisy.  At this fork we’re asked to decide how important integrity is to us – and what level of hypocrisy we’re prepared to live with.

Activities:  (to be added)

The Upshot:  Learning and sorting out how to best relate to the more-than-human world is one of life’s greatest challenges and adventures.  The subset of choosing how we will interact with forests – near and far – through our consumer choices can be both fascinating and complex.  Regardless of the choices we make at the intersections we encounter on the road to decisions, both we and the world will be better off when we learn to recognize, stop, and make mindful, informed decisions at each of these junctions.  We hope that this guide will support and stimulate you on this journey.


To be added:  footnotes, appendices, glossary