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Specifying Sustainable Wood Products

Building product specifiers like architects and engineers are asked to consider the environment and sustainability when making product selections. This consideration includes understanding how a product is sourced, manufactured, and its impact on the environment and climate change.

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Building product specifiers like architects and engineers are asked to consider the environment and sustainability when making product selections. This consideration includes understanding how a product is sourced, manufactured, and its impact on the environment and climate change.

But it’s not just professionals making these decisions. Awareness of choosing sustainable products is growing among consumers and retailers, and is impacting purchasing behavior. Research indicates that choosing wood products over more carbon-intensive materials like steel and concrete will reduce CO2 emissions and help mitigate climate change. But the vocal minority demanding an end to all logging (and in particular old-growth) is getting louder and creating confusion.

So what does this mean for the future of natural wood building products? The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association has launched an initiative aimed at raising awareness of the facts about the forest industry in North America, and the role wood products like WRC play in reducing CO2 emissions. It’s intended to reach end-users and specifiers, but will also include retailers, distributors and others in the supply chain. The program, which includes video, an AIA-approved Continuing Education Unit (CEU) course, trade show materials and a dedicated page on, cites facts from credible, third-party sources such as USDA, U.S. Forest Services, Natural Resources Canada and The Forest Stewardship Council, among many others, to respond to common misconceptions about the forest industry and the environmental and economic importance of wood building products.

“It is an educational program of sorts,” noted Brad Kirkbride, WRCLA managing director, “but with the amount of misinformation that’s out there right now it’s pretty important to the health of our industry that we provide the other side of the story.”

The misinformation Kirkbride is referring to stems in part from environmental groups and public demonstrations demanding an end to logging, and making claims that our forests are disappearing and the industry is causing irreversible damage to the environment.

“The reality is,” continued Kirkbride, “the forestry industry in North America adheres to the most stringent regulations and practices there are. The rate of deforestation in Canada and the U.S. has been virtually zero for many decades, and responsible forest management in North America has resulted in more than 50 consecutive years of net forest growth. And this is despite a growing population and higher demand for wood products.”

The crux of the program is to explain how durable softwoods like western red cedar produce essential and sustainable building products. There is a huge economic benefit to choosing wood products, of course; timber is the primary source of income in many communities. In the U.S. alone, the forest products sector employs over one million workers and accounts for 6% of the manufacturing GDP. But perhaps the most compelling reason to choose wood building products is the role the life cycle of a wood product plays in reversing climate change.

“We are seeing that consumers are responding to the climate change message,” said Kirkbride. “No one wants to hear you preach, but when carbon sequestration is understood it puts the importance of using wood like WRC in a different perspective.”

As a tree grows, it absorbs and stores carbon. But when it ages it becomes more susceptible to disturbances such as fire, pest outbreaks, and droughts. Although these are natural disturbances in the forest, a decomposing or burning tree releases CO2 and other greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. However, if that tree were felled and used in building products, for example, that carbon is stored for the lifecycle of the product. CO2 captured over a tree’s lifetime stays locked inside the wood, meaning sustainably harvested wood products continue to represent a carbon store long after they leave the forest.

Using wood building products has a significant impact on mitigating climate change. By 2030, Canada’s forest sector will remove 30 megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year—representing more than 10% of Canada’s climate change mitigation target. In the United States, “forests and associated harvested wood products uptake the equivalent of more than 14% of economy-wide carbon dioxide emissions each year and store more than three decades of CO2 emitted from fossil fuels,” according to the USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) National Program.

All of which provides sound reasons to continue using wood. While there are those who maintain that ancient forests are disappearing, Kirkbride is quick to point to the shift to second growth harvests and in many instances in the Pacific Northwest third growth harvests as well as the rise in products like engineered WRC siding.

“We’ve been actively marketing second growth knotty WRC products for years,” stated Kirkbride, “and engineered WRC products like engineered clear solid WRC, engineered T&G with a clear veneer overlay, and engineered knotty all use surplus fiber. There’s no question the industry is changing, but the change is positive.”

While new products enter the market on a regular basis, responsibly managed forests play an outsized role in storing carbon, addressing climate change, and providing a wealth of sustainable, essential products, which is particularly important as our global need for wood is not diminishing. 

– Simon Cameron represents the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association. Established in 1954, the WRCLA is the voice of the cedar industry and has members in 132 locations throughout North America (