Saving the world’s vanishing forests means slowing climate change. Forest Stewardship Council US president Corey Brinkema says architects play a vital role in promoting forest health and conservation.

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

Forests cover roughly a third of Earth’s land surface. They generate oxygen and store carbon, and an estimated 80 percent of all terrestrial species can be found within their cooling shade. Forests help purify our groundwater and prevent erosion. And, of course, forests have long provided us with pulp for paper and wood for myriad buildings and products.

Corey Brinkema is president of the Forest Stewardship Council US, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. The American branch of a global forest conservation organization founded in 1994, FSC US is dedicated to protecting forests for future generations. But FSC also recognizes the value of forests as a renewable resource and advocates for marketplace solutions that promote responsible forest management.

This spring, Brinkema spoke with Architecture MN about the ways that architects and the building industry play a part in saving forests—and reducing the impact of climate change.

What does the Forest Stewardship Council do?

Our primary role is operating a certification system that rewards responsible forest management in the market. FSC created a checklist of requirements—I think now we’re up to about 70 criteria in our latest revision. They range from legal requirements to sustainable harvesting to land ownership and community rights. Our most visible mark is a tree and checkmark with the FSC abbreviation. When you see that mark, you can have confidence that that product is promoting responsible forest management. More than 80 countries have FSC-certified forests, about 500 million acres around the world, including 160 million acres in the U.S. and Canada.

Minnesota has 16 million acres of forestland. Is it well managed?

Definitely. The Minnesota DNR is actually our single largest certificate holder in the U.S., with a total of five million FSC-certified acres. One of the very first FSC certificate holders in America was Aitkin County, and Carlton and Koochiching counties are certified.

Minnesota is also home to some very prominent companies that either produce or sell forest products every day. Target Corporation has been a leader in responsible purchasing, both domestically as well as globally. A smaller company I’d call out is Certified Wood Products, in Maple Lake. It was essentially founded on providing responsibly sourced wood to the building industry, and they’re a go-to for FSC-certified building products.

What economic tools do you use to get owners to manage forests sustainably?

For years, the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system was a major market driver for FSC certification and the production of FSC building products. Thousands of LEED-certified projects got points by using FSC-certified wood in their buildings, and producers were able to get a premium for their products.

Recently, however, that standard has gotten diluted. Now, the greatest driver in the building sector is the leadership of large corporations who are concerned about their environmental footprint and are willing to foot the extra cost to do something about it.

The LEED standard was diluted? How?

For many, many years, the US Green Building Council [USGBC] was attacked by conventional industry because of its exclusive recognition of FSC as a symbol for responsible wood. They wanted their industry-developed standard, which is referred to as Sustainable Forestry Initiative, to be equally recognized. The USGBC membership voted it down several times. When that approach failed, industry representatives lobbied states around the country and essentially got LEED banned from use by various public agencies.

In response, the USGBC revised LEED and effectively eliminated the credit that promoted use of FSC-certified wood. Installed in its place was a series of credits around responsible materials, and FSC is just one way of contributing to this group, which also includes recycled content and salvage material. That’s fine, but it doesn’t result in the level of forest conservation that FSC requires.

How can architects play a part in preserving forests?

We need to pay attention to the impact that design decisions have—from the choice of materials and construction through the life of the building and even demolition. Roughly 11 percent of all carbon emissions comes from the production of construction materials. That’s a significant contribution to greenhouse gases.

Wood naturally stores carbon and is a renewable resource when it’s harvested sustainably. We’d like to see more and more substitution of wood for concrete and steel, especially as a structural material. Architects really can lead in this area. Their decisions make a lasting difference.

What percentage of wood currently used in construction is FSC-certified?

Accurate numbers are hard to get, because of the vast number of players in the industry. We’re probably at five percent in terms of the total purchase of construction products. In the retail market, Home Depot alone sells around $600 million a year of FSC-certified wood products, but that’s still a pretty small fraction of their overall wood sales. Lowe’s is also working hard to grow their share of FSC products.

If architects write specifications for FSC-certified wood, can builders and fabricators find it?

That’s one of our biggest challenges. You can have an architect who wants to do everything right, but if she can’t find the products that she needs . . . So we launched a website called that serves as a one-stop shop for the building design and construction community. We have a new product finder that connects architects with hundreds of businesses around the country that can provide FSC-certified materials.

We’re also seeing also a significant interest in FSC-certified products in the furniture industry right now. Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and IKEA are moving in this direction. Architects and designers are part of this equation, too, because they recommend furniture purchases.

Sustainably harvested wood comes at a premium. Will clients pay for it?

Again, architects can have a real impact. At Perkins and Will, for example, FSC is often the default in projects. The firm starts with that baseline, and it doesn’t change course, unless a client decides they want to try to value-engineer it out of the project. The recommendations that architects make carry weight with clients.