Long before the sun was up on Sunday morning, Fred Hardin and I pulled out of Fred’s driveway headed toward Charlotte, North Carolina. Ours was an early morning ritual familiar to many NASCAR fans: It was race day. Only Fred and I weren’t going to Lowe’s Motor Speedway to watch the race, we were going to make a point.
On August 8, 2000, Lowe’s Companies, Inc. announced its intention to buy only those wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Lowe’s Vice President Mark Kauffman claimed that in formulating its policy, the company had “worked closely with environmental and scientific communities as well as our suppliers.”
Forest products suppliers knew otherwise. Keith Argow, president of the National Woodland Owners Association, did meet with Lowe’s and flatly told the company its new policy wouldn’t work. Lowe’s, however, preferred to take the advice of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Dogwood Alliance, and the World Resources Institute.
The Lowe’s policy is important not just to the softwood lumber industry, but to hardwood suppliers as well. Though Lowe’s sells only small quantities of hardwoods direct to the consumer, they sell lots of hardwood flooring and kitchen cabinets made from hardwoods.
Private landowners unite
Not content to allow anti-logging environmentalists drive forest products policy, a new grassroots organization formed to give a voice to the non-industrial private landowners and independent mill producers in the certification debate. That organization, treekeepers.org, decided someone needed to get the attention of Lowe’s (and others considering similar actions), and suggest they make a place at the table for the private landowners who actually own the forests.
Which brings me to why Fred and I were on our way to Charlotte.
One way to get Lowe’s attention, Treekeepers figured, was to hire an airplane to tow two banners over the speedway during the race. Over 100,000 thousand people saw banners that read “Lowe’s/FSC – Not “Top Choice” – Wrong Choice” and “Lowe’s Imports Wood/Exports Jobs.”
We knew race fans might not understand the point of the banners. But we really were more interested in sending a message to the management and stockholders of Lowe’s that someone wasn’t happy with the company’s new policy.
Treekeepers also posted its concerns on the Internet at www.treekeepers.org, and news releases were sent to all the major media in the area. The Web site attracted nearly 500 hits in the first 24 hours. We clearly had someone’s attention.
The Web site clearly identified the fallacies of Lowe’s new policy:
- Only 4 million acres of forest land in the U.S. carry FSC certification. By contrast, the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), a competing certification program, has over 60 million acres under its program. The simple law of supply and demand means Lowe’s customers will pay more for wood products, and their choice of products could be limited.
- Moreover, FSC certification says nothing about the quality of the lumber itself. It is entirely possible that Lowe’s customers will have to settle for lower-quality lumber than they are accustomed to.
- The new Lowe’s policy unfairly implies that hundreds of thousands of forest land owners in this country are doing a poor job managing their forests because they don’t obtain FSC certification. But FSC certification is expensive. Much of the land that currently carries FSC certification does so because foundation grants paid most or all of the cost. For example, FSC certification of 2.2 million acres of Pennsylvania state forests was entirely paid for by a grant from The Heinz Endowment.
- Lowe’s also unfairly implies that non-certified forests are unsustainable. The company did not take the time to speak with landowners or to familiarize themselves with forest practices in the South: Company officials simply took the word of RAN, the Dogwood Alliance, and WWF.
- Lowe’s has unfairly singled out wood products for a special environmental litmus test they do not require of the other products they sell. It is supremely ironic that FSC discriminates against the use of chemicals such as herbicides, fertilizer, and pesticides, while Lowe’s is one of the country’s biggest retailers of herbicides, fertilizer, and pesticides.
- Lowe’s new policy is bad for consumers and bad for stockholders. Limiting itself to FSC-certified wood will likely result in higher prices and reduced choices for consumers. This in turn may force consumers to shop elsewhere, reduce store sales, and ultimately reduce shareholder equity.
Tilting at windmills?
Many other problematic aspects of Lowe’s policy are detailed at www.treekeepers.org, and we also offer their our suggestions of how Lowe’s can develop and implement a workable policy.
Our efforts may seem like tilting at windmills, but we don’t look at it that way. It all comes down to a simple market-based question that non-FSC certified forest land owners and mill producers should be asking themselves: If Lowe’s doesn’t want to do business with us, do we want to shop at Lowe’s?
Matt Bennett is chairman of treekeepers.org .