Keeping Sustainable Simple

Sustainable Northwest Wood offers area
lumber yards much easier access to FSC woods.

Modern life is full of ‘shoulds.' You should eat more vegetables, you should get plenty of exercise, you should get 8 hours of sleep, you should file your taxes early. And, of course, you should go green. Some of those shoulds are easier to achieve than others, but in most cases those are goals that nobody is helping you meet.

Unless you're looking to green your inventory in the Pacific Northwest, because Ryan Temple stands ready to give you a hand; his distribution yard, Sustainable Northwest Wood, opened in November, 2008, for just that purpose. 

The company was an outgrowth of efforts by the non-profit organization Sustainable Northwest to connect area forest products suppliers with builders in the Oregon/Washington area. “We found plenty of demand for local sustainable wood products, but a lot of frustration about sourcing it reliably, predictably, consistently, professionally, and for a fair price,” said Temple. “At the same time, the mills were telling us they could produce these products, but where's the market for them? No one in the existing distribution channels was taking a stocking interest in the product. As a result, anytime someone wanted it, it required several phone calls, special ordering, long waits, etcetera.”

So in 2008, the non-profit organization spun off a for-profit wholesale distribution yard called Sustainable Northwest Wood. Located in the heart of Portland's building materials supply district in the midst of tile shops, plumbing suppliers, and other building product dealers, SNW supplies local retail yards with a full assortment of construction-grade sustainable wood. At any given time, the company's inventory includes about 200,000 board feet of LEED eligible structural lumber: 2x4s through 2x12s and 4x4s through 4x12s are routinely in stock and ready for delivery. There is also a variety of sustainable finished goods such as decking, siding, trim, flooring, hardwood lumber, landscape timbers, paneling, and more.

Naturally, most product ends up in Oregon and the adjoining states, but according to Temple, he has already shipped FSC wood to lumber yards all across the continental U.S., plus Alaska and Hawaii. “We've worked primarily west of the Rockies, but we really encourage people to go local first,” he said. “If I get a call from someone in Georgia who is looking for something, I will try to find local alternatives for them. But in one particular instance they just absolutely had to have Alder for a job, and so there was no place locally they could go for it and they needed a large enough volume to justify the shipping. So we sent it out to them.”

The other aspect of local for Sustainable Northwest Wood is the supply side. Their material comes from a diverse mix of area sources, large and small, such as the Collins Companies, Warm Springs Forest Products, Fritch Mills, and In the Sticks.

If you live in Oregon, ‘the environment' is not an abstraction like it can become in big city locales. Sustainable Northwest is actively connected to rural and small town communities struggling to maintain a traditional American lifestyle for family and neighbors. In this context, forest stewardship is literally about preserving the scenic beauty, indigenous wildlife, and the livelihoods of rural citizens for future generations. Sustainable Northwest is engaged in a very hands-on mission to preserve a fragile eco-system by improving its economic vibrancy. Supporting small family tree-farms and rural mills helps maintain a quality of life that serves the Northwest in a way that large corporate clear-cutters never could. 

Those options lead Temple to a more nuanced perspective on sustainable wood than you might hear from other Chain of Custody suppliers. “While we talk about FSC – and I really think of FSC as our base – we really go beyond that in terms of working with the businesses we buy from,” he says. Instead, Temple finds himself asking a different set of questions. “What is their commitment to the community, are they involved in sustaining and restoring forest, are they FSC certified, but going above and beyond the standard? Can we get this from 20 miles away or do we go 100 miles, to really localize product as much as we can for this market?”

While those are important questions in terms of sustainability, this new company will only succeed if it is equally serious about marketing itself. One way to remain competitive is to offer FSC  wood to the LEED building community, balanced by locally produced wood from sustainable suppliers who may be too small to invest in FSC certification.

Most of the marketing effort at Sustainable Northwest Wood is directed to their customer's customer. “I'll make presentations to architectural firms, or we'll invite contractors to come in and walk through the warehouse, knowing that at the end of the day they won't be buying from me,” said Temple. “But when they get excited about the product I'll ask, ‘Where do you like to shop?' Then we'll follow up with whatever their preferred lumber yard is and set them up so that when they need something, their yard will be able to get it.” 

Most of that effort is designed to let people in the industry know that FSC wood is readily available. “They can have a custom framing pack pulled together on the next day,”Temple insists. “If you call right now we can have it for you by 10:00 a.m. tomorrow.”

In the past, an FSC order might have been too complicated, because a green builder can only claim LEED credits for the wood if it's obtained directly through a Chain of Custody source. Smaller lumber yards shied away from the cost and the paperwork necessary to get COC certified. But Sustainable Northwest Wood urged the Forest Stewardship Council to simplify the Chain of Custody process for smaller dealers. “Now, when we hear from folks who are not chain of custody certified, we can then put them in touch with the non-profit organization – Sustainable Northwest – which hosts a group Chain of Custody,” Temple described. “As long as your sales are less than $5 million per year you are eligible to be part of the group, and that cuts your costs from about $5,000 to about $1,000. That has allowed us to introduce some yards to FSC certification as part of the group at a lower risk point of entry.”

The group membership also lessens the reporting requirements. While FSC auditors will make a random visit to the group manager every year, they only visit member-businesses every five years. This does not relieve the small lumber yard of their due-diligence requirements but it clearly simplifies the process. In the past, group membership was limited to companies with less than one million dollars in annual wood product sales that employed a staff of less than 15. Thanks to Sustainable Northwest's successful lobbying efforts, that threshold is now 5 million with any number employees. “If you're making more than 5 million,” says Temple, “then you can probably justify the expense of doing it on your own.”

Marketing for SNW is all about establishing a dialog with their customer's customers. “I do brown bag lunch sessions pretty regularly, as well as new product seminars with some of the different builders,” said Temple. “I look at those events as an opportunity for me to get my finger on the pulse of things as much as it is to promote my products. It's just as valuable to hear from these guys and know what they are interested in, what's working for them and what's not, and how things are going overall in the industry these days.”

And the fact that things are going slowly in the industry may not always be terrible news. “If there's a bright spot in the downturn of the construction industry in the past couple years, we see that it's encouraged people to be more innovative in their thinking about how to position themselves,” Temple added. “Those who have been able to embrace some green component in what they do are reaping the benefits of it now. It's allowed them to stay afloat over the last few years, and I think it will allow them to emerge stronger in the coming years.”

In that spirit, Sustainable Northwest Wood is finding some unique local products to offer the construction and remodeling market. For instance, the company has linked up with a juniper wood supplier in nearby Fossil, Oregon. Juniper is often treated as a nuisance tree, but the wood holds up well to the elements. Temple cites a forestry product test from 1926, when posts from a variety of different species were planted in the ground just to see how long they would last. Even without chemical additives, some of the juniper posts are still standing. That suggests that juniper would perform well if used for landscaping timbers or as 2x6 decking planks, and SNW aggressively promotes the wood for those applications.

For another example, the blue pine is a standing dead ponderosa pine tree, that has been invaded by a fungus, which takes it to a blue-gray or sometimes a burgundy or wine color. “That causes it to not make grade as a dimensional material, but it's spectacular as a finished good,” Temple enthused. “After the tree is kiln dried, there is no more life to the fungus, it's just a coloration in the wood.” SNW largely sells the product for paneling, but occasionally for flooring as well.

In hardwoods, the company is becoming known for its inventory of Pacific madrone, myrtle wood, and big leaf maple, which primarily sells to furniture and cabinet shops. “The market for the native species in the cabinet world is pretty strong right now,” Temple observed. “The concern is not the beauty of those woods, but their stability. If you're a cabinet maker, you need to know that this stuff isn't going to move on you, so our marketing angle has been about the dimensional stability.”

In flooring, Sustainable Northwest Wood stocks locally sourced FSC certified CVG fir and an FSC certified big leaf maple. Both are sold as solid, unfinished flooring, not engineered – because there are no regional sources for engineered flooring.

Even in the downturn, new home construction and remodeling have been the primary outlet for their materials. Most of that goes to custom builders, since Portland has a long tradition for green building. But things may be looking up, as SNW has recently bid on some developments that number in the 20s. And there's a continuing demand in the commercial market for some of their finished goods.

Although this distribution yard opened in the fall of 2008 at the very moment the housing bubble burst, Temple states that the company is on track with its business plan and expects to be profitable later this year. “Despite the recession,” he says, “we have seen steady growth every month.”

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