This Thanksgiving: See the Forest Through the Beans

Bill Walsh | November 23, 2009 | Policies

Dean CyconDoug Pierce

Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans and Doug Pierce of Perkins + Will

I was standing in the coffee aisle of my local co-op last Wednesday, the bustle around me signaling the start of the Thanksgiving rush. Sipping a complimentary decaf, handed to me by Dean Cycon, owner of Dean’s Beans coffee, one of the co-ops most popular brands, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fate of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood credit in the LEED rating system.

Dean had just explained to me how every pound of his coffee that we buy, and every cup that we drink, contributes directly to better environment, health and social welfare, in every place touched by his beans. But here’s what got me thinking. For Indigenous coffee farmers, he said, fair trade practices were proving to be way more important than he had foreseen. Certified fair trade practices were a cultural lifeline, a vehicle for regaining a measure of autonomy in an export-oriented economy whose dynamics are contrary to the survival of Indigenous Peoples.[1]

That’s when I thought of Doug Pierce[2] and the LEED certified wood credit. We’ve featured Doug’s analysis of the LEED certified wood credit twice in this newsletter.[3] He had recently written me again to point out that the latest proposal to create a new USGBC benchmark for the certified wood credit, while much improved on key ecological criteria, still fails to maintain the standing that Indigenous communities currently enjoy in the FSC process, a standing that is essential to the protection of their often fragile land and tenure rights.

Sometimes it’s easier to see the forest through the beans. As Dean had just pointed out to me about the coffee I was sipping, fair treatment of Indigenous communities that hold valuable commercial commodities – prime coffee growing lands are not infrequently natural forests – separates the green from the greenwash when it comes to sustainability labels.

Indeed, I recalled, back in 2006 I published a point-counterpoint interview between leaders from the FSC and the industry-sponsored Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The most fundamental disagreements between the multi-stakeholder FSC and the timber-industry-dominated SFI concerned the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The SFI took the position that "[s]ome Indigenous Peoples invoke the FSC standard...because it strengthens their hand in land disputes...But forest certification should not be used as a tool to solve land disputes." The FSC said, "The FSC gives Indigenous Peoples a seat at the table, where they speak for themselves, we are an inclusive consensus-building membership organization...[I]t is difficult to practice responsible forestry in the context of a dispute over who owns the land."

Pierce calls the FSC values embodied in the current LEED credit “a cradle of modern sustainability,” translating the three values of sustainability - social equity, ecological economics and environmental protection – into 10 elegant principles, 56 criteria, along with additional on-the-ground indicators and a credible third-party assessment process. The new proposal for LEED, by rendering many of these optional, would strip indigenous communities of the already threadbare protections provided by LEED’s current embrace of the FSC standard. That’s why there is such a deep commitment among experienced green building professionals to a LEED standard that remains FSC or better.

It’s embarrassingly cliche to conclude this way, I know. But the truth is that Thanksgiving inevitably triggers reflections on the story of our country’s Indigenous Peoples. The LEED credit on certified wood is the chapter of that story that we in the green building movement will write. After your Thanksgiving meal, have a cup of coffee, think about this, and as Dean likes to say, “drink deep.”


[1] Dean's Beans. "Indigenous Coffee Farmers Self-Help Efforts in Oaxaca, Mexico."

[2] Doug Pierce is a sustainability strategist with Perkins+Will and a Professor in Practice at the University of Minnesota teaching graduate level Sustainable Design Theory and Practice.

[3] Walsh, Bill. "LEED Revisions Would “Greatly Diminish” Forests Around The World." HBNews. October 9, 2008.

Walsh, Bill. "LEED Revisions Would Leave Indigenous Peoples 'Open To Exploitation.'" HBNews. October 23, 2008.