Brendan Owens
3 minute read

Senior vice president Brendan Owens shares his thoughts on the importance of identifying a material.

“Yeah? Well, you know that’s just, like, um, your opinion, man.” —Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski

The movie "The Big Lebowski" turned 20 last year. I don’t really need a reason to revisit Joel and Ethan Coen’s work of creative genius, but this was a good one. It’s quite a task to clearly and succinctly summarize the plot, but the storyline centers around a case of mistaken identity between two people, both named Jeff Lebowski.

As buildings industry professionals, the things we build and operate are real. There’s not much room for opinion or mistaken identity when pointing to a building and saying, “that’s the Empire State Building.” It is either the Empire State Building or it isn’t. While instances of mistaken identity in the finished product of our work are rare (it’s tough to mistake the Empire State Building for a run-of-the-mill suburban office building), there are still situations where we, as practitioners, are susceptible to it.

In response to this challenge, we take steps to measure things directly where we can. Fortunately, the trend toward tracking, testing and measuring many aspects of performance in the buildings industry seems to be decidedly in the right direction—but there’s always more work to be done.

In important areas of building performance, where we are currently unable to directly measure something, we have developed proxies to help us ensure some level of due diligence. But proxies are limited in their usefulness, so there are a number of places where USGBC is, in programs like LEED, actively working to replace proxy measurement with direct measurement. One area, the subject of a new Timber Traceability pilot credit, is in the origin and legality of wood in the supply chain.

Natural products, like wood, have unique biological and radiological signatures that can be used to affirmatively prove species and location where they were grown. DNA and radio isotope-based technologies are currently being used to test the authenticity of a number of products that are susceptible to adulteration, counterfeit or mislabeling.

Honey is a good example. The honey trade is a multibillion-dollar, global industry. In response to a growing problem with adulterated and mislabeled honey, the honey industry took action to create new tests to determine honey purity and origin. Today, laboratory tests that determine if products labeled as “honey” are, in fact, natural bee honey (versus a similar-seeming substance, possibly diluted with corn or rice syrups) are combined with databases of pollen signatures of honey originating in ecosystems around the world. This enables authorities to identify counterfeit product (honey that is labeled as honey from one location, but is actually honey from somewhere else or honey that is adulterated).

The idea behind LEED’s new Timber Traceability pilot credit is to take the first steps toward creating a global database of wood species and origin information that will enable the buildings industry to affirmatively verify the provenance of the wood we use in our buildings. This pilot credit is designed to align with and support existing approaches to “due care” or “due diligence” (such as third-party certifications) to assess and mitigate the risk of buying illegal wood, helping us have even more confidence that the environmental, social and economic outcomes or our supply chain are aligned with the intentions of buyers.

So, what’s driving this? Is our confidence in the supply chain infrastructure we’ve been relying on shaken? The short answer is no. There are too many good people working with the best of intentions to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that our wood supply chain is legal and responsibly sourced.

However, the global wood and paper trade is a more than $200 billion industry—it is naïve to believe that "cheaters" introduce no risk in the industry today. This pilot credit is based on an innovative approach to reducing the risk that illegally sourced, harvested or traded wood products are used in building projects. This is an exciting proposition, and we hope you are interested in helping USGBC test this idea and create market demand for wood testing. Mistaken identities are great as the premise of a movie—they’re less great in other places.

I want to close by coming back to "The Big Lebowski." When the two Lebowskis meet for the first time, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski sets the record straight. His given name is Lebowski, but that’s not who he is. He explains it to the other Jeff Lebowski like this:"Wait, wait, lemme ex...lemme explain something to you. Um, I am not Mr. Lebowski. You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm The Dude...so that's what you call me...you know, uh, that, or uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or uh, ya know, El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing."

The Dude knows who he is and, just as important, who he isn’t. A wood supply chain more like The Dude—that would really tie the room together.

View the new pilot credit