Walk a green mile

FAIRFAX, CALIF. —Every three months or so, Nick Kennedy of Fairfax Lumber & Hardware spends an entire day on the phone calling western red cedar mills, looking for FSC-certified products. “I start in California and work my way north into Canada,” Kennedy said. So far, the lumber buyer has met with little success, although some mills have agreed to put him on a waiting list.

“I’m going to keep trying,” Kennedy said. “It’s what my customers want.”

Located in one of the wealthiest areas of Northern California, the Marin County lumberyard caters to a clientele that can afford to pay more for reclaimed timbers or urea-free particleboard. But that’s not the only reason why the Ace dealer has been so successful at selling green building materials. By going the extra mile to source its products, Fairfax has shown how it’s possible to help the planet and increase revenues at the same time.

Last year marked the introduction of Fairfax Green, a store-wide effort to offer “green” merchandise in as many categories and items as possible. Sales rose in several departments, especially building materials. Fairfax Lumber president Augie Venezia credits the green program for increasing overall sales by more than 20 percent.

Revenues in 2007 are running ahead of 2006 at Fairfax Lumber despite California’s downturn in building activity.

“We’re in the midst of some nice-sized jobs in Santa Cruz, Gilroy and Napa,” Venezia said. “And we’re bidding a lot of new [residential] frame jobs. It’s all with certified wood.”

Originally opened in 1912, Fairfax Lumber offers a conventional assortment of dimensional lumber and sheet goods, but many of its custom builders and remodeling contractors come in search of something greener. Given its location, the three-acre lumberyard has always catered to an educated, eco-aware crowd. Ten years ago, when few people had even heard of certified wood, Kennedy started getting requests. He checked with his wholesalers, but they didn’t carry it. The market was too limited, they said.

But the demand kept growing. “We had enough orders coming in. that we had to get it,” recalled Kennedy. His customers were very particular—they wanted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood—which meant jumping through hoops to get the lumberyard FSC certified. Then Fairfax had to start buying directly from FSC-certified mills, by the carload, because nobody wanted to sell small quantities.

Sometimes he had to plead. On several occasions, orders never arrived.

“Sometimes, [suppliers] beat the bushes before they’re ready to ship,” he explained. But Kennedy kept at it, and during its first year, Fairfax sold 10 truckloads of FSC-certified lumber. He convinced Roseburg Forest Products to start supplying him with FSC-certified plywood and expanded Fairfax’s repertoire to include FSC-certified moldings and engineered wood products.

Now Kennedy is searching for a reputable source for getting FSC-certified ipê, purple heart and cumaru tropical hardwoods used in decking.

Kennedy has been in the lumber business for 35 years, having worked for Lumber-Jack, Diamond Lumber and Homeowners Lumber before he came to Fairfax in 1995. He has, by his own admission, “sold a lot of old growth redwood.” Yet Kennedy can now relate how indigenous children are being forced to harvest teak in Burmese work camps. “It’s been quite an awakening,” he explained.

Neither Kennedy nor Venezia, who serves as a board member of the Lumber Association of California and Nevada, are New Age types. But Venezia sp