Certainly amongst children and not a few adults, there is a dissociation between certain products and their origins. Take milk, for example: it is processed and packaged in such a way that its connection with the cow is so remote that she is irrelevant. If, however, foot and mouth disease is decimating herds and milk has to be rationed, we would probably recognise and appreciate the contribution of the compliant creature.
It is the same with wood. It’s everywhere we look. Do we notice? Hardly. We take it for granted. Yet on the obverse side of the ecological coin we are aware that forests have been ravaged by man’s greed to the extent that some exotic woods have become extinct and others are endangered species. Do we make the connection? Do we care? The thought is a million miles away from our purchasing and usage patterns. Do we have any idea that our dining table owes its existence to a forest in Tanzania?
Does it matter? Well, yes it does. Our forests are our protection from the harmful solar radiation, a versatile resource for energy, a sustaining habitat to vast numbers of living creatures including humans and, last but not least, they are the lungs of the world - our forests absorb carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases, whilst giving off oxygen.
To a large extent wood is becoming increasingly rationed by price and availability. However, there is an inherent contradiction here. A generation ago, the world woke up to the problem of deforestation. Programmes were devised to encourage sustainable forest management and to certify timber from source, through transportation to finished product. This, together with increasing scarcity, led to raised timber prices which, in turn, made illicit forest harvesting even more rewarding!
The word ‘illicit’ requires context. Historically, it was not illegal to cut down the trees of the equatorial forests. The wood was attractive, useful, plentiful and in demand. It made a living for the indigenous people and the traders who shipped the timber to the world’s markets. Then the ecologists and climatologists from the consuming countries declared bad things were happening; laws and regulations threatened the native’s customary way of life. “Why? What’s the problem?” asked the innocents whose horizons were not much further than they could see.
The answer is surprisingly sympathetic to their needs. They are being introduced to the idea of asset stripping being replaced by asset investment. This takes many forms but the most significant is that for every tree that is felled, a young sapling is planted. It is a scheme that works because forests are naturally and easily renewable. So, our native loggers and their descendants, now have the security of long term employment. So long as there is a need for wood, their livelihoods are secure.
We are not out of the woods yet. Global temperatures really took off in the 1970’s and are still rising; the harm caused will take decades to undo. Despite the irrefutable evidence, politicians and statesmen in posts of greatest responsibility seem blind to the dangers of environmental degradation and rising sea levels. They yield to home-grown economic pressures at the expense of worldwide ecological imperatives.
For every law maker, there is a law breaker - it’s the way of the world. Whilst the forests are becoming safer from destruction there are deals being done where the benefits are not made clear to indigenous population. Distrust and exploitation is rampant in countries with long histories of corruption and human rights abuses.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. Sustainability of forests is not entirely centred on timber supply: there are programmes to support the wilderness inhabitants and the habitat of the wildlife. This holistic approach will bring both social and economic rewards to countries that need, or will need, support.
A number of International and national Non-Governmental Organisations have been established over the last 25 years starting with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was formed in 1993 to set standards and provide certification of forest products. In 2003, The European Union endorsed the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative which introduced a licensing scheme for timber exporting countries. This is supported by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) which is the recognised timber certification system in over 43 countries. (Forgive the mnemonics that spread through our language like an infectious rash). All this is still work in progress: so far Indonesia is the only country issuing FLEGT licences but negotiations continue with Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Guyana, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand.
Then there’s China, a law unto itself. China is the world’s biggest exporter of timber products valued at US$13.6 billion (Canada – US$13.2 billion; USA -US$9.0 billion). Much of these exports include laminated woods such as plywood, chipboard and others that are used principally by the construction industries around the world, not all of it certified.
Fastest growing exports
Exotic hardwoods account for the fastest growing exports. Over the period 2012 – 2016 exports grew overall by 7.9%. These are the top tropical timber exporting countries:
Significantly, of these countries, only the Congo is in the process of preparing for FLEGT recognition and licensing.
North America has a number of forest certification schemes, three of them are endorsed by the PEFC: the American Tree Farm System, the Canadian Standards Association and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. But let’s not get side tracked.
The timber trade in the United Kingdom
In Britain, we have the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) that primarily promotes sustainability. It represents importers, merchants, agents and manufacturers. It accounts for the timber used in building and construction, furniture-making, fencing, pallets and packaging. It has a governing board that sets out a Code of Conduct for its members and appoints independent auditors to ensure compliance.
To the trade, its attractions are its commercial and legal support to its members including education, training and the provision of market data: to the public, its logo is a hallmark of forestry integrity.
The TTF says its members are often the first placers of goods on to the UK market. As such they have a duty of care towards the rest of the downstream supply chain. The timber trade federation acts as the guardian of standards, quality and sustainability in the timber supply chain.
However, membership is optional and there are some wood importers and sellers, whilst being compliant to international requirements, choose not to be members. Why is this?
It is important to remember that the ‘save the forest’ campaigns in all their forms are relatively new. To get traction, the public needs to be persuaded about what is at stake and be prepared to pay for it. In 25 years good progress has been made on all fronts but there is still some way still to go. Members of the TTF and the non-members tend to be defined by their markets. At the top of the scale are establishment projects that can only buy from fully audited sources; at the other end, there is no such compulsion to be so fastidious.
The Natural Wood Flooring Company, for example, run by three brothers, Niall, Peter and Kevin Keane explained why they were not members of the TTF: “In the construction business, there is huge pressure to keep the cost of building materials as low as possible. We calculated that the cost of membership adds about £1.70 per metre to the cost of our products. Most of our customers were not prepared to pay this.”
Does this mean that Natural Wood were selling uncertified timber? “Not at all,” objected Kevin with feeling. “We admire the work of the TTF. We are importers of timber flooring and can, if asked, show all the paperwork – from sourcing and manufacturing to transportation - to prove that all the timber we sell is fully certified. At the moment, the public conscience is influenced more by price than principle. It is a simple decision for us.”
Like many hard wood floor suppliers Natural wood supply floors ready to be fitted. The more exotic hard woods are, the more they cost. The variety presents all kinds of opportunities for colour, texture, grain and design. The natural colour of the wood can be changed from white to black and all shades between. Then there is engineered wood, laminates of with hardwood surface layers. These are supplied in a many different patterns: parquet, chevron, basket weave and many more. They are tougher, more flexible and more resilient than plain timber. In the end, the choice is beyond number as are the leaves on a tree.
Some hardwood suppliers also fit floors but the major players stick to their last and provide the buyer with names and addresses of trusted floor fitters.
And finally …
Last in the chain, but by no means least, is the floor fitter. These people are specialists; they are not carpenters or joiners; they are craftsmen with an artist’s eye whose training and experience puts them in a league of their own. They understand the qualities of hard woods and have special tools to ensure a perfectly fitted floor. They keep up to date with the latest innovations in lacquers and hard wax oils to keep floors looking beautiful for longer.
HS Wood Flooring is one of London’s leading floor fitting professionals. Tim Hobern and his team love the work they do – and it shows. Tim comes from New Zealand, possibly the most ecologically-minded country in the world with much longer record of forest stewardship than most.
“We have worked wonders with 100 year-old parquet blocks discovered in France for the Hawksmoor group of restaurants here in London,” Tim recalls with pride and continues: “We also restored a gorgeous 95 year-old floor in Ewell that turned out to be Sweet Birch, a wood that’s 20% harder than Oak and smooth as silk but impossible to find any more. Yes, we always see if an old floor can be revived before fitting a new one. We owe so much to the forests of the world that sustain our lives on this planet.”
By now, you will be able discern the wood from the trees and relate the timber products to the voices crying in the wilderness. They are prophetic, we must not ignore them.