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January 21, 2020

Sharp drop in export of hardwoods to China has important implications for American hardwoods in Europe

Sharp drop in export of hardwoods to China has important implications for American hardwoods in Europe

Headline figures for sawn hardwood consumption in Europe show that demand has been flat for the last decade. However, these figures obscure major underlying changes in the European market. This was clear from presentations and discussion during the International Hardwood Conference (IHC) in Berlin during November, an event co-organised by the European Organisation of Sawmill Industries (EOS), the European Timber Trade Federation (ETTF) and German Sawmill and Wood Industries Association (DeSH).

David Venables, AHEC Europe Director, highlighted that the sharp downturn in US exports of hardwoods to China has important implications for the market development of American hardwoods in Europe. Specifically, it has greatly increased availability of red oak, a species which is largest single component of the US hardwood forest and which previously dominated exports to China.

American exporters now need a new outlet for red oak which traditionally has not been favoured in Europe. Europeans have always tended to favour white oak which closely matches the European oak familiar to European manufacturers.

Mr. Venables observed that in recent years there has been strong demand for European and American white oak while supplies have come under pressure, pushing prices higher. The market has been looking for more options, initially turning to ash as the grain and colour is similar and availability has been high in the short term, due to dieback in Europe and the Emerald Ash Borer outbreak in America.

Red oak provides another option, particularly as prices are currently much lower than for white oak. However, Mr. Venables noted that amongst European importers and manufacturers there has been a negative attitude to red oak with questions raised over its colour, performance and durability.

Mr. Venables said that this view stems largely from lack of knowledge, experience and familiarity with red oak in Europe. However, AHEC has found, through regular contacts with the European design community, that they are often very responsive to red oak’s appearance. Those manufacturers that can be persuaded to use red oak have come quickly to appreciate its strong technical characteristics.

AHEC’s strategy for red oak aims to supplement, but not replace, the existing demand for white oak in Europe. The main target group is designers, building on their evident interest in the wood, but also involves efforts to educate and inform European manufacturers and importers of the opportunity offered from increased sales and use of red oak.

Testing has also been undertaken to better assess and document the technical performance of red oak, to demonstrate that it is at least as good as other oaks, and to highlight its versatility, especially on finishes. There is also a major focus on red oak’s vast resource base, consistent supply, and sustainability.

Mr. Venables said that throughout 1919 and 2020 AHEC is engaged in multiple red oak design and building projects across Europe to generate a constant flow of publicity.

These are being linked with targeted online and social media campaigns.

Meanwhile, AHEC continues to development work on new hardwood applications in Europe. AHEC has worked with specifiers and designers on hardwood projects, including the world’s first cross laminated hardwood building, a cancer care centre near Manchester in the UK built with a core structure of American tulipwood CLT and clad with thermo-treated tulipwood.

Mr. Venables also described the range of tools AHEC has developed to demonstrate and promote US hardwoods’ environmental credentials. These include an interactive map showing forest growth and timber harvest, a life cycle analysis (LCA) tool for US hardwood species and the American Hardwood Environmental Profile (AHEP), which details the carbon and wider environmental impacts of hardwood consignments shipped anywhere in the world.

In all these tools, emphasis is placed on providing easy access to data individually tailored for all commercially available American hardwood species. According to Mr. Venables, this helps “avoid too much focus on just a narrow range of hardwood types. Our resource cannot be sustainably managed unless we encourage use of the whole portfolio of species”.

Mr. Venables emphasised that “in the hardwood sector, we have one of the world’s the most sustainable materials, a fact not yet widely recognised. We need to broaden the discussion away from just certification and to innovate in our communication.

For technical reasons, we can’t offer certified volume, so instead we have developed an interactive map, making US forest inventory data accessible to end users and specifiers”.

He went on, “we have also reviewed and updated the Seneca Creek study, first commissioned by AHEC in 2008, which demonstrates that American hardwood forests are sustainably managed and that there is a negligible risk, certainly much less than 1%, of any illegal wood entering the US hardwood supply chain. Through our LCA work, we prove to specifiers and our customers that we are supplying not only a technically superior material, but also a carbon store”.

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