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March 22, 2017

UK: Hardwood’s sustainability message not helping sales

A UK Timber Trade Federation (TTF) conference on the UK hardwood market sponsored by The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) was held on 9 March. The conference aimed to provide a more accurate picture of the hardwood market in the UK and to inform the activities of the TTF which aims to revitalise the market development work of their National Hardwood Division (NHD) in co-operation with AHEC and other producer associations.

The TTF Conference suggested that those who believe that the environmental credentials of hardwood are a unique selling point offering an easy route to market, may need to think again.

Attitudes to sustainability expressed at the conference were typically muddled. The view overall seemed to be that while everyone wants “sustainability”, very few are willing to pay for it, or indeed are particularly interested in the details of how it is achieved in practice.

The general view of UK importers was that sustainability is not a positive selling point, although the requirement is now so ubiquitous that it must be demonstrated to avoid a loss of market share.

Demand for wood, and particularly hardwood, continues to be restricted in the UK due to prejudice about the unsustainability and illegality of product, despite its record of achievement on this issue.

After all, the sector is the only one which can now assure customers that all products placed on the market must be demonstrably from a legal source.

However, the retailers at the conference suggested that their perceptions of sustainability are strongly linked to FSC. The implication is that relative lack of FSC in the hardwood sector undermines market demand and attitudes to the material.

This raises profound issues surrounding the role of FSC in hardwood communication – whether it is it more of a hindrance than a help if demand for FSC is not matched:

  • firstly, by more significant progress to achieve certification on the ground in hardwood producing areas;
  • secondly, any real interest on the part of consumers in the genuine technical obstacles to this form certification in many forest environments, notably when timber derives from numerous non-industrial owners that harvest only very rarely, or in tropical countries where certification capacity is still limited;
  • or thirdly, equivalent forms of environmental assurance being demanded of other material sectors.

By offering consumers a deceptively simple, but still imperfect, technical fix to their sustainability concerns, FSC may be distracting buyers from exploring the wider sustainability narrative of their hardwood products, such as the social contribution made by the smallholder forestry sector and the need to maintain the competitiveness of commercial forestry in relation to agriculture and of hardwood relative to other, potentially more environmentally damaging, competing non-wood materials.

The short-comings of the FSC-only approach were well illustrated by one furniture retailer at the TTF conference.

The company recently ran a wood furniture promotion campaign in their main London store which included a requirement that all products on display must be FSC certified.

The company was keen to include some British hardwood in the display because “the local wood narrative played well with consumers”. However, in practice due to lack of FSC supply they were able to display only one small item – a chopping board – from UK forests. Even in the UK, FSC certification is still rare in the private sector where hardwood forest ownership is concentrated.

While the FSC-only approach is still prominent in the UK large retailer sector, other participants at the Conference said that in other sectors there is rising interest in broader sustainability issues.

For example the furniture design community is increasingly interested in the wider sustainability narrative surrounding their products, including both with respect to the source of materials and the life-time of products.

It was also noted that there is a growing appreciation in the architectural community of the life cycle environmental benefits of using wood, although for the vast majority of building projects this will not, on its own, lead to timber being preferred over other materials.


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