Wall of silence surrounds WWF sustainable timber group

The credibility of WWF's initiative to encourage companies to commit to sustainable forest procurement has suffered another blow because of the lack of public reporting on the group's performance. A straw poll by ENDS seeking information on members' targets and progress met with a wall of silence.

In 1991, WWF formed the 95+ Group of companies and other organisations committed to increasing the amount of timber and wood products from sources certified as sustainable. The initiative has had considerable success in boosting markets for timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

However, in recent years the group appears to have lost its way. Last summer, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace exposed two members, Tesco and Jewson, for buying products made from illegally logged sources. Tesco was thrown out of the group and has yet to reapply.

A review of the group found serious flaws in its organisation, such as a lack of rules prohibiting illegal timber and a lack of transparency. This led to accusations that some companies were using the scheme as "greenwash" (ENDS Report 342, p 32).

In response, WWF reformed the group, and renamed it the UK Forest and Trade Network (UK-FTN). It introduced tougher membership requirements, including a commitment to phase out timber from potentially illegal sources. Members must also commit to obtaining "substantial and increasing volumes of credibly independently certified" wood and paper products (ENDS Report 349, p 35).

To ensure that members are living up to these commitments, WWF asked them to submit an action plan with targets in August 2003. Recently, all members submitted an annual progress report in which they are required to report the quantity of wood or paper products falling into new WWF reporting categories, including "certified", "in progress to certification" and "unknown and unwanted". The latter may include timber from illegally logged sources.

Despite the reforms, little meaningful information on targets or performance is published by WWF and UK-FTN members. ENDS contacted all 61 members of the UK-FTN, via WWF, to request copies of the 2003 action plan and the recent progress report. Only three companies - Blue Line Office Furniture, Graham and Brown, and Paragon Business Products - supplied the information.

Several leading members of the UK-FTN - including Boots, Focus-Wickes, Homebase and Sainbury's - refused to submit the action plan and progress report on the grounds that they were confidential. Homebase and Focus agreed to discuss their performance, but failed to provide any documentation to enable comparison. Other large members including B&Q, BBC Worldwide, Carillion and Redrow failed to respond.

Some members, such as Travis Perkins, provide limited information in their corporate environmental reports. The builders' merchant says it intends to have 75% of the raw material content of its timber and timber-based products certified by 2006. It had achieved 56% certified by the end of 2003, of which 23% was from FSC sources. However, Travis Perkins does not report the quantity of wood from unknown or unwanted sources. It admitted that a "small percentage" of its supplies would be from "unknown" sources as a result of acquisitions.

WWF itself provides only a snapshot of the group's progress. It says that almost 60% of the "wood raw material equivalent" traded by the group is FSC-certified - some 9 million m3 - compared to the UK's total consumption of 80 million m3. A confidentiality agreement means that WWF is unable to disclose information on individual company performance.

UK-FTN members are clearly doing more to promote sustainable forest management than others, but the lack of transparency remains a fundamental flaw in the initiative. Greenpeace timber campaigner Andy Tait said: "The lack of reporting makes it very difficult for those outside the group to judge what progress is being made. Public reporting is considered basic good practice and would help make the group much more transparent."

Robin Webster, a campaigner from Friends of the Earth, agreed: "This is why we're lobbying for mandatory corporate reporting...All companies should report information on their environmental impacts."

UK-FTN manager Rachel Hembery insisted that WWF would hold members to account to ensure that targets were challenging and that credible progress was being made. The group's confidentiality has enabled WWF to develop a "robust reporting framework" and high standards that members adhere to, she added. However, WWF is due to discuss the issue of public reporting with group's advisory board in August.

One member of the advisory board, who asked not to be named, said he would like to see a clear mechanism established for public reporting by the group as a whole. To do this, a common approach to measuring performance needs to be agreed so that data are comparable.

Another board member, Peter Whitehead of wallpaper manufacturers Graham and Brown, said he would be "quite happy to report publicly".

The most important factor driving the need for greater transparency is the Government's evolving policy on timber procurement. In June, the Government appointed consultants ERM and Proforest to establish a central point of expertise to advise the public sector. The consultants' first task has been to assess the effectiveness of existing certification schemes, beginning with an assessment of the FSC scheme, the European timber industry's rival PEFC scheme and the three main US, Canadian, and Malaysian schemes. By the end of August, the consultants are expected to announce whether the schemes provide sufficient assurance of legal and sustainable forest management.

  • In June, we wrote that B&Q, Woolworths and Robert Dyas buy their wood entirely from sources certified by the FSC (ENDS Report 353, p 32). This is incorrect. B&Q and Robert Dyas buy 80% of their timber from such sources. Greenpeace estimates that Woolworths also buys 80%.

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