Five years ago the Government announced that all departments would have to "actively seek to buy" only timber products from sustainable and legal sources, and quoted products certified under the Forest Stewardship Council scheme as an example.
But progress on defining "sustainable sources" and ensuring that departments stuck to the commitment has been painfully slow. Two years later, Greenpeace revealed that tropical hardwood bought by the Cabinet Office had come from an ancient forest region where illegal logging was commonplace - and that Whitehall was failing to use the FSC scheme or any other certification scheme to comply with the commitment (ENDS Report 327, p 34). The continuing shortage of FSC timber could have also made it difficult for Whitehall to meet the commitment by using FSC timber alone.
Not until late last year did DEFRA's "central point of expertise on timber" announce that timber certified under two schemes - those run by the FSC and the Canadian Standards Association - qualified as originating from a sustainable and legal source. Certification under three other schemes, including the Pan-European Forestry Certification scheme (PEFC), would not qualify but wood certified by those schemes could still be bought by departments while they were given a further six months to meet DEFRA's criteria (ENDS Report 358, p 32).
The PEFC was found to be "inadequate" because it failed to involve all relevant stakeholders in the standard-setting process, and make information on the certification process publicly available.
In August DEFRA announced that the PEFC scheme and a second scheme, the North American Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), had improved their standards sufficiently to pass the criteria. As a result, the department will revise its timber procurement advice note, specifying that the two schemes can be used as evidence of legal and sustainable timber. This effectively puts them on a par with the FSC scheme.
Environmental groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have attacked the decision, saying in a joint statement that PEFC and SFI "allow large-scale, unsustainable logging in ancient forest areas, the destruction of endangered species and the abuse of indigenous people's rights".
Ed Matthew, FoE's forest campaigner, said: "The Government has come up with an ingenious method for persuading its critics that it only buys sustainable timber. They are officially recognising destructive logging as sustainable logging. Hey presto, all that horrible destructive timber that they buy has disappeared."
Moreover, DEFRA's own reassessment concluded that the PEFC scheme "does not completely address the requirements." The department admitted that there is "no explicit general requirement that rare, threatened and endangered species must be protected", contrary to the provision that standards must include safeguards to protect endangered species and habitats.
In addition, the scheme has "no explicit requirement" for the standard-setting body to include balanced representation of economic, environmental and social interest groups", as required by DEFRA.
Despite these weaknesses, DEFRA accepts PEFC certification as evidence of sustainable timber, but argues that the PEFC and SFI schemes are on probation until the end of the year, when they will be reassessed.
DEFRA also promises it will conduct a detailed assessment of certification schemes that will include their performance on the ground, although it is not clear when this work will take place. DEFRA will also draw up a methodology for assessing alternative forms of evidence.
Businesses - including members of WWF's Forest and Trade Network (FTN), which is committed to buying more FSC timber - seem untroubled by the decision.
Carillion's environment adviser, James Hopkin, said that although the Government's decision will not cause Carillion to change its preference for FSC, "the announcement means that the Government's requirements will now potentially be less restrictive to those working on their contracts."
Although 21% of Carillion's timber is FSC-certified, a greater proportion is certified by the PEFC because it is more widely available on some construction products.
B&Q's social responsibility manager, Rachael Bradley, said its support for FSC remains unchanged. Two thirds of its certified timber and wood products are FSC-certified, and 15% of its supplies are PEFC-certified.
Another major timber supplier and FTN member said the announcement was "a positive move, as long as the improvements are delivered on the ground." The company would prefer that the Government use its influence to encourage the PEFC to improve, rather than excluding it altogether. According to the firm, this would also allow companies to supply greater volumes of certified timber.