Companies in the UK are not doing enough to ensure the wood they buy has been harvested legally, according to a study by WWF.
Some are also misleading customers by implying timber is from plantations certified as sustainable without proof.
An attempt by WWF and Earthsight Investigations to trace hardwoods used in kitchen worktops, doors, decking and plywood on sale in the UK found some companies had little or no idea where the wood originally came from. Some did not even know which countries of origin have problems with illegal logging.
Earthsight staff posing as customers were originally told, for example, that a door sold by Leeds Plywood & Doors was made from timber certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). However, a visit to the firm's Indonesian supplier showed the supplier had no idea where the timber had come from.
WWF says the firm has since pledged to review its environmental systems.
EU regulation looming
The difficulties companies had in identifying the source of their timber suggests they may struggle to comply with an EU due diligence regulation coming into force in March 2013. This requires the company first placing timber or a timber product on the EU market to ensure it has not been harvested illegally (ENDS Report, October 2010).
“While some of the major retailers are clearing up their supply chains there are a large number of UK companies that simply don’t have the information or the understanding to make them fit for purpose when the new regulations come into force,” said Colin Butfield, WWF’s head of campaigns.
A study published last year by Chatham House suggested 2.5% of timber imported into the UK was from illegal sources. This is significantly less than in 2002, but the figure is only based on data from five producing countries (ENDS Report, July 2010).
The legality of timber is not just an issue for tropical hardwood, says WWF. A sizeable volume of suspicious timber enters the UK market from temperate countries such as Russia, Latvia and Estonia.
WWF also fears the new EU regulations could result in companies focusing on legality rather than sustainability. The two are not the same, it says.
Timber trader Timbmet, for example, had documents showing bangkiri wood used in decking was legally logged in the Philippines. But the area in question is a natural tropical forest area being cleared for a plantation.
WWF urges companies to buy only FSC-certified timber. The NGO helped establish the scheme and claims it remains the best proof of sustainability.
However, the way some companies use FSC to market their products also needs reform. WWF hopes new rules on internet advertising being introduced by the Advertising Standards Authority in the spring will help.
At the moment, some companies display the FSC logo near non-FSC products or seem to suggest that the FSC certification of some products applies to the whole company. This may be the result of staff misunderstanding.
Cornish-based Barncrest, for example, was displaying an FSC logo near details of its iroko-wood worktops even though they themselves are not FSC-certified, says WWF.
The firm also said on its website that it sought evidence of legal compliance from suppliers but staff told Earthsight that the European supplier of the worktops was unlikely to provide evidence of legality. It later told WWF it in fact sourced the iroko direct from Ivory Coast.
Iroko, also known as African teak, comes from tree species that are legally protected in some countries, says WWF. Ivory Coast has had problems with illegal logging and has used the army to protect national parks in the past.
Barncrest told WWF it was confident its iroko was legally logged and would make the status of different products clearer on its website.
Other companies offer FSC-certified versions of their products as an optional extra. This often costs more and WWF doubts many customers opt for certified versions.