Timber Certification - Seeing the Wood for the Trees

trees reflected in the lake photoGrowing public interest in issues of sustainability has brought a new focus to the use of timber in a wide range of applications, including construction.

Recent items in the press have raised concerns about the origins of timber used in the UK and have promoted timber certification - specifically the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme - as an all-encompassing, quick-fix answer for the concerned timber specifier or consumer.

Certainly, timber certification is one way of ensuring that timber comes from well managed sources - something the Scottish Timber Trade Association, the organisation which represents timber importers and producers in Scotland - fully supports.

The STTA's President, Mr Michael Walker, is on record as saying:

"It is very important that we work together (with non-governmental organisations) to promote acceptance of certification as the best safeguard to responsible forest management."

Specifying and purchasing only certified timber has the seductive appeal of simplicity - and as such has attracted major retailers and specifiers.

Simple answers are, however, rarely complete.

There is, first of all, the question of availability. A very limited amount of certificated timber is available - less than 2% of global industrial roundwood. Clearly, this is not enough to meet demand.

So what happens if concerned consumers and specifiers are unable to source certified timber?

The risk is that they will turn away from highly environmentally beneficial timber, towards other competing materials which, the STTA believes, have poorer environmental credentials e.g. concrete, steel or UPVc.

Mr Michael Walker commented recently:

"Our Members would like to sell more certificated timber but there is an enormous problem in securing supplies, due to the limited volumes available."

Focus on certification - particularly single-system certification - also brings other difficulties.

Michael Walker explains:

"The fact that timber is not certificated does not mean that it comes from badly managed forests. To insist exclusively on certificated timber is simplistic and restrictive. But to insist on only one form of certification e.g. FSC, is doubly restrictive and ironically, potentially damaging to the preservation of the world's forest resources."

How does this irony arise?

By buying only timber which is FSC certificated, concerned consumers effectively deny commercial value to the bulk of the world's timber supplies. Without commercial value the forests will cease to be maintained. They will disappear, victims of farming or urban spread.

It is a matter of fact that the areas of forest increase, (with all the plusses that implies for combating global warming, greenhouse gases and providing carbon sinks), are the areas where timber is a valued commercial commodity. Scandinavia, the major source of UK softwood, is an example, where currently at least two trees are planted for every one tree cut.

On the issue of tropical hardwoods, most of which are sourced from the world's poorest countries, the STTA's position is that of supporting and encouraging such countries to develop sustainable forest management practices through commercial contact.

Many such countries, with the help of aid agencies, are making very strenuous efforts to develop good systems of forest management. They are learning to make optimum use of their resources on a sustainable basis, rather than extracting to depletion. To restrict the purchase of timber from such countries penalises their efforts to develop sustainable systems, simply because they are, as yet, not in a position to deliver fully to First World certification criteria.

This is surely a most undesirable form of commercial imperialism - imposing First World standards on Third World countries.

So, practically speaking, what can consumers do to make the right timber purchasing choice?

The answer is, "Plenty."

Firstly, they should understand fully the nature of the FSC's Certification System and FSC Chain of Custody, and the benefits schemes like these bring to the promotion of sustainable forestry practice and products.

The Forest Stewardship Council certification involves the independent, third party assessment of forest management practices according to principles and criteria. Established in 1993 by environmental pressure groups such as WWF, FoE and Greenpeace, to date only a small proportion of the world's forest has been FSC certified (17 million hectares) and FSC labelled wood products are still rare. FSC does not carry out certification itself but accredits certification bodies such as BM TRADA Certification Ltd and SGS Qualifor to assess and certify on its behalf.

FSC Chain of Custody involves the verification of wood product processes from the forest gate to finished process. It is a traceability process designed to verify that a wood product bearing a certification label lives up to the claims of that label.

As well as the FSC scheme, informed consumers and specifiers should also understand fully the availability of other valid certification systems. Of key relevance to the UK is the Pan European Forest Certification (PEFC) programme.

PEFC believes that there is room for more than one label in the marketplace and offers a framework whereby creditable national certification schemes are recognised. PEFC's stringent requirements already govern a larger area of forests than that covered by FSC.

The timber industry remains optimistic that FSC will acknowledge other forest certification programmes and that the concept of mutual recognition will be embraced.

The UK is also taking a lead in forest certification, with the establishment of the United Kingdom Woodland Assurance Standard UKWAS. This is an independent forest management scheme developed by the UK forestry community industry. It follows the FSC principles and criteria and is administered by a steering committee serviced by the Forestry Commission. This standard forms the basis of the PEFC (UK) programme.

Informed consumers and specifiers should also be prepared to require, from their suppliers, evidence of an Environmental Purchasing Policy as promoted by the Timber Trade Federation's campaigning arm, Forests Forever. This utilises an environmental specification clause which places a condition upon the timber supplier. The following is offered as a guide:

  1. This organisation supports the development of credible timber certification schemes which are based on publicly available forestry standards drawn up in a fully participatory, transparent and objective manner and backed by independent auditing . Where possible, this organisation will prefer timber and wood products sourced from forest areas certified under these schemes.
  2. Where independently certified timber is not available, this organisation will prefer timber and wood products from suppliers that have adopted a formal Environmental Purchasing Policy for those products and that can provide evidence of commitment to that Policy.

Finally, consumers and specifiers should utilise timber and wood product suppliers whose history in the timber trade demonstrates their commitment to forest sustainability. Of the Member companies of the STTA, many are family firms whose livelihood over generations has depended on responsible forest utilisation. All are committed to using their skills and experience in the sourcing and supply of well managed timber. Caring consumers can only benefit from this and from purchasing timber, natural, sustainable and responsible choice.

Further information from:

STTA phone 01786 451623 or Fax 01786 473112

Forest Forever at
Timber Trade Federation at

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