Timber - the natural choice

David Sulman, of the Scottish Timber Trade Association, provides an update on the rapidly changing subject of timber certification and sustainable forest management.

There is increasing appreciation that timber has a vital role to play in sustainable construction and sustainable development. Sustainably managed forests provide economic, social and environmental benefits and can provide them indefinitely. Timber is a truly renewable and sustainable resource - no other construction material has this advantage. The production of timber and wood products uses far less energy than any other commonly used construction material. Life Cycle Analysis shows that for many construction uses, wood and wood products are the best environmental choice.

Independent certification of forest management systems and chain of custody certification are now well established in many countries; providing specifiers and users of wood and wood products with the assurance that the products have been obtained from legal and sustainable sources.

The Scottish Timber Trade Association, the Scottish arm of the Timber Trade Federation, which represents the technical and commercial interests of timber importers, merchants and specialist agents in Scotland, fully supports moves to provide such assurance to specifiers, users and suppliers alike. The Timber Trade Federation has developed a Responsible Purchasing Policy, which has been welcomed by Government. The policy provides companies with a tool to objectively assess suppliers' performance and to implement continuous improvement. TTF member companies are now implementing this policy, to provide further assurance to specifiers and users about the environmental credentials of their products. Launched earlier this year, the policy has already resulted in some 30% of the wood traded in the UK being covered by this policy and this level is expected to increase significantly over the coming months.

The rate of progress towards certification made in the many countries which supply wood to the UK clearly impacts upon the availability of certified timber in the UK. Although a significant proportion of the wood sold in the UK is already certified, it should be appreciated that as the UK currently imports some 80% of its wood requirements, it is likely to be some years, rather than months, before all of the wood and wood products used in the UK are certified. This does not mean that specifiers and users of timber and wood products should shun products simply because they do not have a certification 'label' yet. Certified products that are fit for purpose should be the materials of choice, however, if a product does not have a certification label yet, it does not necessarily mean that it has been obtained from illegal or unsustainably managed sources. In such cases, suppliers can provide information about their procurement policies and offer assurances about particular products.

Certification of sustainable forest management entails the independent, third party assessment of forest management practices according to an agreed set of standards. Chain of custody certification, which is being implemented by many timber suppliers in the UK, involves the verification of processes from the forest to the despatch of products to customers.

Although there are many forest certification schemes in operation throughout the World, in the UK, two schemes are most commonly encountered; the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC).

In the UK, DEFRA is leading the Government's activities in this field by reviewing public sector timber procurement policy. A Central Point of Expertise in Timber (CPET) has been established, which enables public sector procurement officers to ascertain the credentials of wood and wood products from different sources.

CPET commissioned consultants to undertake an evaluation of the five principal forest management certification programmes, namely PEFC, FSC, CSA, SFI and MTCC. The initial review undertaken in 2004 showed that all five schemes satisfy the requirements for legal sourcing and that two of the schemes also satisfy the requirements for sustainable sourcing. DEFRA then allowed a further period for those certification schemes which did not satisfy both criteria to make changes to their programmes and then be re-assessed.

A further review of the amended PEFC and SFI schemes was conducted earlier this year and a formal announcement from DEFRA, confirming that these schemes now satisfy both legal and sustainable criteria was anticipated in mid-Summer. However, some NGO's have challenged DEFRA and the announcement has been deferred, pending further discussions.

Many organisations, both in the UK and overseas, are watching these developments, including BRE, which is currently reviewing its BREEAM and Eco-Homes environmental rating systems, which include credits for certified wood and wood products used in construction.

Wood's unique attribute as the only truly renewable and sustainable construction material is yet another aspect of the good story that wood has to tell.

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