21 June 2024, 20:24
By Mandy Carmody May 17, 2019

Will we ever stop illegal timber imports?

It has been six years since the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) came into effect, prohibiting the placing of illegally harvested timber in the European market. While presenting at a recent TREE (Timber Regulatory Enforcement Exchange) meeting, Mandy Carmody found herself asking if, so many years later, the industry is really doing enough …

It seems to me, it’s not that hard to comply with the EUTR. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working with companies and manufacturers before the regulation came into effect, so have just got used to it – but, if you’re like me and are working with countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand, you’ll know that conducting due diligence isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Often it’s a transparency issue, and your supply chain just doesn’t want to share the information. They might try to stall the process in the hope that you will give up and go away. Even when you put a timeframe on it, the deadline often sails past with little or no conclusion. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

One look at UN Comtrade data* reveals that furniture is a massive component of the timber products being shipped around the globe, and, over a five-year period 2013 to 2017, here in Blighty we’re the third-largest importer of timber-based furniture (only the US and Germany import more).

The data shows a steady increase in imports into the UK, and Comtrade can also identify where the trade is buying its products from. The UK furniture shipping country of source has not changed much over the same period, with China still the biggest exporter to the UK, and Poland and Vietnam in second and third place, respectively.

Relative to total growth of the market, however, EUTR take-up has not increased by the same margin. This shows that whilst the value of the trade is going up, the regulations are not being taken up by importers of the product, and this is indicated in the data from regulated vs unregulated markets  (regulated countries with an operational timber regulation in effect include the UK, US, Australia, Canada, EU28, Norway and Switzerland, because they are technically following the EUTR). 

Comtrade data for 2018 is yet to be released, but I don’t expect the scales to shift much.

There has also been an increase in the use of Indian timbers. The imports data for 2014/15 shows a decrease from 2013, but it is now very much on the rise – is this due to cheaper labour costs, or just a shift in customer demand?

After meeting the Office for Public Safety & Standards (OPSS) and the competent authority for Denmark, amongst others, it became obvious that there are still companies out there trading that have little or no knowledge of the regulation – so, for all we know, could be receiving illegally felled timber.

For example, there has been a recent increase of furniture being shipped from Turkey. This is in much smaller amounts than what’s shipped from the Far East, but when companies were approached for their due diligence, many had no idea about their responsibility. It’s the law, so how could they not know about this?

Yes, these could be small enterprises or online-only companies that are operating with little or no compliance advice, so are just unaware they needed to do anything at all. On the other hand, with all the information available on the internet today, it’s easy to find out almost anything – perhaps it’s just easier to ignore it and hope it goes away?

So, how can we spread the word and reach out to those businesses that are still in the dark? Trade events, publications and seminars are all taking place. Indeed, the OPSS runs free training days for companies who work in timber products requiring guidance and advice to comply, and the courses are free to attend (they even offer a checklist).

I’m not saying all companies who ship furniture into the UK are the same, as we know this is not the case – many are doing their due diligence and mitigating risk, from carrying out regular factory and supply chain visits to conducting species identification testing at a cost to their margins, exiting non-compliant supply chains and changing materials as part of their mitigation. 

Often organisations like these have been working with their factories for years, so have built up a great working collaboration, which goes a long way.

But it doesn’t detract from the fact that deforestation is still a huge issue. It’s happening in countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia amongst others, and that timber is finding its way into our supply chains.

Mandy Carmody is the owner and founder of QSL (Quality Solutions (Technology)), an advisory, consultancy and audit service provider that works within the furniture and hard goods industries. With 20 years’ experience, QSL offers support in all areas of the development process including ethical requirements, health and safety, general product safety, testing and sustainability.

* Data from UN Comtrade, 2019, and Forest Trends, 2019

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