A view of the environmental debate

Rod Nelson



Why should you want to make sure that the wood and wood products that you buy or specify comes from well managed forests? Although many people would probably rather avoid getting involved in this complex issue, there are good reasons why all specifiers, designers and customers now need to be aware of the requirements.

If you work in the public sector, you may soon be required to include 'environmental conditions of production' as a specification requirement (see the extract below from Michael Meacher's speech to parliament in July 2000). Government organisations and local authorities are likely to insist (if they don't already) that environmental criteria are addressed as part of their Agenda 21 commitments.

If your work is for a private client, you might not have political pressures placed upon you, but your client might wish to know that you have considered environmental factors - perhaps to avoid being embarrassed by awkward questions. For example, what answer might they give to the person who may suspect (rightly or wrongly) that the timber you specified for an exact reproduction of an original mahogany handrail comes from a country where forests are being destroyed at gunpoint by slave labour (this is not a hypothetical situation).

Finally, you may feel that it is now common sense to use sustainably produced wood wherever possible. You might even value the 'feel-good factor' which comes with taking the trouble to ensure that you only source wood from well managed forests.

It is a mistake to think that, by specifying wood instead of certain other construction materials, enough is being done for the environment already. Wood, after all, is an attractive material, has the lowest embodied energy and compares very favourably with all other materials in the life cycle analysis. However, if forests are being destroyed as a result of its production, its specification is not environmentally-friendly. The UK imports over 80 per cent of the timber we use, and it is very difficult to prove where most of this timber comes from, as the supply chains from forest to end user are often very complicated. Also, when trying to establish the environmental credentials of the source, it is difficult to know which questions to ask and how much to take on trust.


'Current voluntary guidance on environmental issues in timber procurement will become a binding commitment on all central government departments and agencies actively to seek to buy timber and timber products from sustainable and legal sources, for example, those identified under independent certification schemes such as that operated by the Forest Stewardship Council.'

Statement by Rt Hon Michael Meacher, Secretary of State for the
Environment, on Timber Procurement to the House of Commons
28th July 2000



The multiple functions and benefits of natural forests are notoriously undervalued in commercial terms. Recognition for the crucial role they play as genetic resource, in climate control and atmospheric regulation often comes too late to undo the damage caused by logging. The problem is that a forest is all too often seen as a sitting duck for a fast buck.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs report of 2002 found that in some major timber producing countries the level of illegal logging at least matches the legal trade in timber, and no continent or climatic zone is without problems in this regard. Indonesia and Russia are just two among many major producers of forest products with huge problems of illegal logging. Massive quantities of illegally acquired and/or unsustainably produced timber is reaching the international markets, sometimes through countries which appear to have impeccable forestry themselves - for instance, there is evidence that illegally produced Russian timber is being bought and sold (perhaps unwittingly) by legitimate Scandinavian companies. Forests are being lost at an ever-increasing rate (almost 16 million hectares of forest is permanently lost every year) and the truth is that the whole timber trading business, from forest source to end-user is in need of tighter regulation if it is to be able to supply environmentally-friendly wood. This is recognised at government level and by commercial companies, as well as within the more enlightened participants of the timber trade itself.

The best way to avoid to the destruction of our forests is through sustainable forest management (SMF), the harvesting of natural forests in such a way that their productive capacity and their essential biological qualities are not compromised. SMF is founded on respect for forests, which is widespread in all forest-based cultures: an understanding that forests are far more than simply a source of timber. SMF requires either a very extensive resource base and low intensity operations, or it requires restraint, skill and long term planning.


Unless you actually know the forest from where you are getting your wood, or unless you buy independently certified wood, you could be unwittingly contributing to illegal logging or some kind of forestry malpractice. The best option for environmentally-aware specification of timber is credible timber-labelling, but this needs to be supported by independent environmental certification, as there is a history of false claims of sustainability in the timber trade. (The Government's 'Green Claims code' is worth a glance on this topic - see the DEFRA website 'Greening Government'.)

Certification is a cornerstone of long-term market support for sustainable forest management because it enables real choice. As a result, specifiers are able for the first time to choose 'good wood' and know what they are getting. However, specifying certified timber from SFM may require forethought and some planning. It may be harder to find what you want and you may have to spend more time checking out unfamiliar suppliers.

Nevertheless, to find certified wood is the simplest way for specifiers who are looking for environmental guarantees.

Where to look online for UK sources of FSC-certified wood

Forest Stewardship Council

Friends of the Earth - Good Wood website

Behind the Logo an environmental and social assessment of forest certification schemes - report published by FERN, 2001

Forest Stewardship Council
So What is Certification?
From Latin, certis ficare. Certis - 'sure', ficare - 'to make'.
There are a number of certification systems which have been developed since 1993. Only one - the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) - enjoys the support of such important global environmental organisations as the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as well as trade unions and many social groups whose support is crucial to the success of certification. As a result, the FSC has a real advantage over other systems in terms of environmental credibility.
The Forest Stewardship Council has carved the way for forestry certification against many difficulties, discouragements and considerable opposition from some powerful commercial interests. It has pioneered methods by which products of sustainable forest management can be identified and rewarded in the turbulent market for timber. Now, with more than 24 million hectares of FSC-certified productive forest and a comprehensive range of certified timber species, wood-based manufactured products and pulp and paper items, the FSC is really having a strong impact on the wood buying market, particularly in the UK and Holland. In most DIY stores in this country every item made of wood is likely to be FSC certified.
In order to build on its success, the FSC needs continued support from specifiers and architects, who will use their influence to ensure that wood and wood products come from certified sources.



This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory 2002. It provides a guide to certification schemes and the specification of wood from sustainably managed sources.


ROD NELSON became involved in forestry issues after hearing about forest destruction in Thailand. With a degree in architecture from Cambridge and 25 years' experience in a variety of wood-related jobs, he worked for the Soil Association on the application of certification and labelling systems to forestry from 1995 to 2000. He has since worked as an independent consultant advising such clients as Ecosylva Ltd, NR Wallingford and the World Wildlife Fund.

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