Shoppers can't tell if wood they are buying comes from illegal sources

Conservation charity WWF finds only 28% of consumers have heard of logo that shows timber is from sustainable sources

Half of British shoppers are unaware that they could be adding to deforestation and global warming when they buy furniture and paper on the high street.

A survey by conservation charity WWF has found that 50% of consumers had no idea that wood for sale in the UK can often be from illegal sources, or the product of unsustainable logging in developing countries that is threatening some of the world's rarest wild animals and plants.

The survey revealed widespread public ignorance about the source of timber products such as bed bases, flooring or garden chairs, and even of printer paper, compared with awareness about other consumer goods, such as sustainable fish stocks and Fairtrade coffee. Half of those surveyed said they "presumed that buying in the UK meant it was from a legal source". Yet £700m a year is spent by UK shoppers on products made from illegally sourced wood.

Despite decades of concern over the world's disappearing forests, the UK is now the world's fourth largest importer of illegally logged or traded timber and wood products, after China, the US and Japan. WWF estimated in 2007 that 3.2 million cubic metres of illegal timber was coming into Britain each year, enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall 32 times over, and was being used in everything from garden furniture to laminate flooring. That would represent just under 10% of the total 39.5 million cubic metres that was imported into the country last year. In Europe as a whole, a fifth of all imported wood comes from illegal or unsustainable sources.

Deforestation is responsible for around 15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. It has a dramatic impact on the lives of communities who live in and around the world's forests, as well as pushing animals such as the orangutan close to extinction.

"Timber is a consumer demand-led market, just like anything else, so consumer response is utterly critical," said Julia Young, WWF UK's forest and trade network manager. "The number of times we hear companies saying, 'but our consumers won't pay more', while we know that they have been successfully adjusting people's shopping habits when it suits them for 20 years."

She said efforts had to be redoubled to persuade importers, sellers and buyers of forest products that sustainable wood was worth investing in, even as cheaper, illegal goods undercut the market. People can guarantee that what they are buying comes from well-managed, sustainable sources by looking for the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. But the survey found that only 28% of the public had heard of the certification scheme.

The survey of more than 1,000 adults was carried out as part of WWF's What Wood You Choose? campaign, a two-year EU-funded project. The charity has been successful in getting several major companies to commit to sustainable, FSC-labelled wood. DIY retailer B&Q has announced that all its tropical plywood is now certified, while high street retailer Argos has recently launched an FSC-certified kitchen range. Research for Argos has shown that, while more than 60% of its customers claimed to be concerned about the environment and use of natural resources, almost 70% didn't feel able to make informed choices about the products they bought.

The WWF survey also found consumers frustrated by the lack of action. Although it estimates that local authorities are responsible for a quarter of all sales, only 25 of the 333 councils in England that responded to a survey have a timber procurement policy for the vast amounts of paper, furniture and wood for construction that they buy each year.

Legislation is due to come into force in 2012 after the EU approved a ban this summer on the import of illegal forest products. Companies will have to provide information about the origin of the wood they use and its legality. However, the law exempts printed products, and fails to set minimum levels of penalties and sanctions. There are also serious concerns about fraud and corruption in the countries where the wood originates.

"A lot of certified timber isn't even sold as certified because the demand is low. We really need consumers to recognise how vital a role they have. Anything you buy, from office paper to flooring, asking where it's from is critical," said Young. "FSC may not be without its flaws, but buying FSC-certified products is the only way to be certain that the good of the forests, the incredibly diverse species that live in them, and the people who rely on them are being considered."

Contributor

Tracy McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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