Big furniture brands like IKEA can help slow rampant illegal logging

IKEA is one of the world’s largest furniture retailers and a leader in a booming global furniture market. The market reached an estimated value of over $490 billion last year.

The IKEA brand, in particular, is known for its fairly affordable products, but there are a lot of unseen costs in supplying cheap, mass-produced wooden furniture to major retailers – namely, costs of how and where that wood is harvested.

Eastern Europe and Russia offer a huge supply of high-quality, high-value hardwoods such as spruce and beech, and countries like Ukraine and Romania are home to huge ancient forests. Ancient forests are highly sought after, but also some of the most important to protect. They are particularly crucial for biodiversity, and older trees absorb carbon dioxide at higher rates than younger ones.

Estimates vary now, but an environmental watchdog group has determined that more than half of IKEA’s wood supply comes from this region. To be clear, IKEA is far from the only major furniture supplier here, but it is arguably the biggest: the company alone is the world’s largest single consumer of wood and has doubled its consumption in the last decade.

IKEA said earlier that “under no circumstances” would it accept wood that does not meet its sustainability requirements. They’ve also taken action against troubled vendors before.

To balance the growing global demand for timber with the conservation of these crucial forests, the EU and national governments have established large protected areas and quotas that limit the amount of timber harvested.

These protections, by the way, apply to both public and private land. This is important to note because IKEA itself is the largest private landowner in Romania. It has about 83,000 acres – that’s almost 63,000 football fields worth of land. He made this massive purchase in 2015, buying it from the previous owner, the Harvard Endowment Fund.

But despite legal limits and forest management, Eastern European forests are disappearing much faster than they should, and it’s only increasing.

Global Forest Watch maps show the total loss of forest cover in Ukraine, Russia and Romania over the past two decades.

Part of this is due to deforestation, legally or not. In 2018, for example, the Romanian government licensed around 18.5 million cubic meters of timber to be harvested, but instead around 38.6 million were harvested – more than double the legal limit.

“It’s also a breakdown of the kind of European laws designed to deal with this,” said David Gehl, manager of traceability and technologies at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Romania has designated large amounts of its forest as protected areas. They never created the implementing regulations to actually implement these laws.”

So how is this happening right under the regulators’ noses?

Problems often start early in the supply chain. For example, loggers may use false documentation to hide the quantity or quality of the wood they are harvesting. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending unclear or misleading photos to the local government’s tracking system, obscuring how much wood is actually being harvested. Then the illegal wood is taken to a log warehouse, where it is often mixed with legal wood.

Enforcement of the rules on the ground becomes almost impossible thanks to what the press dubbed the “Mafia of Madeira”, which is a group well rooted in local communities.

“There’s a lot of excellent reporting and investigative reporting in Romania about this, and a lot of interviews, for example, with police officers who are just clearly admitting on camera that they can’t touch these people,” Gehl said.

Fighting illegal loggers is dangerous work. Like other hotspots of illegal logging around the world, several forest managers, rangers, activists and journalists were attacked or even killed across Eastern Europe and Russia. In Romania alone, at least six rangers have been killed in recent years, with 650 incidents of people being beaten, shot or attacked in connection with illegal logging.

So how can furniture retailers ensure that the wood they are using is safe and legally sourced?

Suppliers often rely on something called Forest Stewardship Certification, or FSC, to verify the origin of wood products. Third-party companies can be hired to perform an audit along the supply chain – from log warehouses to sawmills and more. They can grant an FSC certification if the work looks legitimate.

But critics pointed to some central flaws in the audit process and warned that FSC certifications could be giving a false sense of security.

“There’s this kind of conflict of interest because IKEA is paying directly for an FSC certificate,” said Tara Ganesh, head of investigations at Earthsight. “So it doesn’t create much of an incentive for these auditors to look for issues independently, because actually these audit firms in Russia are competing for business from companies like IKEA.”

“So we talked to some certification bodies who said, you know, ‘I got hired by this company. I spent three days in the woods. I gave them this list of 20 things they would need to change to get their certification,'” Gehl said. “They said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and three days later they got certification from a different company.”

There have been a number of separate investigations across Eastern Europe that have found illegal wood processing at IKEA partners, all FSC certified.

UK watchdog group Earthsight has published two reports showing that illegal timber from forests in Ukraine and Russia has been widely used in popular lines of IKEA furniture.

“It was a combination of looking at shipping records and undercover work calls to the vendors involved to try to get admissions from them about various practices and their links to IKEA,” Ganesh said. “It was also in both cases in Ukraine and Russia. There is actually a lot of information publicly available, which is fantastic. But it also raises the question that if we could find it, why did IKEA take so long to find it, or FSC, for that matter?”

IKEA’s response was to defend its confidence in FSC certifications. The company insisted it was improving its system of due diligence checks. Newsy contacted IKEA and the Forest Stewardship Council for a response on this, but got no response.

“I think IKEA is doing maybe more than any other big wood processor in the world,” Gehl said. “The problem is that the status quo, the status quo barrier, is so low that even though they are doing better than this status quo, it is still a long way from what is needed to ensure they are not illegal. “

It’s hard to know where to start with a system like this: the danger to field workers, corruption in supply chains, the documented abuse of FSC labels. These problems really boil down to a lack of oversight.

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