If you only read one eco-angst book this year…

READ THIS ONE!

(and you may never again see a cardboard box or a wooden pallet in the same innocent light)

Wood in the service of mankind, 6: The Big Picture

The lumbering story of how our appetite for timber and (wood) fibre has rocketed in the last twenty years, and how Northern consumers are outsourcing their supply chains, and (perhaps unthinkingly) their consciences to the “Global South”. How on our behalf the “Big Box Retailers” ( Walmart, IKEA, Carrefour, Tesco and many others) are driving down costs to the point where the supply chains suck in illegal logging from countries with weak governance and poor health and safety arrangements.

Did you know?

  • Annual global timber production runs at around 3.6 billion cubic metres, or around 1.5% of the global timber reserve.
  • Around 50% of this is used for “global industrial” purposes. The other half is consumed locally for fuel and cooking etc.
  • 50% of timber by value is used for “pulp” products – covering everything from toilet paper and disposable nappies to playing cards and traditional (analogue) books.
  • “Pulp” includes the enormous quantities of packaging consumed by the big box retailers to satisfy our consumer appetites – a global middle class forecast to triple by the year 2030.
  • Developed countries – with 20% of world population – consume 75% of solid wood (“roundwood”) harvested and around two thirds of all paper products.
  • Per capita consumption of paper products in industrialised countries is estimated at 200Kg per annum.
  • One Company in Brazil (Fibria) controls 37% of the global market in eucalyptus pulp – highly favored for the production of super soft toilet tissue.
  • Estimates suggest that 40% of wood imports into China, the new “wood workshop of the world”, are sourced through illegally logged timber. Most is then re-exported to first world markets.
  • Walmart has 10,000 separate suppliers in China, and is that country’s 6th largest trading partner
  • IKEA markets 9000 wood products and annually produces 200 million (wood fibre based) catalogues in 27 languages in 38 countries.
  • US households receive an estimated total of 100 BILLION pieces of junk mail every year, consuming around 100 million trees to produce it.

The first 5 chapters of this book are a depressing and shocking tale of how the biodiverse resources of the “Global South” are being consumed by excessive appetite in the North. As a life-long member of that exclusive Northern club it would be hypocritical for me to preach to fellow members, or to criticize individual producers. IKEA and the big box retailers are here to stay. We can never return to a cosy world of local artisans, to William Morris or Grinling Gibbons.

But as the final chapter explains (with guarded optimism) there are opportunities, as well as imperatives, to encourage and enforce better governance and improved sustainability, by leveraging the power of the “big box retailers”. No doubt many who have studied these issues much closer than me, and have plumbed the depths of corporate cynicism, will scoff at the idea of these Wall Street driven juggernauts offering anything more substantial than greenwash. But there are some promising signs.

For example, the Forest Footprint Disclosure project aims both to improve transparency in global corporate supply chains, and also to inform us consumers so that we can differentiate between  products produced in more  and less harmful ways. (Just visit – http://www.forestdisclosure.com). And the European Timber Retail Coalition (formed in 2010) is working to ensure minimum “ethical” standards for timber sold in the EU. Even IKEA is now producing an annual sustainability report (but hopefully not 200 million hard copies), and is apparently conducting unannounced audits of its Chinese suppliers.

Will these private sector governance initiatives be enough? The authors remain cautious, and give the impression that they think not: governments, voluntary civil agencies and increasingly eco-conscious consumers will also need to play their part. And that last and important group includes you and me…

Footnote

One final irony: “Timber” isn’t available in forest friendly Kindle format. So if you have an Amazon Kindle account, then tell the publisher NOW: “I’d like to read this book on Kindle”.

Tell the publisher you’d like to read it in e-book format!

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