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The fog of timber sourcing transparency

Transparency: the quality of being easy to perceive or detect.

Across the way from our office is a small architecture practice. Like any practice they look for new materials and new methods to add to the palette of ideas they can offer clients. Every so often we get the inevitable “what do you think of this…?” question. This fairly regularly is paired with a piece of timber being waved in our faces. Sometimes the answer is “looks shocking to me” and we can get on with our coffee. Other times it piques our interest and leads to the question of “looks like a neat solution but where does the raw material come from?”

Why not declare

The answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders and off we go to look at the manufacturer’s website. This usually leads no further. There are a few ways of looking at this:There is an Environmental Performance Declaration (EPD) for the product and that is as good as it’s going to get (though if anyone can understand the numbers in a standard EPD please get in touch to help us understand).Or, the company…

  • …is a reseller and simply doesn’t know the impact of the product they are selling.

  • …thinks the buyers don’t want to know so don’t feel the need to take up webspace with it.

  • …is slightly embarrassed about the product’s journey to the consumer so sweeps it under the digital rug.

  • …is simply not interested and does not recognise the importance of material provenance for traceability, accountability, and sustainability.

When to declare

In many cases businesses are loud and proud about their timber sourcing. For Vastern Timber the provenance of their thermally modified timber ‘Brimstone’ weaves into the story of the product. Making highly durable stable products from locally procured timber is the passion behind the product. This passion comes through in the marketing and is supported by an EPD. The same is true of all companies showing the Grown in Britain mark. It’s an easy to see announcement of the timber origin.

Why should we care?

Many wood products now carry certification marks which show their sustainability. FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) being the two most common. They show an audited trail of timber from well managed forests through well managed sawmills and manufacturers onto the retail shelf. Alongside this, EPDs allow customers to see the carbon cost of the product. For timber this includes the carbon positive growing of the timber and carbon negative processing. In most cases, for timber, it’s a good-news story of storing more carbon than is used. Happy days, job done, let’s use the carbon storing product.

However, what EPDs and certification schemes don’t always address is the distance travelled in creating the end product. Accoya is a good example of the complexity of material provenance. Timber grown and harvested in New Zealand is processed and manufactured in Europe and then reshipped across the world. Another example is the UK’s use of wood pellets that begin life in the US, or fencing material from Eastern Europe (this list could go on). But how can we reliably measure the relatively low carbon use of shipping against road transport? Is using Scottish timber road-freighted to Devon better than using Swedish timber sea-freighted?

We have no idea. We could have done the number crunching for this post, but that is missing the point. We’d rather the seller be transparent and tell us about the carbon credentials of their product upfront so we can make an informed decision with the best available data at that time.

Does certification = transparency?

If a product has FSC certification but comes from 8,000 miles away, is that better than a product with no certification but comes from 10 miles away? Are you happy just knowing that timber is as good as it gets in sustainable material use without worrying about its origin? We believe in using timber from as close by as possible, or working with you to consider a design to allow that to happen. We also fully appreciate that you have other things to consider and sometimes the right product comes with a carbon penalty at one end to fulfill a carbon benefit at the other.

There is no definitive right or wrong answer to timber sourcing BUT it should be the consumer’s right to make that decision and without transparency it’s an impossible decision to make. There is nothing shameful or wrong about selling imported timber or timber with high carbon miles. We know the UK cannot self-supply all our needs at the moment and some very well thought through products are things that we import.

What to do

If you are a designer or consumer our advice would be to ask. Any product with a certification mark should have a code to allow traceability. Failing this, ask the supplier. If they don’t have any information on timber origin or any rationale for that origin on their website, ask them and then make an informed choice.

If you are a supplier and you don’t have information freely available about the origin of your timber and the journey it makes to the point of sale, ask yourselves ‘why not’? We, the public, the buyers, increasingly crave transparency. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a promotional tool as well. And don’t forget, we can always help you with finding the right path to good messaging that is honest and transparent.


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