New report demonstrates the sustainability of U.S. hardwoods

10-06-2020
AHEC,sustainability,report

A new report released by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has demonstrated the sustainability of U.S. hardwoods by comparing the requirements for responsible timber sourcing in regulations (such as in EUTR in the EU and Lacey Act in the U.S.) and typically contained in public and corporate procurement policies. The results of the report proved that, in several important respects, AHEC’s strategy goes beyond what is deliverable by forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC and is much wider in scope than most timber procurement policies. AHEC’s strategy to date has been to demonstrate sustainability against environmental attributes identified in scientific life cycle assessment (LCA) as relevant to U.S. hardwoods.

Technical requirements of ‘sustainable timber’ does not only equate to FSC or PEFC certification

Due to a lack of awareness of alternatives and of major changes in the policy environment for forest products, technical requirements for ‘sustainable timber’ are still typically equated with FSC and PEFC certification. These technical requirements are however increasingly out of step with the growing recognition that the major problems associated with forests in some parts of the world, such as deforestation and poor governance, cannot be addressed through forest certification. Unlike strategies based on forest certification, AHEC aims to address all these environmental aspects while also recognising the importance of independent assessment and expert review to ensure the credibility of sustainability claims.

The need to accommodate broader issues such as carbon footprint and life cycle impact

“Many of the requirements focused on certification do not accommodate the need for broader metrics of sustainability in the forest products sector and to recognise the importance of other issues not covered by forest certification including carbon footprint and other life cycle impacts; transparent information on national forest governance; the quality of forest resources at national and regional level; clear data on species volume, growth and harvest; efficient use of the full range of species and grades; product durability; and waste management and disposal. These amongst other factors have led the European Commission and other authorities in the EU, to conclude that neither FSC nor PEFC certificates are an adequate assurance, in isolation, that timber is at negligible risk from illegal harvest,” said Roderick Wiles, AHEC Regional Director.

Forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC require compliance with a wide range of good forestry practices to be demonstrated by an accredited third party. It also requires that wood be traced through the supply chain to a certified forest management unit. The concept has proved valuable for buying organisations seeking to demonstrate that their timber products derive from well managed forests. However, certification has certain limitations. While it can work well when timber is traded in large and relatively undifferentiated commercial volumes from large state and industrial forest holdings, it is technically more challenging to implement where forest management units and supply chains are more fragmented.

Although approximately 22 percent of the total forest area in the hardwood growing region of the United States is certified, the certified area is concentrated in larger consolidated areas of state forest land or private land managed by Timber Investment Management Organisations and Real Estate Investment Trusts. Moreover, supply is dominated by softwoods and lower grade hardwoods, much destined for the paper industry and other industrial uses. Over 90 percent of hardwood supply in the United States derives from nonindustrial landowners, of which there are nearly 9 million with an average area of less than 10 hectares. In total it is estimated that no more than 2 percent of non-industrial ownerships and 3 percent of non-industrial forest area is certified.

“The low percentage of certified U.S. hardwood forest can be attributed to a lack of incentives for non-industrial forest owners that do not prioritise timber production and typically harvest only once in a generation; relatively higher unit costs for operators that do not benefit from scale economies; the challenges of communicating and co-ordinating certification amongst millions of forest owners; and extreme fragmentation of supply chains, which creates significant challenges for wood tracking. In addition to discriminating against smaller forest operators and traders, another limitation of certification is that it cannot substitute for good forest governance and is open to abuse where this is absent,” added Wiles.

Innovative mechanism developed by U.S. hardwood sector to demonstrate and communicate product sustainability

In the absence of large-scale forest certification, the U.S. hardwood sector has developed innovative mechanisms to demonstrate and communicate the sustainability of products drawing on comprehensive national data sets on forest resources, governance and management; independent risk assessment involving the collection and systematic analysis of data to demonstrate that all U.S. hardwood is legal and sustainable; and scientific and ISO conformant LCA of the environmental impact of each individual U.S. hardwood specification at the point of supply to manufacturers in export markets.

AHEC has highlighted the importance of a risk-based approach to responsible timber sourcing in which the first step is to assess the quality of forest governance in a supply region by combining data on forest resources with information on forest laws and institutions. As such, the AHEC website hosts an interactive forest map to provide easy access to data derived from the USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) programme on forest volume, growth and harvest. Users can drill down to show data on individual hardwood species at national, state and survey unit level. This level of access to data on the distribution growth and harvest of commercial species at national level is unprecedented in the global forest products sector.

In addition, AHEC was also one of the first to commission a comprehensive LCA study of the cradle-to-gate environmental impacts of delivering U.S. hardwood lumber and veneer in 2012. This study is unique in the wood sector for the level of detail on environmental impacts provided for individual species and thicknesses of lumber and transport scenarios.

AHEC has subsequently used this data to inform LCAs of finished products and structures containing U.S. hardwoods regularly undertaken for AHEC demonstration projects. The AHEC website hosts an LCA tool providing easy access to environmental impact data on selected American hardwood species and thickness to the overseas customer using the specified transport route.

‘Seneca Creek’ study commissioned to assess risk of illegal and unsustainable practices in U.S. hardwood exports

AHEC also commissioned the first ‘Seneca Creek’ study in 2008 and an update of this study in 2017. The studies aimed to facilitate U.S. hardwoods’ continuing market access by providing a credible third-party assessment of the risk of illegal and unsustainable practices with respect to U.S. hardwood exports. The results of both studies have been very positive, not only confirming a negligible risk of illegal harvest in U.S. hardwood exports, but also confirming that there is a negligible risk of unsustainable practices in line with sustainability principles defined in government procurement policies in the EU as well as in other markets across the globe.

“We have developed the American Hardwood Environmental Profile (AHEP) system to provide our members with a simple mechanism to deliver species-specific data required to be reported for EUTR and similar regulations, alongside sustainability data from the FIA, the LCA and the Seneca Creek Assessment, to their overseas customers. AHEPs can be issued by AHEC members either for the term of an individual supply contract or for individual consignments of U.S. hardwood exported by AHEC members to anywhere in the world.

Looking ahead, we want to push for full integration of scientific life cycle data into the design and procurement process, confident in the knowledge that the choice of American hardwood is environmentally sound and exceeds all legal requirements,” concluded Wiles.

(All images are credited to AHEC)