Import of furniture to the UK is a multi-billion pound business, so you’d think UK furniture retailers would have the good business sense to ensure the timber for their products is sustainably produced, wouldn’t you? Are you sitting comfortably? I’ll introduce you to a story about this trade.
In 2015, our first Timber Scorecard looked at whether UK businesses across different sectors were ensuring their wood and timber products support forests for the future. The furniture companies – putting it politely – appeared a bit behind. Many well known furniture brands had no publicly available policies, and no performance reporting about how sustainable their sourcing of timber was. Were they risking contributing to the loss and degradation of global forest resources?
Are you sitting comfortably? Sustainable timber sourcing and the UK furniture industry (pdf), released today – November 15th, is a new report which seeks to establish the origins of the furniture that’s sold in the UK, and any risks posed by the sources, and to find out whether UK businesses in the sector are doing their best to ensure that the world’s forests are being managed in ways that will secure this vital natural resource for the future.
Our imported furniture trade
The UK furniture sector represents a home market of £10.2bn per annum. Nearly 6,000 UK furniture manufacturers accounted for a combined turnover of £7.4 billion in 2014. Overall furniture imports were worth £4.8 billion in 2014, which equates to 47% of the UK furniture market. The majority originate from China – 33% of our furniture imports – worth £1.66 billion, with Italy, Poland and Germany also being important import partners.
But the story isn’t straightforward when it comes to the remaining 53% of the UK furniture market, which is produced domestically. This could be primary production from wood raw materials or the assembly of components originally produced overseas and imported to the UK. Even if wood is used as a raw material, there is strong likelihood that most will be imported.
What’s the risk?
Just over half of all furniture imports are currently in scope of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). Arguably, a further quarter almost of imports should be in scope of the EUTR as they clearly contain wood. Some of the countries we import our furniture from have problems with illegal logging and trade – like China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Indonesia, among others.
The recurring issue when considering wood raw materials is that it is often unclear where that wood has originated from. Without thorough due diligence it is impossible to be sure that it has been harvested legally, let alone sustainably. The consumer has to trust that furniture retailers, and their supply partners, are taking responsibility for ensuring that their products, components and raw materials are sustainably sourced.
Are furniture retailers in the UK taking action?
The companies assessed in our report exercise included general retailers or furniture specialists, and those with stores on the high street, out of town or online. Research online examined publicly-available information during September and October 2016, aimed to find each company’s published information on their wood fibre sourcing activities.
Of the 74 furniture retailers we assessed, 50 (68%) have no published policy or any other credible sourcing statement on their website. There is a sad predictability about the fact that with some notable exceptions, most retailers don’t appear to know or care where the wood in their products comes from or if it is sustainably sourced. It remains an open question how many of their customers would still be sitting comfortably if they knew that.
Some, perhaps have awareness. Their incidental reference to timber sourcing suggests they may have some knowledge of responsible timber sourcing issues but are failing either to pursue credible policies or to communicate effectively what they are doing. These retailers include some prominent brand names such as Laura Ashley, and made.com.
Others have clear policy commitments, but are not demonstrating credible progress against them, at least not publicly as yet. These were made up mostly of specialist retailers, as well as department stores. The report has a full table of the results for the companies we assessed.
Mostly, it looks like voluntary inaction – but we know this work can be done. There are very good examples of performance – mostly among the big consumer brands such as DIY chains B&Q, and Wickes, but also among more specialist retailers – Magnet, Warren Evans, Alexander Rose and Office Depot. Further well-known brands are making good progress against strong policy commitments, like Argos.
As 68% of retailers in this study do not demonstrate strong timber sourcing policies, comprehensive due diligence to make sure wood for furniture is sustainably sourced is likely to be rare, even more so when there is no legal obligation.The greatest challenge therefore relates to the importing of finished furniture from outside the EU, particularly where the products do not fall within the current scope of the EU Timber Regulation.
We cannot support this kind of business. Our earlier report on the economic and business case for 100% sustainable timber shares many reasons why companies that fail to take responsibility for investing in sustainable supply chains for timber are not only contributing to ongoing pressures on global forests, they are also not accounting for their own business dependencies and resilience in the face of a changing timber market and pressure on resource availability from some key supplying countries to the UK. This is particularly disheartening in the face of the myriad of benefits that could accrue to the global environment, and the global business, through sustainable trade.
Our report prompts businesses in the furniture sector to start asking questions about the nature of their products and what they, and indeed the whole industry, can do to support sustainable forest management.
Only when we can easily find out what policies and performance these companies have, to prove they are sourcing sustainably, will we be able to sit comfortably on the furniture that supports our UK market needs.
Read the new report Are you sitting comfortably? Sustainable timber sourcing and the UK furniture industry.
You can check back to our Timber Scorecard, from 2015, here.