How do you choose sustainable wood?

Nadia Tahon - VELT
27 February 2018
It is better to use wood instead of plastic, but how can you be sure that the wood was harvested with respect for forests and nature? How do you protect the tropical forests? And what exactly do the FSC and PEFC labels mean? VELT, the Association for Ecological Living and Gardening (Vereniging voor Ecologisch Leven en Tuinieren), has listed some key points.


What is sustainably produced wood?

Sustainable wood is harvested from sustainably managed forests. This means that wood miners cut wood in such a way that the ecological function of the forest as a habitat for plant and animal species is preserved. Sustainability also has a social dimension. This means that miners respect the rights of the local workers and the indigenous people inhabiting the forests. But although forest management and logging are worldwide subject to regional or national legislation, illegal logging can unfortunately not be excluded.


Avoiding illegal wood

Only 30 percent of our wood supply comes from Flanders. In the Netherlands, local wood accounts for only 10 percent of the total wood supply. The rest comes mainly from other European countries, but also from outside Europe. Although forest legislation is (very) strict in most European countries, legal logging does not necessarily equal sustainable logging. In Europe, too, ancient forests are being felled. For tropical wood, it is quite a different story.

National legislation varies from country to country and the complexity of a forest makes it very difficult to define what good forestry should look like. Anyone who wants to import wood into the European Union must be able to demonstrate that it complies with these national laws. The problem, however, is that the control mechanism still leaves a lot to be desired or does not even exist at all. All too often, wood of questionable origins slips through the net.


Local wood

The most important advice remains to use wood economically and sensibly, as it is difficult to do without. As with food, preference should be given to local wood production, which leads to a shorter production chain and increased transparency. Moreover, local legislation is very strict, as evidenced by the fact that not even half of the Belgian forests are certified. In Flanders, certified forests carry a FSC label (23,000 hectares), while Wallonia predominantly uses the PEFC label (300,000 hectares). In the Netherlands, 42 percent of forests are FSC certified, whereas PEFC has a much larger share in Germany and France.


The most important advice remains to use wood economically and sensibly, as it is difficult to do without. As with food, preference should be given to local wood production, which leads to a shorter production chain and increased transparency.


‘Buying wood with a label is the safest way for consumers to opt for sustainable wood’, says Jan Brusselaers, researcher at UGent*. There are two labels covering virtually the entire market of recognised sustainable wood: FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). Both labels are internationally recognised and contain a set of sustainability criteria. Their starting point? Forests will continue to exist if they are sufficiently productive. It all  comes down to finding a balance between social, economic and ecological interests.

Although there are still differences between FSC and PEFC, they have become more similar over the years. More and more foresters now opt for double certification. This does not prove to be difficult, especially for large industrial players, and gives forest operators the opportunity to enter several markets. Just as important as the set of criteria is the on-the-spot monitoring of compliance with these criteria. This is not always done correctly and it sometimes takes a while before sanctions are applied.

It is not easy to make an ecological comparison of the labels for forest management, since both labels aim for sustainable forest management. Both FSC and PEFC use the following criteria for Europe: no GMOs, and avoid pesticides and invasive exotic species as much as possible. The PEFC certification varies from country to country due to its organisational structure. The FSC label is supported by environmental organisations, whereas the PEFC label originated from the forest owners.


Gecertificeerde tropische houtsoorten zijn te vinden maar het aanbod blijft beperkt. Certificering maakt hout duurder en de consument moet een eerlijke prijs willen betalen.

Tropical forests

Certified tropical wood species can be found but the supply remains limited, since certification makes wood more expensive and forces the consumer to pay a fair price. Each type of wood has specific properties. For private purposes, it is certainly possible to work mainly with European wood. Sometimes you have to adjust your expectations and choose, for example, oak with more knots than you had in mind. You need some time to find the right type of wood.


Sustainable without a label?

According to Jan Brusselaers, the existence of both labels is important. Should the labels become more sustainable? ‘Right now, it is important that as many forest owners as possible certify, otherwise you risk an even greater negative impact of logging in the South. But forest management can go beyond the criteria of both labels.’

The criticism of both labels has led to new initiatives finding their way. A good example of this is the University of Namur, which manages its own forests in a sustainable manner and does not have them certified. It allows the forest to decide for itself which trees will be felled and which shoots will become new knots that can later be felled.


*Jan Brusselaars carried out the following research project at UGent: "Assessment of public policies for the promotion of sustainable and legal wood – 2017".


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