Fort Builders Merchant, a new business just launched by former UK Timber Trade Federation President Keith Fryer, is applying its own ‘Fortified’ eco-label to FLEGT-licensed and FSC and PEFC-certified timber without differentiation. The aim is to simplify and cut the cost of legality and sustainability assurance. IMM interviewed Mr Fryer on the company’s innovative move.
IMM: You were previously co-owner and director of successful London-based timber and builders merchant T. Brewer. What was its policy in terms of ensuring and communicating legal and sustainable sourcing and what were their benefits and drawbacks as far as you were concerned?
Keith Fryer: We were at the forefront with chain of custody (CoC), in part because our business was centred on London, which has high demand for it. We wanted to make sure customers could sleep at night, knowing they had every box ticked. We broadcast our position very widely and worked with architects, specifiers and any others we wanted to engage, to promote CoC. It set such a positive position. But we would hit frustrations over some CoC policies, particularly when customers opted for an ‘FSC Only’ position, which makes procurement of the right product specification unnecessarily difficult, without improving legality or sustainability. This has been a long-standing bugbear of mine; the politicisation and turf war battles between the two main certification bodies. They have not added any benefits, just negatives.
The 2012 Olympics was a great example. The building process initially used FSC and PEFC products, rating both as equal. The approach resulted in great products, great value and superb service. But the games organisers then switched to FSC only and it caused utter chaos.
The greatest problem was the inability to put FSC and PEFC goods in one pile and sell them as legal and sustainable. That meant we had to separate products by scheme, which also reduced options when reordering, which in turn diminished quality, availability and price.
IMM: At your new business, Fort Builders Merchant, you have decided to take a new route; to supply FSC and PEFC-certified and FLEGT licensed timber, but undifferentiated and all under your own 'Fortified Timber' label signifying assured legality and sustainability. Can you explain how this works?
KF: The process is simple. We have an annual audit against our ex-stock timber products. These are all procured with a FLEGT licence, FSC or PEFC certification. Our view is that any of these procurement lines default to legal and sustainable, so we can instantly make a fully legitimate claim accordingly for every piece of timber we sell. It is easy to do, we have almost no extra administration costs and most importantly it means customers get what we feel are all the important points covered: legality and sustainability assurance, quality, specification, service and price.
IMM: What what was the wider background to your decision to adopt this strategy?
KF: We have built Fort to be a 21st century business, with operating systems that look forwards, using increasing levels of IT to reduce operating costs. In line with this, we wanted a streamlined, efficient approach to legality and sustainability verification. I had become increasingly infuriated about the way the timber industry has been used as a cash cow by a huge range of entities in this area, each creaming off money, while giving little back. Since the advent of CoC we’ve seen no increase in forest certified by FSC or PEFC. They’ve sorted the low hanging fruit, certifying mainly temperate forests, and now it feels that they want to increase their influence and income by constantly increasing the administrative burden. Auditing is becoming a farce, with non-conformances issued for the most petty reasons; constant rule changes make it hard to keep up, but none of it seems to give any gains to either end of the supply line. Against that backdrop we decided that Fort needs to give its customers security, without all the unnecessary complexities and burdens.
IMM: What is the auditing process behind the Fortified label?
KF: Again, it’s very simple. We check our suppliers against the relevant databases to ensure that their FSC/PEFC certification is current and mandate them to supply all ex-stock items.
In the case of FLEGT-licensed goods we require proof the licence is valid from the supplier. Purchase orders are raised. From there we just work on the same basis as any other CoC chain, checking the documentation. An annual audit will be made to check these transactions. In the case of non-stock items we will start by attempting to source on the same basis, but if this is not possible, we will advise customers accordingly.
IMM: What would you say are the benefits for your customers of the Fortified label?
KF: Basically we’re providing a simple way of proving legality and sustainability. We cannot pass on a CoC, but in our area the requirement for specific CoC is so low that this is more than adequate.
IMM: Do you think it will have branding and image benefits for Fort Builders Merchant?
KF: We’re not sure whether it will or not. But the real purpose for Fort is to have a clear explanation for customers that they can hand onto their clients.
IMM: Did the fact that the UK government, uniquely in the EU apart from that of Luxembourg, accepts FLEGT licensing as evidence of legality and sustainability on a level with PEFC and FSC certification also influence your decision?
KF: Yes. In fact, in my opinion FLEGT holds to a higher standard than FSC or PEFC. I think we should view them like financial securities. FSC and PEFC are corporate backed securities. FLEGT is government backed. Ultimately it’s stronger.
IMM: Do you think there is potential for other companies to adopt Fort's approach?
KF: We really do hope so. We want others to consider this, either as a legitimate verification process, or as an intermediate step towards full-blown CoC. We want to help other businesses to lower their operating costs and improve their ability to source legal and sustainable products more easily, thereby improving the chances for better specifications and quality due to greater availability.
IMM: What has been the initial reaction of your customers ?
KF: We’re still at a very early stage to give any hard data, but we know that most Customers only take a mild interest. It will only become of real interest when their clients either make enquiries, possibly retrospectively, or specify legality and sustainability. In those instances we can give them that complete assurance. Obviously if they insist on a specific CoC then we will be unable to supply, but we reckon that will be extremely infrequent.
IMM: What is your wider view of the potential of the FLEGT VPA initiative and FLEGT licensing - and do you feel they are sufficiently understood in the timber trade?
KF: FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with supplier countries have a range of benefits for them by reducing poor practice, making their timber more marketable and adding value to their forests. It also shows the EU taking responsibility and provided it maintains a strong stance on the initiative, combined with rigorous, uniform enforcement of the EU Timber Regulation, exporting countries will see that they need to do on legality and sustainability to get their timber products into the EU. For the UK and wider EU timber trade it provides a supplier-country-wide, government-backed system of legality and sustainability. There’s still a huge amount of work needed to improve awareness of FLEGT in the trade, but that will improve as availability increases.
IMM: You started your career in the UK timber sector over 30 years ago. How has its commitment on and approach to legal and sustainable sourcing developed during that time?
KF :What we’ve seen is a huge change in market attitude. Back then I didn’t really admit what I did when socialising, because it often ended badly, with the assumption that I was a rainforest destroyer. Now it has reversed so much that sometimes timber traders are seen as saviours of the environment (not often, I admit!). We’re essentially doing the same job as we were 30 years ago, but what has really changed is that, through engagement between trade, NGOs and government, we have established and committed to strong regulatory frameworks. We know it’s an ongoing process with plenty left to do. But we now have the mechanisms to facilitate legal and sustainable sourcing and at the same time to demonstrate the trade’s deep-rooted passion for and commitment to good forestry around the world.
Fort Builders Merchant
Fort is based near Hungerford in the south of England, about 65 miles to the west of London.
It stocks the full spectrum of building products, with its timber range covering principally construction and exterior products.
Keith Fryer launched the business with partners Matt Kiely and Tim Gelardi, both data analysts.
Mr Fryer was previously co-owner-director of London timber and builders merchant T.Brewer. The business was sold to builders merchant giant Grafton, where he became Timber Products Manager at its Buildbase division. After his period as President, he remains active in the UK Timber Trade Federation and the Confederation of European Woodworking Industries, CEI-Bois.
This document provides additional information on the definitions, data sources and platform used by the FLEGT Independent Market Monitoring (IMM) project to prepare the on-line About VPA Country Reports.
The VPAs are the supply-side measures introduced as part of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. VPAs are legally binding trade agreements between the EU and timber-exporting countries outside the EU. The purpose of a VPA is to ensure that timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources. The agreements also help timber-exporting countries stop illegal logging by improving regulation and governance of the forest sector. In the IMM country reports, VPA partner countries are categorised as: “FLEGT licensing” that have signed a VPA with the EU and finalised and implemented the system needed to control, verify and license legal timber for export to the EU; “VPA implementing” that have signed a VPA and are developing but yet to fully implement the licensing system for exports to the EU; and “VPA negotiating” that have yet to sign and are still negotiating a VPA with the EU.
World Bank income classification
The World Bank income classification is based on gross national income (GNI) per person calculated using the World Bank Atlas method. The thresholds to distinguish between the income groups are adjusted for prices over time. As of 1 July 2019, low-income economies are defined as those with a GNI per capita of $1,025 or less in 2018; lower middle-income economies are those with a GNI per capita between $1,026 and $3,995; upper middle-income economies are those with a GNI per capita between $3,996 and $12,375; high-income economies are those with a GNI per capita of $12,376 or more.
The country report provides data relating to VPA Partner countries position in various international competitiveness indices. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (EDB) ranks countries based on a quantitative analysis of factors that affect the ease of doing business. The Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks countries using a wider range of more subjective measures, such as macroeconomic stability, health and education, labour market efficiency, and innovation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) publishes a range of indices which assess the degree and quality of each country’s integration with international trade networks. UNCTAD’s Connectivity Index (derived in the VPA country reports from the World Bank website) assesses the connectivity of 164 countries to international container routes by combining data on the numbers of container ships deployed, their total and per-capita carrying capacity, and the number of liner companies operating routes to each country.
Forest area and change data
Two sources of data are used to monitor trends in forest area at national and international level:
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which has been monitoring the world's forests since 1946 and which now produces the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) every five years. The FRA is based on reports by National Correspondents drawing on national forest inventories with supplementary information now derived from remote sensing conducted by FAO together with national focal points and regional partners. The Country Reports currently draw on data from the FAO 2015 FRA and will be updated as soon as data is published for the FAO 2020 FRA.
Global Forest Watch (GFW) which since 2014 has been providing annual updates of changes in tree cover derived from analysis of satellite imagery. The GFW analysis builds on an analysis by Hansen et al. of 650,000 Landsat images to identify gains and losses in tree cover at 30 X 30 meter resolution during the period 2001 to 2012 (Hansen et al, 2011).
Each data set uses different definitions and has strengths and weaknesses to be considered when analysing trends in forest cover and condition. In practice, the clearest insights may be derived by reviewing both sources of information.
A strength of the FAO FRA forest area and deforestation data is that it differentiates between “natural forest”, “planted forest” and “other wooded land” and specifically excludes trees established for agricultural production (e.g. fruits, saps or for other non-forest land uses) from the definition of forest. The FAO forest change data differentiates between forest conversion operations and harvesting as a part of a sustainable forestry rotation. FAO FRA also monitors key forest policy and production criteria such as growing stock volume, area according to conservation status, management planning and certification.
On the other hand, FAO FRA suffers from data inconsistencies and quality issues as individual countries undertake forest inventories at different times and frequencies, vary widely in the level of funding and technical capacity devoted to forest inventory, and have different national definitions for forest and other land uses that may be difficult to reconcile with the FAO definitions.
The main benefit of the GFW tree cover loss and gain data is that it adds transparency, consistency and regularity in assessing changes in tree cover on a global scale. However, a limitation is that GFW defines tree cover as all vegetation taller than five meters in height making no distinction between natural forests, plantations or commercial cash crops such as palm oil, cocoa and rubber.
“Tree cover loss” monitored by GFW is not equivalent to “deforestation” as defined by FAO since it measures the total loss of all trees within a specific area regardless of the cause. It includes human-driven deforestation, forest fires both natural and manmade, clearing trees for agriculture, logging, plantation harvesting, and tree mortality due to disease and other natural causes. Much of the “tree cover loss” is only temporary, as forests are re-established after harvesting or regenerate naturally after disturbances such as fire. However, in practice it is a lot easier to identify losses – which tend to be sudden – than it is to identify gains which involve slow greening over time.
The GFW tree cover loss and gain data therefore does not effectively distinguish between forests which are permanently converted and those which are temporarily cleared as part of managed forestry operations. Although Hansen et al estimated both tree cover loss and gain during the 2001 to 2012 period, GFW does not include gains in their regular annual reports due to the problems of monitoring.
Certified forest area
Certified forest area is derived from data updated monthly by FSC and PEFC. Estimates of double certification are prepared jointly by FSC and PEFC once a year (typically published in January).
“Timber products”, “wood products” and “primary wood products”
In the IMM Country Reports, the term “timber products” is taken to include all products in the scope of existing or potential future VPAs, including the following chapters (and parts thereof) of the international Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding (HS) System: all products in Chapter 44 (Wood); products identified as containing wood in Chapter 94 (Furniture); virgin wood-based pulp products in Chapter 47 (Pulp); and all products in Chapter 48 (Paper).
For import and export data in the IMM Country Reports, the term “wood products” refers only to products in HS Chapter 44 (Wood) and products identified as containing wood in HS Chapter 94 (Furniture) and excludes all products in HS Chapters 47 (Pulp) and 48 (Paper).
The term “primary wood products” is used in the flow diagram and charts showing national production, imports, exports and domestic consumption in the “Trade Overview” tab where data is derived from the ITTO Biennial Review. Primary wood products are defined by ITTO to include logs (HS4403), sawnwood (HS4407), veneer (HS4408), and plywood (HS4412).
Sustainable Timber Information Exchange
Unless otherwise stated, all trade data in the IMM Country Reports is compiled from the Sustainable Timber Information Exchange (STIX). STIX is a joint initiative of the ITTO, working through the FLEGT IMM project hosted by ITTO with EC funding, and the Global Timber Forum (GTF). STIX collects, organizes, visualizes, disseminates, and exchanges data on international trade flows of timber and forest products, alongside the contextual information necessary to monitor the impact of measures to promote legal and sustainable trade.
STIX currently provides access to data on timber products trade as reported by the statistical agencies of 44 countries including nearly all the world’s largest exporters and importers. Together these countries are estimated to account for at least 90% of the total value of global timber products trade.
For EU member states, STIX draws on raw data from the Eurostat COMEXT bulk download facility. For non-EU timber trading countries, STIX sources raw data from Business and Trade Statistics Ltd, a UK-based company.
STIX compiles data for all products listed in chapters 44 (wood), 47 (pulp) and 48 (paper) and wood-based furniture in chapter 94 of the HS system. The start date for all data in the STIX database is January 2015 and the end date is the most recent monthly data published by the statistical agency of the reporting country.
All quantity data for EU countries is validated (obvious errors identified and removed) by STIX using an algorithm to ensure unit values remain within reasonable bounds.
While reporting countries outside the EU use inconsistent reporting units, STIX converts all value data into US dollars and Euros using exchange rates current at the time of the transaction. Procedures are also being developed to standardize units and to validate routines to improve the quality and consistency of quantity data for non-EU countries. The IMM Country reports will be adapted to include more quantity data alongside value data once these routines are finalised.
By compiling and harmonizing data for a significant number of reporting countries, a feature of the STIX database is that “mirror data” can be accessed for those VPA partner countries which do not themselves regularly report trade data. This is true of many developing countries that lack national capacity to regularly compile and publish trade statistics. In mirror data, import data from the full range of reporting countries is used as a proxy for export data by partner countries for which data is not available (and vice versa).
The STIX database contains trade data reported by Malaysia and Indonesia. The IMM Country Reports for these two countries is therefore comprehensive with respect to trade partners. However, for all other VPA partner countries, the IMM Country Reports use mirror data reported by the 44 countries contained in the STIX database.
It is important to emphasise that for those IMM Country Reports dependent on mirror data, reported trade is not comprehensive with respect to trade partners. For example, in some African VPA partner countries, a large and growing proportion of wood product exports are to Viet Nam and India. However, these trends are not made apparent in the IMM Country Reports because the STIX database currently does not include data reported by Viet Nam or India.
ITTO Biennial Review
The Trade Overview tab includes data in cubic meters on VPA partner production, imports, exports and domestic consumption of primary wood products. This is the most recent annual data available in the ITTO Biennial Review which is collected through the Joint Forest Sector Questionnaire, an exercise undertaken jointly by ITTO, Eurostat, the FAO Forestry Department, and the UNECE Timber Section working though the Intersecretariat Working Group on Forest Sector Statistics (IWG).
“Other regulated countries”
The Exports tab includes a chart summarising VPA partner country exports to the EU and “other regulated countries”. “Other regulated countries” are those which, like the EU through the EUTR, have introduced regulations designed to ensure illegally harvested timber products are not placed on the market. In December 2019, the following countries are identified as “other regulated countries”: Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Republic of Korea, United States of America, and Viet Nam. The status and scope of relevant regulations in these countries is monitored by IMM (most recent summary in Chapter 13 of the IMM 2018 Annual Report).
The IMM Country Reports are prepared using R Markdown, a file format for making dynamic documents with R. This open source platform allows reports to be readily updated whenever new data becomes available.