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Highway to hardwood market growth

If steel and concrete road fixtures and fittings, including lamp and signposts, crash and acoustic barriers were made of wood, and hardwood in particular, it would add up to major timber demand and major CO2 savings.  That’s the blueprint the Dutch Ministry of Logistics and Waterways has devised, following stakeholder discussions, among others, with  Netherlands timber sector market development organisation, Centrum Hout. It’s done the carbon calculations, called the concept the ‘circular bio-based highway’ and Steffen Meinhardt of Dutch importer Hupkes Houthandel presented on it at the 2019 International Hardwood Conference in Berlin.

The hardwood sector may not historically have been known for its marketing prowess, or promoting the performance potential of its products. But the IHC, which attracted a 125-strong audience from 20 countries, showed that this is changing. 

Mr Meinhardt’s presentation was one of several underlining a new energy, greater coordination and innovation in hardwood sector communications, with a notable focus, in this environmentally aware age, on its carbon and wider life cycle credentials. Together with Eric de  Munck of  Centrum Hout, he also looked at the Dutch industry’s increasing use of life cycle analysis in driving timber’s substitution of man-made materials. European Director David Venables spoke about the American Hardwood Export Council’s (AHEC) promotional and technical initiatives targeting architects and designers and Benoît Jobbé-Duval, Managing Director of the International Tropical Timber Technical Association (ATIBT), described the strategy and aims of its Fair & Precious verified sustainable tropical timber branding campaign. 

The overriding theme of the IHC in November, co-organised by the European Organisation of Sawmill Industries (EOS), the European Timber Trade Federation (ETTF) and German Sawmill and Wood Industries Association (DeSH), was that the market is increasingly looking for sustainable solutions to ever more pressing technical/environmental issues in manufacturing and construction. As a renewable, carbon storing alternative to energy intensive materials like steel, concrete and plastic, –  a key building block for bioeconomic development ­– hardwood can help provide them. 

A testing market

At the same time IHC speakers acknowledged that the hardwood sector is facing testing market times.  Echoing comments from the October International Softwood Conference, economic deceleration in Europe and other key markets, notably China, is making for competitive conditions. The China-US trade dispute and concerns about future US-EU trade relations put another brake on business globally, while Brexit made the outlook still more uncertain. 

Dr Josef Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations set the scene with a global geopolitical snapshot. He said US-China trade tension was a symptom of an underlying  shift in global power. The rise of Chinese international influence meant the days of the US providing ‘benign’ leadership for global adherence to liberal economics were numbered. A different world order was emerging, and business had to adapt.

“We’re in a new era of economic nationalism and better be prepared for the US and others  to play increasing trade hardball,” he said.   

Reflecting mounting international economic uncertainty, with OECD business confidence ratings sharply down, EOS Hardwood Vice President Maria Kiefer-Polz said sawn hardwood consumption in EOS member countries, plus Italy and the UK, was forecast to fall 1.3% this year to 5.7 million m3, after rising 7.2%% in 2018. Production was expected to dip 0.7% to 6.07 million m3. At the same time the European industry had to cope with raw materials issues, notably the impact of ash die-back and drought stress on hardwood more widely. The key for the industry, said Ms Kiefer-Polz was to develop its species mix and step up hardwood marketing focused on the benefits of ‘building and living with wood’.

This message was reinforced by DeSH Vice President Steffen Rathke in his review of Germany’s hardwood sector. Increased competition from alternative materials, such as wood plastic composites, plus overseas log demand, had resulted in its domestic sawn hardwood consumption falling 50% from 2000 to 2020 to around 800,000m3. 

 He focused especially on the country’s major beech industry.  Its sawn exports were also down 4.78% in 2018, he said, hit by deteriorating market conditions and Chinese demand for beech logs. Drought he agreed, was an added major issue for the hardwood sector, with beech particularly badly affected. 

“Underlining the severity of the situation the German government is allocating the wider forestry sector €1 billion to address this and other climate-related issues, including insect infestation,” he said. “The industry needs to adapt to our changing environment, including by developing more resilient strains of species in the German forest.” 

Professor Gert-Jan Nabuurs of Wageningen University agreed that the European forest sector, like its counterparts elsewhere, must increasingly follow a ‘climate-smart’ management model. He also urged a new forestry component in the  EU Common Agricultural Policy to support the industry. 

Tropical timber - legality and sustainability opportunity

Turning to the tropical timber sector, IMM Trade Analyst, Rupert Oliver, said that Europe in the last 15 years had slipped from the first to fourth biggest market, after China, the US and Northeast Asia. While growing consumption elsewhere was a key factor, part of the reason for tropical timber’s European decline, was environmental image. However, the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA) legality assurance initiative, with which 15 tropical countries were engaged at some stage of the process, was viewed as part of the potential solution, providing a ‘baseline for sustainability’. FLEGT could also assume growing importance, said Mr Oliver, with increasing implementation of timber market legality requirements, such as the EUTR, the US Lacey Act and Japan’s Clean Wood Act. 

Together with South Korea’s import legality regulation, these cover over 55% of international tropical timber trade, while countries engaged in the FLEGT initiative account for 75% of its supply. The two are seen as having scope to be mutually reinforcing.

Meanwhile, the US industry is also facing challenges, said American Hardwood Export Council Executive Director Mike Snow. From 2009 to 2017, its exports to China had ‘exploded’,  rising to 25% of American grade hardwood output. This left the sector especially vulnerable to the current US-China trade dispute. In fact, since it started, its loss of sales to China had exceeded total US hardwood exports to Europe and the rest of Asia put together. 

“At the same time as imposing a 10% tariff on US imports, China allowed the RMB to devalue, effectively increasing their cost still further,” said Mr Snow. The solution, he added, was primarily resolution of the trade dispute.

“China still has major hardwood growth potential, with development of its western provinces and huge investment in its belt and road programme, in particular, set to increase its consumption still further,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s realisation in the US hardwood sector that it must diversify exports – and grow its domestic market.  It can’t afford to put all its eggs in the China basket.”  

Promoting timber’s legacy

Picking up this theme, Mr Venables described the promotional tools and marketing initiatives developed by AHEC to grow US hardwood sales globally. Key targets were architects and designers, a ‘primary route for hardwoods to market’,  with a focus on the technical, environmental and aesthetic potential of US varieties. AHEC has worked with specifiers on hardwood projects, including the world’s first cross laminated hardwood building in the UK, a cancer care centre with a core structure of tulipwood CLT and themo-treated tulipwood cladding. Recently it has also concentrated marketing  on red oak in Europe, where its sales have lagged some way behind demand for US white and European oak. It has worked with leading Polish designer Tomek Rygalik on a red oak furniture collection, and in its ‘Legacy’ project for the London Design Festival this year, it brought together leading UK cultural ‘influencers’ and designer-makers to create a range of furniture and other products in the species. 

He also described the range of tools developed to demonstrate and promote US hardwoods’ environmental credentials. These include an interactive map showing forest growth and timber take off, a life cycle analysis (LCA) tool for key commercial US species and the American Hardwood Environmental Profile (AHEP), which details the carbon and wider environmental impacts of hardwood consignments shipped anywhere in the world. 

Besides the circular bio-based highway concept, designed as a low carbon roadways blueprint for Dutch authorities to use as a model, Mr Meinhardt, together with Eric de Munck of Centrum Hout, also looked at the Dutch timber sector’s increasing use of LCA. This fed into development of environmental product declarations for hardwood products and timber promotion more generally.  Another project, Hout in de GWW, involving 12 businesses and Centrum Hout, demonstrated tropical hardwoods’ superior LCA performance to steel and plastic to grow their use in marine civil engineering projects.

Wood marketing was also a core focus for the European Federation of the Parquet Industry  (FEP), said Managing Director Isabelle Brose. It’s Living on Wood campaign and associated www.realwood.eu website highlighted the environmental and wellness benefits of real wood flooring, while its new promotional initiative targeted growth in timber’s share of European floor covering sales from 5% to 7%. 

IHC moderator Andreas von Möller, ETTF Honorary President, said the event had delivered ‘plenty of need to know information’ and highlighted areas where the hardwood sector had room for improvement and where it needed to front up to some tough issues.   

“But it also underlined growing appreciation that the trade is ultimately in the same boat and its potential to work together to tackle challenges and realise major market opportunities for hardwood,” he said. 

The next IHC in 2021 will take place in France. 

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