As I sit down to write this first blog of the New Year there are only 48 days to go. I am not referring to the end of the world - the 3 March 2013 is when the new EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) becomes law. Whether we like it or not, or we are confused or confident, or even just blissfully ignorant, this law is a real turning point.
EUTR is a truly innovative piece of legislation. Anybody placing timber on the EU market will be legally obliged to demonstrate due diligence and negligible risk that the timber is derived from an illegal source. This is something that hasn’t been tried or tested in any other material sector. At one level it presents a significant marketing opportunity for the timber industry. A chance to show that industry can be trusted to respond and provide solutions and that businesses as well as NGOs are a force for positive change.
All eyes will be on the European wood sector in the next year or so and if this law works and is enforced fairly by all EU members and satisfies the NGOs, then it will be a huge boost to our consumer credibility. It will build on the considerable progress already made to ensure recognition of the timber industry as a major player in the construction sector (I was amused to read an article about fire safety in buildings in The Independent this week where timber was constantly referred to as the “new construction material”!)
On the other hand, the EUTR could be used as just another stick to beat down a sector already suffering from the fallout of recession. It will probably require a high profile prosecution to satisfy critics, such as Gibson Guitars’ breach of the Lacey Act in the USA. Without an appropriate response, the inevitable (and necessary) publicity surrounding such a case could be used to tarnish the reputation of the whole industry.
It is also a significant technical and communication challenge to successfully roll out a complex and untried piece of legislation across tens of thousands of operators in the EU. Criticism of the industry for any failure to meet this challenge would be particularly unfair, when it is our competitor materials such as steel and concrete that would benefit most and they have no requirement yet to source legal raw materials.
In my opinion the European Commission has not helped our cause. With less than two months to go, the final guidance has yet to be issued and there is still considerable confusion surrounding Monitoring Organisations, risk analysis, and acceptable documentation. There also needs to be more clarity in many countries on the national approach to enforcement, and more evidence that this approach will be harmonised across the EU.
Even though U.S. hardwoods have established a low risk status through the Seneca Creek Study, our office has still been very busy over the last few months responding to many questions from U.S. exporters and European importers. The most frequently raised questions concern: documentation, species nomenclature, and traceability to forest region. While I appreciate that the timber trade has to take EUTR very seriously, I also fear that, in the absence of appropriate EC guidance, traders may become excessively risk adverse, demanding reassurance and information that is not actually required under EUTR (such as certification in low risk regions).
Having said all this I remain very positive that this law can work in our favour and should at last allow us to move the debate on to focus on the broader issues of sustainability such as environmental impact profiling. If only we could fast forward to a time where LCA based Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are the norm for building materials and products, and timber has taken its rightful place as a first choice material for “green” construction. In this utopia perhaps it will be our turn to watch our competitors frantically trying to comply with the new “EU Iron Ore Regulation”.