Flatpack furniture is big business; giant in the industry IKEA uses close to 1% of the world’s supply of timber in the construction of beds, bookcases, cabinets, tables and more. So when concerns arise about whether that wood is sustainably sourced, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Not only do IKEA’s needs place a heavy burden on the timber industry, the company’s demands can also help shape the larger timber market. That’s why environmentalists were concerned about irregularities in Karelia, Russia, where IKEA’s timber subsidiary Swedwood was just called up (again) for unsustainable practices.
Like many other major corporations in the modern era, IKEA has realized that presenting an environmentally-friendly front helps it gain cachet in the coveted green market. It commits to using post-consumer recycled materials, installing solar panels at its retail stores and many other policies that help it reduce its environmental impact. Part of its environmental responsibility program includes the use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood; Swedwood has had FSC certification since 2006.
This certification means the wood follows certain guidelines. Ancient trees aren’t harvested, loggers aren’t permitted to log on slopes and in high erosion areas, and the environmental impact of their work has to be minimal. Yet, Swedwood has been challenged at least once before on whether it’s meeting the standard, in 2011, when two separate environmental groups claimed Swedwood was logging where it wasn’t supposed to be. The FSC evaluated and resolved the claims, but scarcely three years later and in the same location, concerns about the company’s practices arose again, after an audit in February revealed that Swedwood was taking 600-year-old trees in violation of FSC certification.
The FSC suspended Swedwood’s certification, forcing the company to take corrective measures or challenge the audit if it wanted to regain the coveted sticker of approval from this third-party certifying body. Without FSC certification, IKEA would be in a bind, as it counts on this certification as a major selling point for customers concerned about the source of their wood products. Furthermore, the company has substantial advertising materials boasting the FSC certification that would now be cause for challenge from consumers tracking the Swedwood situation.
IKEA moved fast to correct the damage and challenge the audit, asking Swedwood to alter its practices while also asking for a review of the audit that caught Swedwood violating the certification terms. The suspension has since been lifted, allowing Swedwood to return to operations on its 700,000 leased acres in Karelia, Russia, but it raises some important questions: is Swedwood as environmentally responsible as it needs to be? And is the FSC keeping up with major timber companies effectively? Certain issues also aren’t adequately addressed in the FSC’s criteria, including the handling of habitat fragmentation and intact tracts of forest, which creates problems for anyone relying on the certification as an assurance that wood is ethically harvested.
This recent episode illustrates that it’s key for consumers to lean on companies to demand environmental responsibility and accountability, and that continued refinement in certifying organizations is also critical. As the FSC grows and commands more attention and clout in the timber industry, it’s acquiring the power needed to push for even more substantial changes in sustainable forestry management. The Swedwoods of the world may need to sit up and take notice.
Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli.