By Jill Fraser
Environmentalists allege that you could drive a truck through the chasm that exists between the criteria standards of Australia's two accreditation schemes for ecologically responsible wood products.
Add to this a controversy raging over the definition of a native forest, ditto carbon capture and storage; the revelation that environment groups are at loggerheads over bed-mates and ethics, and that it's more a case of good luck than good research trying to find consensus on the classification of sustainability – in fact, wait for it, academics are now deleting the word from their vocabulary because the International Organisation for Standardisation advises against applying it to products "because it's never been benchmarked" – and you might get some sort of picture of the current state of the wood industry in flux. Conscious consumers are shaking their heads and delegating this entire matter to the too-hard basket, which sadly in the end, isn't serving anyone.
Photo credit: Richard Kirk Architect – Arbour House
Almost a century and a half after Australia's first anti-logging campaign in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges, the logging of native forests is still a minefield of irreconcilable differences and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Fraught with paradoxes, accusations, half-truths and head-spinning claims and counter-claims the quagmire of raw emotion, conflicting values and heated debate rolls on relentlessly.
"I call it the slaughterhouse paradox. People like wood products but they don't want trees to die", declares Ric Sinclair, Managing Director Forest and Wood Products Australia.
Sinclair likens the level of fervour that the subject generates to a 'semi-religious' row and says a win/win solution will be difficult to attain because the fundamental beliefs of the two sides are diametrically opposed.
MyEnvironment director, Sarah Rees disagrees. Rees' opinion is that a positive solution is achievable, her perception being that the clashes are an integral part of the process.
"It's the dance toward enlightened policy. They (the forest industry) believe in what they are doing as do we", she says.
"The evolution of resource extraction is ultimately to take a more conscientious approach to land management, integrate community concerns and ultimately produce a product the industry will be proud of.
"Ten years ago you couldn't get recycled toilet paper, today you would feel robbed if it wasn't offered. This enlightenment is happening in the paper industry and the native hardwood industry. Great examples of sustainable native forest management are occurring in Australia. We are getting closer to resolve but it's a very challenging trail to get there."
Planet Ark campaign manager, Brad Gray, expresses an equally optimistic assessment of the situation, maintaining that the heat has gone out of the issue because the industry realises "it needs to change and source responsibly if it's going to be financially viable".
Pointing to the growing uptake of 'responsibly sourced wood' in the commercial construction and residential development sectors, Gray maintains: "The environmentalists have won the forest battles with a couple of notable exceptions – the area around Gippsland and a couple of places in Tasmania."
This is probably a good time to mention that MyEnvironment and Planet Ark do not share quite the same Big Green Picture.
MyEnvironment along with a number of other environment groups are quarrelling with Planet Ark over their relationship with Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA).
Planet Ark, a national not-for-profit environment organisation that began in 1992 and has enlisted the help of a host of national and international celebrities, community services, schools and councils to support their green world view, has partnered with FWPA in the 'Make it Wood' campaign, which promotes wood (which stores carbon) as a viable alternative to steel and concrete (which emit carbon) as a building material.
Planet Ark's alignment with FWPA has got up the noses of some of its fellow environmentalists because the majority of FWPA members are certified by Australian Forestry Standard (AFS), which Rees notes "is an industry-developed standard luxuriating in a federally funded refuge" and which Greenpeace claims is not a credible certification system or standard.
The environment movement is in agreement that the standards set by AFS' counterpart, Forest Stewardship Council Australia (FSC), an independent, non-government, organisation, are their preferred option. FSC Australia is a national office of FSC International founded in 1993 by environmentalists, social interest groups, indigenous peoples' organisations, responsible retailers and leading forest management companies to develop standards based on the '10 Principles for Forest Stewardship' by which responsible forest practice can be measured.
Planet Ark is a member of FSC and has joined the AFS Review Committee. The latter does not sit comfortably with some of its peers.
Planet Ark's Brad Gray told LivingNow: "We don't endorse the AFS standard in any way. It allows for the logging of forests that we don't believe should be logged.
"We believe that if we want their standard to be improved and strengthened we have to be involved in the review."
The majority of other environmental groups practice a disengagement strategy and choose not to participate in the AFSA process.
Certification of forests helps protect them from destructive logging practices.
Gray urges consumers to ask for certified wood, ideally he says, FSC until the two standards are level pegging.
"The economic imperative for industry to lift its game and source certified wood needs to be driven by consumers", he says equating the current situation in the retail wood space to the organic food industry in the early days when certification was still in its infancy.
Kimberly-Clark Australia, which was awarded the FSC Large Chain of Custody Award 2011 and has just been dubbed one of the 'Worlds Most Ethical Companies' by the Ethisphere Institute, now provides its commercial and consumer customers with FSC certification, considered the 'gold standard' in forestry certification, on its full range of Australian-manufactured tissue and paper towel products.
"Green procurement is big business", says Kimberly-Clark Sustainability Manager, Jacquie Fegent-McGeachie.
"It reflects a change in values. We're increasingly seeing that people are becoming more aware of where products come from. We're constantly asked, where do you source your forest fibre?
"Drivers for us are consumers and business-to-business-customers. It can definitely be win/win for everyone. From a sales perspective our analysis can confirm that it's had a very positive impact on sales."
"Look for certification", she says. "Tell business and government that this is important and that will drive the market. That's how change occurs."
Property company Lend Lease is currently building what is set to be the tallest timber apartment building in the world and Australia's most environmentally friendly multi-storey residence, with a 5-star green rating in Melbourne's Docklands. Towering over 10 storeys and housing 23 residential apartments, it will be built entirely from cross-laminated timber (CLT) sheets glued and pressed into layers.
Lend Lease state that by using CLT this will reduce CO2 equivalent emissions by more than 1,400 tonnes when compared to concrete and steel – the equivalent of removing 345 cars from our roads.
Forté is endorsed by Planet Ark.
While certification of wood products is advocated by both environmental groups and industry as the best way to prevent illegal logging and encourage responsible forest management, the rise of 'green-washing' through certification that simply validates the status quo is voiced as a concern.
Environmental-based advocacy group, Markets for Change Campaigns Manager, Louise Morris says: "We want to inform and empower consumers but at the moment Australia doesn't have any adequate labelling laws in terms of wood products.
"We want retailers to tell customers where a product comes from and accurately label what the product is. There are a lot of industry names that are just made up for the showroom floor and don't reflect what the product is.
"Our aim is to have procurement policies made publicly available by retailers, clear labelling that states where a product is from – a plantation forest – and that it carries full certification by FSC", says Morris.
Dr Chris Taylor, who's PhD provided a Critical Discourse Analysis of the Forest Stewardship Council and Australian Forestry Standard, is a passionate advocate for environmental conservation.
On the critical issue of carbon capture Taylor argues that paramount to the procurement process is a holistic approach and an honouring of the life cycle and eco-system within a forest.
"When logging operations enter a forest they are looking for trees that are commercially valuable. They usually go after eucalyptus trees and only take the stem. The branch head, under-storey species and woody debris is considered non-productive and left behind in the forest as slash.
"A very high intensity burn is then applied across that slash. That event along with decomposition from the soil releases huge amounts of that eco-system carbon back into the atmosphere."
Clear-felling areas up to in aggregate 120 hectares is common practice, Taylor says.
"The forest is reduced to an ash bed and all the past biological legacies such as old trees and tree ferns, that can be up to 2000 years of age, are destroyed."
The matter of high cost of certification to small operators along the chain, from source to retailer, is addressed by Rees who declares: "We need to turn the cost issue around 360 degrees and put the true high value on forests equivalent to what they contribute regarding carbon storage, water production and bio-diversity.
"We need to understand and then measure the value of a forest eco-system and the returns it gives to society. Once we can do that we can start to risk manage it properly, measure the returns and then treasury can invest in proper management and each tree will start to count."
Jill Fraser is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist writing for The Age and finance journals.