Timber regulations turn over a new leaf

Jenny Roper
Friday, September 27, 2013

That nothing even closely resembling the new EU Timber Regulations (EUTR) existed before they were launched in March, is kind of surprising. Most would probably have assumed that introducing illegally logged timber to the EU market had always been a criminal offence. But this wasn't the case.

Now however, whoever is responsible for first introducing a timber product to the EU supply chain, whether in the form of timber, pulp or paper, is required to implement a due diligence system of information gathering, risk assessment and risk mitigation. The idea is to minimise the potential for selling products containing illegally harvested timber as far as possible.

The first question the printer still getting to grips with this is likely to ask is: will this mean more work for me? The short answer is: probably not. The slightly longer explanation is that though the new regulations require many more people to document where their timber products have come from, they make a clear distinction between those first placing these on the EU market and those further down the chain.

If you are the former, or an ‘operator’, certainly there is much work to be done in investigating your supply chain. If you are the latter, a ‘trader’, you only need to keep records of where your products were sourced. Most printers will apparently fall into this latter camp.

Better option?
With this matter cleared up another question arises however, one which is likely to be asked with a more hopeful, rather than concerned, tone. Printers are used after all to seeing the area of responsible paper buying as a rather vexed one, with automatic print buyer demands for FSC and PEFC accreditation a contentious issue given how costly and time-consuming acquiring these can be.

So with such a radical change in timber law seems to come an opportunity. Many may well be asking if this new legislation might start acting as a much less costly and less time-consuming assurance of a paper stock’s sustainability.

The key to beginning to unpick this is understanding just what EUTR applies to. There are two crucial points. First, EUTR covers only the legality of logging, rather than making any explicit stipulations about sustainability. Secondly, it stipulates that timber must have been logged legally according to the laws of the country of origin, not EU logging legislation. So with logging laws varying dramatically across the globe, the EUTR isn’t quite the standardising stamp of approval it first seemed.

"EUTR has no impact on sustainability," says Steve Freeman, director of energy and environmental affairs at the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI). "In theory it could be non-sustainable timber, but still legally harvested. I don’t agree with that, but that’s the legislation as it stands."

"The EUTR only covers legality, and what constitutes legal is quite different in different parts of the world," confirms FSC UK communications manager Tallulah Chapman.

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t any scenarios where this new legislation could act as a pretty strong indication of a product being sourced sustainably. While logging laws are often principally concerned with issues such as permission to harvest, transportation, and payment of appropriate fees and taxes, legislation relating to sustainability does often feature.

"The UK is a good example of a place where there is a lot of regulation regarding protecting the environment in place already. In the UK quite a lot of those things are covered anyway as part of legality; there needs to be some sort of environmental consideration and consultation for people to be legally compliant," reports Chapman.

"Law and environmental considerations are often linked," agrees Michael Kearney, enforcement project manager at the National Measurement Office (NMO), the organisation tasked with implementing EUTR in the UK.

He adds that it shouldn’t be assumed that non-EU countries are likely to have less responsible logging laws. The problem in some countries is not that logging laws don’t cater for the environment, but that these aren’t properly enforced. Which should hopefully mean EUTR, in its capacity to force operators to ensure their timber has been logged according to its country of origin’s logging laws, has a profound impact on ensuring the green credentials of timber entering the EU.

"It’s an often repeated fact that, as a kind of hangover from colonial days, some of the most high-risk countries you can imagine have actually got very thorough legislation in place that if implemented would support responsible and sustainable forest management," says Kearney. "The problem is that currently it’s simply not being adhered to."

Of course the real consideration in deciding what accreditations to go for will always be buyer demand. Certainly buyers might become more clued up on EUTR’s potential role in proving a stock’s sustainability.

BPIF membership director Dale Wallis says: "If more effective buyer education were to happen, printers might, going forwards, be able to prove the sustainability of paper through EUTR rather than FSC."

In fact, even if print buyers don’t get more EUTR-savvy, the net result could be the same, reports Clare Taylor, founder of environmental consultancy Clare Taylor Consulting. There’s a possibility the so-called ‘burden’ of FSC and PEFC certification could for some still be lifted, she says, due to buyers mistakenly assuming that the EUTR is completely interchangeable with FSC et al.

"Anecdotally there seems to be quite a limited awareness of the actual forest management criteria for FSC certification, so people might not realise how much broader it is than EUTR. So it will be interesting to see if the introduction of EUTR means fewer print buyers asking for FSC," says Taylor.

This will of course be a real relief for printers who are, unfortunately, sometimes in the position of being asked for FSC or PEFC certification in largely meaningless ways. "I’ve come across quite a few printers who have found that FSC chain of custody is a requirement in order to get to tender stage. And then they aren’t given any FSC work to do," reports Taylor. "So they go through all the expense of the certification, but don’t use it – that’s not uncommon."

But the bottom line for printers at the moment would seem to be that awareness among print buyers of EUTR is still relatively low. Most aren’t up to speed enough to have jumped even to the conclusion Taylor predicts they might.

Reduced burden
Not that this, argue many, would be particularly ideal anyway. EUTR could in theory release some from the, in some situations, meaningless burden of certification. This would certainly allow conscientious printers to better concentrate resources on investigating which papers EUTR provides a stamp of sustainability for, and which it doesn’t. But the fact is that established certifications such as FSC and PEFC are still incredibly important.

Taylor explains that these will still give greater assurance of environmentally and ethically sound sourcing than EUTR compliance. "FSC is pretty broad-ranging as it looks at ecosystems and endemic species, pesticides being used, protection of indigenous people and respecting heritage," she says.

FSC UK’s Chapman adds that it may be some time before EUTR can be seen as a real stamp of approval, even where the country of origin’s logging laws are highly responsible. Enforcement of EUTR, she explains, may take a while to take off.

"I did quite a lot of work regarding EUTR in the lead-up to it coming into force this year, and the impression I got was that there were revisions being made right up until the end of February because there were so many stakeholders," she says. "So, although it has now been introduced, I think it’s going to be an ongoing process to get it fully up and running."

The NMO’s Kearney concedes that it inevitably takes time to work out how best to enforce legislation as significant and ambitious as EUTR. He points out that the NMO is only just starting to consider how best to crack down on illegally logged timber.

"We’re in the very initial stages of implementation, so we’re dealing with those companies that are likely to be already compliant so we can first of all improve our own interpretation of how the legislation should work, and then share best practice with those companies who are perhaps new to the process of due diligence," he says.

"Next we’ll be looking at the risk assessment phase of UK trade and trying to identify those companies either most at risk of dealing in high-risk products or looking to circumvent the rules," he continues, adding: "We’ve got some compliance officers in post but they’re relatively new so the fact of the matter is that it takes time to get people up to speed and confident in the legislation, and confident in enforcing it."

For now, then, it seems printers keen to look after the planet and cater for print buyers’ demands, may need to stick with the established chain of custody schemes. Certainly in the future, EUTR enforcement may become stringent enough that strong assurances about the sustainability of certain paper stocks could be given. But even then, how sustainable the logging practices behind a certain paper product are likely to have been will vary dramatically from country to country. So research will be needed.

Then there is of course the small matter of print buyer education. In theory it might be possible to help buyers become better informed about the intricacies of EUTR. But then of course in theory it should be possible to help buyers become better informed on the issue of responsible paper sourcing in general. And, as any printer who’s been asked for FSC purely as a box-ticking exercise will agree, such widespread awareness has yet to emerge.


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