Greening the great outdoors
Bryony Moore and Katy Brown guide us through the ethical issues surrounding garden furniture.
With Spring upon us the thoughts of those lucky enough to have a garden naturally turn to prettying the place up. Adding some new garden furniture can really help an outdoor space. After all, what better way is there to spend a sunny morning than soaking up the calm of your own green oasis with a cup of coffee in hand?
However, garden furniture retailers have attracted a bad press over the years for the sale of products made from tropical hardwoods. Such timbers last longer outdoors in the British climate, but may have caused a scar on the landscape on the other side of the world. Our Wood Species Buying Guide outlines some of the timber species to be wary of.
However, our choices aren’t limited to just wood – plastic and metal garden furniture offer something for every (carbon) budget. Last year, BBC Wildlife published an article comparing the environmental impacts of different types of garden furniture.
Here’s a summary of the findings ranked by the most costly first:
||China has biggest steel industry in the world, and its problems include pollution and devastation from strip mining.
||Derived from oil. Few options available to recycle, so most discarded plastic furniture goes to landfill.
|‘Mixed-source’ FSC Wood
||Habitat destruction from remaining non-certified wood content.
||2kg (assuming 10-year life)
||Beware – some companies may be shifting unsustainable goods as ‘second-hand’ on ebay.
||CO2 impact from any shipping to UK. If FSC-certified reclaimed, that’s extra good.
As well as the furniture itself, the companies on our ranking table come with their own particular set of ethical issues, caused by the fact that garden centres sell a wide range of products that are criticised by campaign groups.
The sale of peat and exotic pets in particular has attracted attention. Although they’re not actively campaigning on it at the moment, Animal Aid are still keen to support anyone who wants to take action for their Plants Not Pets campaign, which puts pressure on garden centres not to sell pets, particularly exotic species. This encourages impulse buys of creatures which may have complicated needs that require proper research and planning.
If you’d like to ask your local garden centre to stop stocking pets, please contact Animal Aid on 01732 364 456 or visit www.animalaid.co.uk. They’ll be happy to supply you with leaflets or posters and any advice you need.
Garden centres also sell highly toxic pesticides and insecticides (which are required by law to be tested on animals) and import plants, pets and other items from all over the world, meaning they have a not-insignificant carbon footprint. We’re also increasingly seeing garden centres open restaurants and cafés, so the sourcing of their food products is also worth scrutinising.
The questions we have asked of the companies on the garden furniture retailers table include their policies on wood sourcing, chemicals, peat and animals, as well as the usual policies on protection of the environment and workers’ rights.
The company scoretable shows that there’s still a fair way to go as far as policies are concerned, with the companies commonly receiving worst ratings for their supply chain and environmental reporting policies. The small garden centres in this Buyers’ Guide haven’t yet attracted the attention of campaigning organisations, so they score reasonably well.
Illegal timber in our tables?
Furniture can be made out of a range of different materials: wood, steel, plastic, aluminium and glass – to name but five. But the bulk of furniture sold today is still made with wood and, where that wood is sustainably sourced, it will still be the choice with the lowest environmental impact.
Deforestation though remains an important global challenge, and with its intimate links to furniture markets, we have focussed much of our research on this issue.
China provided the biggest source of wooden furniture imports into the UK in 2009, valued at £137 million. This was a whopping 224% increase in value since 2004. During the same period Vietnamese wooden furniture imports increased by 230%, Malaysian by 204% and Indonesian by 95%.
This is a worrying sign for the world’s forests. Much of the world’s illegally logged wood passes through China, which accounts for about a quarter of illegally traded timber internationally.(4) Chinese companies are heavily implicated in deforestation across the world, from Burma to Madagascar to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
More illegal timber is imported into the UK than any other European country thanks to the quantities of wood bought from China. Vietnam has also become a key processing area of illegally logged timber. Approximately half of the wood imports into Vietnam from neighbouring countries between 1987 and 2006 were illegal.(6)
The demand for cheap furniture in the West has also driven rapid deforestation in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, according to a 2008 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Telapak.(5)
For more info, see 'Tales of the timber trade' below.
Furniture companies can also be pretty sly when it comes to their price marketing campaigns. Seven of the companies in this report had complaints against them upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority for being misleading about price. Of a total of 28 adjudications, Argos has had 13 complaints upheld. DFS had a cheeky trick up its sleeve in 2008: manipulating the size of the furniture relative to the size of the people in the photos, to make the furniture appear bigger.
Cotton is a product with endemic human rights abuses in its supply chain, with child labour being used in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and India, and forced child labour occurring on a mass scale in Uzbekistan. Uzbek cotton is recognised as a product of slavery by Anti-Slavery International. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children are forced out of school and made to work in the cotton fields for up to three months a year. Adults are also forced to work in the cotton fields by the Uzbek regime. This process not only involves human and workers’ rights abuses, it also helps to entrench the wealth and power of the ruling regime, and thus perpetuate it.
The EJF is asking for people to urge their MP to sign Early Day Motion 1284, calling on the UK government to avoid Uzbek cotton. If the government did adjust its procurement policies accordingly, it would be a good few years behind some of the UK’s biggest retailers, which began boycotting Uzbek cotton in response to campaigns in 2007. Of the companies covered in this report, John Lewis, Tesco and Marks & Spencers no longer source cotton from Uzbekistan. However, some commentators have claimed that the lack of transparency in cotton supply chains makes it very difficult for companies to guarantee this. Much of the cotton bought in Europe passes through India, where the raw material is processed, to Bangladesh, where it is fashioned into garments or furnishings. By the time it reaches consumers its origins are difficult to trace.
Uzbekistan is the third largest exporter of cotton in the world, and Europe is its major buyer. We have therefore marked companies down in the Workers’ Rights category if they do not have a current boycott of Uzbek cotton in place.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro biotech organisation, genetically modified cotton accounted for almost half of the 33 million hectares of global cotton planted in 2009.(16) Due to the prevalence of GM cotton in cotton supply chains, and in the absence of any evidence that a company avoids it, we have also marked down companies that sell cotton products in the Genetic Engineering category.
The widespread use of pesticides in cotton production worldwide has had serious environmental consequences as well as impacts on workers. Companies that sell non-organic cotton products therefore also get marked down in the Pollution and Toxics category.
Most of the companies in this report sell some leather furniture. The skin of cattle contributes up to 55% of the value of animals, so leather is more than just a by-product of the meat industry. According to animal welfare campaigners PETA, the leather industry is implicated in the cruel treatment of animals including: severe overcrowding, malnutrition, disease, anaesthetized castration, branding, tail-docking, and de-horning.(13) Leather is often sourced from countries where animal welfare laws are non-existent, weak or not enforced, such as China and India. As it is rarely labelled with its country of origin, it is difficult to gauge what conditions it may have been produced in.
Although leather is often regarded as a natural product, animal hides require treating with large amounts of toxic chemicals (tanning) to remove hair and prevent them from decomposing. These chemicals are a huge problem both for the environment and for tannery workers, many of whom, in countries like India, are children.(14) An investigation into tanneries in Bangladesh this year found that for the first couple of months workers were so sick that they couldn’t eat. Chemical burns are common due to the lack of safety equipment used.(15)
In Dhaka’s Hazaribag district, 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste, including cancer-causing chromium, is dumped every day from the tanneries into Dhaka’s main river and a key water supply. As one employee said, “The tanneries pollute the water, and we all use the water – we drink it, wash in it... It smells bad, and it makes your skin itch, but what can we do?” In this way, the chemicals cause health problems for people living near tanneries, as well as those who work in them.
In what is thought to be the biggest ever consumer group lawsuit in UK legal history, 1,650 people won compensation for burns and other health problems caused by a now-banned substance used to treat leather sofas imported from China. The highly toxic chemical, Dimethyl fumarate (DMF), has even been linked to a number of deaths. Argos, Land of Leather and Walmsley’s all admitted liability, but hundreds of claims were put in jeopardy by the collapse of Land of Leather in January 2009. Eventually in December 2010, following a lengthy court battle, insurers Zurich were instructed to cough up.
Other chemicals of particular concern are Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), which are found in the foam fillings of products such as mattresses and upholstery. These substances have been linked to hormone disruption and negative effects on nervous and immune systems. Natural products require less fire protection than synthetic ones. We asked companies in this Guide for their policies on these toxic chemicals and gave a lower ranking to those with none or which did not reply.
Tales of the Timber Trade
Jago Wadley of the Environmental Investigation Agency brings us up to date on their work in the often murky world of the global timber trade.
For decades many timber traders in the UK and other major consumer markets were complicit, unwittingly or not, in what has been one of the biggest environmental crimes of the modern era: the wholesale illegal logging of the world’s remaining tropical forests.
In 2007, UK buyers were estimated to have imported around 3.2 million cubic metres of stolen timber, worth around £700 million. This is a large part of an estimated £2 billion EU-wide market for illicit wood, and global illegal trade worth between US$ 20.4 and 25.5 billion a year.
Crime Scene Supply Chains
Illegal timber includes timber harvested in national parks, outside of logging concessions, or from illegal plantation expansion. It is then laundered into the global timber market where it is packaged up into consumer goods that find their way to a store or the pages of catalogues near you in the UK, or in Europe and beyond.
EIA’s timber trade investigations have demonstrated how numerous powerful and well-connected international criminal syndicates conspire with corrupt officials and international market actors to steal huge volumes of high value timber from the world’s last remaining tropical forests, usually in developing countries. Many of these networks, operating in countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and China, have also directly supplied western furniture markets.
Money flows for illegal timber goes to the wrong people, effectively financing the type of commercial and political crime and corruption that challenges the growth of numerous emerging, and often struggling, states.
At its peak, illegal logging is estimated to have cost its developing country victims up to £7.5 billion a year through the theft of public assets and non payment of taxes. From 2000-2005 Indonesia suffered losses of US$20 billion from the illegal timber trade, and has at times experienced US$4 billion of losses in a year - five times the country’s health budget. The costs for forests, local livelihoods and ecosystem services are incalculable.
No laws were being broken by companies or consumers in the UK, or other EU or North American countries. This was even where it could be shown that timber on sale was from an illegal source in another country, and where it was common knowledge in the trade as a whole that this was how business was done.
In such ‘no-questions-asked’ markets, governed by laws that could not discriminate between legal and illegal timber, legal timber finds it hard to compete with illegal supplies. In this way, unrestrained markets have provided the financial and policy incentives for massive illegal exploitation of the world’s last tropical forests, particularly in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
As this pattern began to be systematically exposed by environmental NGOs, including EIA, and in the media, it was debated at high levels internationally in the trade and by governments. A clear call for legal action on market reform emerged.
Companies, and some NGOs, initially responded by developing voluntary measures and labels, including timber procurement policies incorporating timber certification schemes such as FCS and PEFC. This spawned a rapid growth in the uptake of certification and chain of custody systems, which were designed to ensure claims of timber ‘legality’ or ‘sustainability’ are indeed true on a given product.
However, despite these positive developments, the legal base remained unreformed and, with big profits for traders of illegal timber remaining, some UK firms persistently failed to implement their policies, or just carried on as normal. Consumers were left to navigate a world of claims and counter-claims about the sources of timber products without having a legal certainty, even in theory, that timber on sale in the UK had to be legally harvested and traded. This was not a level playing field for responsible companies.
New EU Timber Regulations
In 2010, following years of campaigning, and with support from progressive timber companies and retailers, the European Commission and European Parliament passed The EU Timber Regulation, which explicitly prohibits the placement of illegal timber on the market in the EU, a legal measure strongly advocated by EIA as central to the incentives mechanisms being developed.
The regulation, part of a major EU 2005 Action Plan on Forest Law Enforcement Governance & Trade (FLEGT), also obliges companies that place timber on the EU market for the first time to do so through the operation of a due diligence system that assesses and then minimizes the risk of placing illegal wood on the market to ‘negligible’ levels. This so-called ‘due diligence’ element builds on many of the procurement policies developed by responsible timber traders over recent years, and is also very welcome.
Under the law importing companies will be obliged to go far further to ensure timber is legal, and will be liable to potential criminal penalties if they fail to do so adequately. EIA believes this measure is a fundamental baseline for addressing one of the major contributors to global deforestation and poor forest governance.
Until March 2013 however the law is not in force, and some traders may seek to take advantage of this by importing cheap illegal timber to stock up for the future. As such consumers still need to be vigilant to ensure they are not buying illegal timber.
Company policies and timber certification
Company Timber Policies
Many companies have developed timber procurement policies that seek to eliminate illegal timber from their supply chains and to make sustainable timber available. These have often been developed in line with the UK government’s own timber buying policy, which demanded only demonstrably legal timber be used in government projects, and has since upgraded this to demonstrably sustainable timber.
However, companies with extensive product lines from different manufacturers using timber from multiple sources often struggle to find reliably legal or sustainable sources, particularly in some tropical species only available in countries suffering illegal logging. In some cases the policy of the company selling the product is perhaps not so closely implemented.
For this reason company policy surveys such as the Wood Sourcing Policy Table by Ethical Consumer are valuable measures and monitors of the reform process required for UK and EU timber trade to comply with the coming EU Timber Regulation.
Many certification schemes have arisen to provide auditing services to the forestry industry and timber trade, in what has become an increasingly complex and established commercial sector of its own. Such certification schemes are central tools in the timber policies of many responsible countries.
Most certification schemes embody ‘standards’ of forest management and traceability against which forest management and the supply chain can be assessed and certified, if found to be compliant.
However, not all forest management certificates are for ‘sustainable’ forestry. Some relate only to ‘verified legal compliance’ (VLC), or merely to ‘verified legal origin’ (VLO) which does not verify full legal compliance. Most different certification schemes, including brands such as FSC, PEFC, and others, provide certificates for ‘sustainable’ forestry but also for merely ‘legal’ forestry. Some certificates are issued following paper based audits which may include no field auditing in the forest or in mills. Consumers need to know what type of certificate a product may have, and what standard they think is best, and then seek it out.
An excellent guide of such schemes is the Central Point of Expertise on Timber (CPET).
If relying on certification claims for peace of mind when choosing timber products, consumers must ensure the product itself is made with certified wood from a certified forest. The combination of both Forest Management and Chain of Custody (CoC) certification is important.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous traders, and it is now a minority, have used good-faith loopholes in certification systems to potentially mislead consumers into believing the products they are buying are made with timber harvested from certified forests, when they are not.
A supplier having CoC certification does not mean all of its products are certified. It merely means they have been audited to be able to keep certified and non-certified products separate and traceable throughout their role in the supply chain. Whether they do so is up to them and their customers. Many certified companies offer both certified and uncertified wood. Many have supplied certified and illegal wood products simultaneously.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) was established in 1984 to investigate, expose and campaign against the illegal trade in wildlife and the destruction of our natural environment.
Wood labels - Navigating the Greenwash
Timber certification has been developed with the aim of avoiding environmental destruction and human rights abuses in timber supply chains. It is a complex world of different certifying bodies, standards, levels and types of certification.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards are regarded as the strongest available, and the scheme is endorsed by Greenpeace Australia. However, it has its fair share of critics, perhaps most notably the organisation set up to monitor it, FSC Watch. Friends of the Earth have changed their stance on FSC since their 2002 Good Wood Guide, and whilst it considers most FSC certifications to be highly reliable, spokesperson Stuart Croft told us that: “We are concerned at reports that some FSC certificates are failing to guarantee rigorous environmental and social standards. As a result the mark’s credibility is being undermined.”
In this report we have accepted FSC as the only credible certification scheme in awarding companies a best or middle rating for their sourcing policies (see table below). A more detailed critique of FSC certification was published in Ethical Consumer Issue 110.
The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), US-based Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Inc and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) are industry-driven certification schemes. Greenpeace produced a damning report on PEFC certification in Finland in 2004, claiming, “habitats of threatened species are being destroyed as part of normal PEFC practice”(1) and highlighting inadequate representation of stakeholders such as environmental and indigenous groups, a concern echoed by the Rainforest Action Network.(2)
Certification bodies have different standards and offer these for ‘legal’, ‘sustainable’ and the less well defined ‘non-controversially managed’ sources. PEFC endorses different national certification schemes which may also have varying standards.
The Rainforest Alliance awards its seal to products with FSC certification (Forest Management and Chain of Custody) or to businesses that meet its standards for Rediscovered Wood Certification.
Types of Certificates
Forest Management (FM) certificates are awarded to forestry operations and companies that are deemed by an independent auditor to meet the certification body’s standard that is being measured against (i.e. ‘legal’ or ‘sustainable’).
Chain of Custody (CoC) certificates are awarded to companies along the supply chain from forest to store. They are given on the basis that these companies have the management systems in place to keep certified timber separate from uncertified timber during the manufacturing and distribution processes they are involved in.
A product is not certified unless the timber has been harvested in a certified forest management unit, and if this timber has only passed through the hands of companies with CoC certification. If either of these is not the case, no claim can be made that the product is certified.
Given these issues, it is evident that companies can make sweeping claims to sustainability which sound good but are effectively meaningless when it comes to the products on shop floors. For example, “All our furniture is purchased from manufacturers that are certified by the FSC (or other body),” could just mean that its suppliers have audit systems in place which allow it to separate timber certified as being from legal sources to that which is not. Watch out for companies that make claims about their suppliers or manufacturers rather than the timber or products themselves.
This refers to whether the company is involved with any other organisations to help clean up its timber supply chain, or making attempts to improve timber sourcing more generally. The World Wildlife Fund-Global Forest Trade Network (WWF-GFTN) and Tropical Forest Trust (TFT) are bridging schemes whereby a company will source timber from a particular supplier on the basis that it is working towards full certification.
Ethical Consumer sees such initiatives as useful tools for companies to make the transition from non-certified unsustainable timber to certified, less environmentally damaging products. However it would not recommend consumers buy these products if they are looking for a guarantee of a sustainable product.
The Forest Footprint Disclosure Project has been developed with the support of the British government to improve understanding of companies’ ‘forest footprint’ in relation to a number of identified forest risk commodities – soy, palm oil, timber, cattle products and biofuel. Its focus is enabling investors to identify sustainable businesses and potential risks.
Company engagement with these schemes is shown in the Wood Sourcing Policy table. Download the PDF to see this table and to see how various woods compare on sustainability.
The International Year of Forests
2011 was declared the International Year of Forests in a Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly back in December 2006. Approximately 52 million hectares of forests have been lost in the intervening years according to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics. That’s an area more than double the size of the United Kingdom.
Deforestation and unsustainable forest management currently contribute to about one-sixth of global carbon emissions. 300 million people around the world live in forests and 1.6 billion people depend on them for their livelihoods. Trade in forest products was estimated at $327 billion in 2004; in 2007 the timber, pulp and paper commodity markets alone were worth $87 billion, nearly double that of soya, the next biggest commodity market associated with deforestation and forest degradation.
In 2010 the European Union finally legislated to ban the import and sale of illegally logged timber in the EU, a law that will come into force in 2013. The practice of illegal logging not only causes environmental destruction, but funds armed conflict, promotes corruption, undermines the rule of law and costs countries in the Global South billions of dollars in lost revenue. Whilst the long-awaited legislation is a welcome move, some commentators argue that it does not go far enough to protect the world’s forests. Only companies directly importing the timber and placing it on commercial markets will fall under the regulation, so manufacturers and retailers will still not face legal repercussions for handling and selling illegal wood.
Jago Wadley of the Environmental Investigation Agency however argues that the effect is the same: “In essence, any wood product offered to an EU consumer has been ‘placed on the market’, and is covered by the regulation”. In some cases, the importing company will be the retailers themselves. But brokers and agents unknown to the public do not face the same potential problems as high street chains if there is a consumer backlash for illegal activities. As with any law, the crucial issue will be that of enforcement. The EIA are committed to monitoring the enforcement of these regulations; let us hope that such corporate crimes are also pursued systematically by governments and police forces across the EU.
“The ongoing problems of illegal logging and deforestation pose a great threat to the livelihoods of indigenous people, and contribute significantly to climate change and environmental degradation. The timber industry has shown support for efforts to tackle the issue, so now the UK government must step up with strong policy commitments to support it.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas
So far, however, the Coalition government’s commitment to the Year of Forests looks pretty weak. Only a month into 2011 the UK government attempted to sell off the UK’s publicly owned forests. Fortunately this move was defeated by public pressure, and was regarded as being a great success for citizen action. But the Woodland Trust warns that we must not let this allow ourselves to become complacent – the fight to protect and restore the UK’s ancient woodlands goes on.
At least it seems that there is public support for protecting forests. And as this report shows, many companies are taking strong action to clean up their timber supply chains, despite weak regulation until now. It seems the government is falling behind both the public it is supposed to represent, and the corporations it is supposed to control, on the issues where it is supposed to take the lead.
Green Furniture Directory
According to Friends of the Earth, the best environmental choice is to repair, restore or adapt an existing item or to buy second hand.
Low cost furniture recycling for low income families
• The Furniture Re-use Network is a national co-ordinating body for 400 furniture and appliance re-use and recycling organisations in the UK.
It collects redundant furniture for redistribution to people in need. Two million items per year are re-used and passed onto low income families. 85,000 tonnes of waste is diverted from landfill and 3,000 people are working in the UK to collect and deliver furniture and appliances.
It has a searchable database. Find a centre near you at www.frn.org.uk
FRN Office, 48-54 West Street, St Philips, Bristol, BS2 0BL t: 0117 954 3571.
• Freecycle – unbeatable for FREE furniture. www.freecycle.org.
• Websites – The ubiquitous www.ebay.co.uk or www.preloved.co.uk – we saw a sofa going on ebay for £2.
• And don’t forget car boot sales, garage sales and furniture swaps. There are now online directories of car boot sales near you such as www.carbootjunction.co.uk.
More expensive designer recycled and eco furniture websites
Don’t forget to use our guides to wood and other materials, as each seller has its own definition of the term ‘eco’...
• www.allthingseco.co.uk has an excellent directory of more than 40 UK specialist eco-furniture manufacturers (including some covered here).
• www.greenerabode.co.uk - Website with a range of sellers
• www.nigelsecostore.com - Some quirky items including cardboard shelving.
Other up-market designer eco furniture manufacturers
• www.tandemstudio.co.uk - Design consultancy in Plymouth also doing bespoke eco furniture commissions.
• www.ecointeriors-uk.com - London-based design consultancy doing eco- furniture, interiors and kitchens.
• www.arborvetum.co.uk - Gloucester-based high end furniture company working exclusively in reclaimed teak
• www.re-formfurniture.co.uk - Northampton-based furniture design and making from reclaimed and sustainable materials.
FSC-certified furniture suppliers
• www.fsc-uk.org - The FSC website has a products and services database which you can search by region and furniture type.
Reclaimed timber furniture suppliers
• The Global Trees Project no longer keeps a directory of reclaimed timber furniture suppliers. However it is possible to generate a similar list by typing ‘reclaimed wood’ into an online business directory such as www.cylex-uk.co.uk.
• www.salvo.co.uk Tel: 01980 820 111 - Directory of dealers in reclaimed building materials and architectural salvage and antiques including furniture.
In most areas we come across at Ethical Consumer, buying second hand is always a good environmental option but rarely popular with mainstream consumers who are often concerned with status. Antique furniture is that rare area where owning a second-hand product can bring higher social status than owning a new one.
In 2009 a new website and campaign called Antiques are Green was set up as a not-for-profit campaign to promote the green credentials of antiques as sustainable, re-usable and re-saleable. It has a website where both consumers and antique sellers can sign up to support the campaign.
Low carbon antiques?
Antiques are Green recently published a survey comparing the carbon impacts of an antique chest or drawers with a new one.
Antique kg CO2e
New kg CO2e
Source: Product Footprint for the Antiques Trade, Carbon Clear Limited 2010
“When the full lifecycle of the antique chest (195 years) is taken into account, a new chest of drawers (15 years lifecycle) shows a carbon impact sixteen times higher.”
Sustainable Local Furniture
The 2010, a BBC2 TV series ‘Mastercrafts’, presented by Monty Don, included an episode filmed in a ‘woodland workshop’. It showed three trainees being taught how to manufacture a greenwood chair using traditional craft techniques. The appearance of this kind of programme on primetime TV is perhaps an indicator of a re-awakening of interest in this approach to hands-on sustainable local manufacture. Below, we look at local furniture making from three perspectives: environment, history and current practice.
Harriet Wood is a project officer for the Small Woods Association. She explains the environmental benefits of this approach to making furniture.
Coppice woodland has a unique place in the British landscape and provides valuable wildlife habitat. Coppicing involves cutting young tree stems at ground level in a way which allows them to grow back and to be harvested on a regular cycle every eight years or so. However much of our coppice has become ‘overstood’, as consumers have increasingly favoured plastic and cheap timber imports over traditional coppice products.
When coppiced woodland grows beyond its economic rotation, the amount of viable product in the woodland and its wildlife value decreases, this is referred to as overstood coppice. However, even when restoring an area of coppice it is possible to extract some products, from hazel rods to boards sawn from larger trees which can be used by rustic furniture makers such as Neill Mapes (see below).
When you buy rustic furniture made from sustainably cut coppice woodland, you are supporting a valuable traditional woodland management practice and local woodland workers. There is currently no national organisation for coppice workers and rustic furniture makers, and most of the industry is on a scale that is too small for timber certification to be a viable option. However, Small Woods runs the ‘Coppice Products’ website with more that 300 local suppliers to help you find suppliers in your area.
This form of small scale woodland management has been carried out for many centuries and is arguably more sustainable than large scale timber operations. Ensuring that the product is sustainably sourced is very much a matter of contacting your local rustic furniture maker and asking them about where they source their timber. Most rustic furniture makers work on a commission basis and many exhibit at Craft Fairs up and down the country during the summer months. The Small Woods Coppice Products website provides a national searchable database of coppice workers and rustic furniture makers.
Find your local coppice worker on the Coppice Products website.
Making ethical furniture locally
Neill Mapes is a furniture maker and woodland artist based in Shropshire. He explains his passion for an approach to furniture making which is the antithesis of the IKEA model.
“From a young person brought up in a sparse rural area in South Shropshire, coppice woodlands have had a great influence on my life. Being allowed to playin woodlands has a very positive effect and is something I advocate for all young people.
My early influences include vernacular furniture from Welsh, Irish and Scottish traditions. Many of these pieces are simply branch-wood joined into a roughly hewn plank. I was also influenced by chair making guru, Philip Clissett, who lived in Herefordshire, and who influenced the Arts and Craft movement. He used a ‘post and rung’ style of chair making.
Further influence came from an English chair-making tradition, known as bodging. The polelathes they used produced thousands of chair parts. This method was practised all over Britain and an industry grew out of the cottage craft. The Beech woodlands in the Chilterns Hills and the area surrounding High Wycombe became the centre of English chair making. Sadly the import of cheaper chairs had a great impact on the industry during the 1950s.
During the 1970s and 80s, individual craftsmen and artisans started to rediscover this ethical and sustainable way of making chairs, in the ‘Bodging’ tradition. For me, at this time, contemporary chair maker influences included Tim Wade, Stewart Whitehead and Mike Abbott. Oh, and one particular painting of a chair by Vincent Van Gogh – Van Gogh’s chair and pipe, which hangs in the National Gallery in London.
Looking at the experience of America and Ireland also made me realise that woodlands in Britain could provide an ethical, sustainable and locally sourced product. Daniel Mack and Alison Ospina used rustic sticks and poles to create contemporary rustic furniture. Peeling the bark from freshly cut sticks, allowing them to dry, and then jointing with simple mortise and tenons creates furniture that not only becomes functional pieces but, some would say, sculptural art.
I also drew inspiration from time spent as a volunteer for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and the then Greenwood Trust (now known as the Small Woods Association). I realised that many of the traditional coppice crafts, such as hurdle making, hedge laying and charcoal burning were dying out. This was in part due to coppiced woodlands becoming redundant as a resource. Many of these small woods have become derelict because of a lack of management, and for a vast majority of small woods this is still the case.
I also tutor making rustic furniture and social forestry with young people. I am a member of the Association of Polelathe Turners and Greenwood Workers and I fully support the efforts of the Heritage Craft Association, who are also lobbying Government to support British woodland crafts.”
Philip Clissett and the Arts and Crafts Movement
Philip Clissett lived and worked in Bosbury, Herefordshire, from about 1842 until his death in 1913. He was a chair-maker who made his chairs in the traditional way, splitting green wood, and shaping it with a draw-knife, on a pole lathe or by steaming and bending. He produced ladder-back and spindle-back chairs in many designs, with both wooden and rush seats. He became synonymous with country chair making in the late nineteenth century because of his connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Clissett was ‘discovered’ by the Arts and Crafts architect James MacLaren who was working nearby in Ledbury in the 1880s. Their collaboration has been described as, “a seminal point in the subsequent development of the Arts and Crafts Movement”. The Movement promoted traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and an anti-industrial approach to economic and social reform.
Clissett’s chairs were sold at Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road, London in the early years of the twentieth century, and about fifty Clissett chairs still furnish the Great Hall of the Art Workers’ Guild in London.
• Small Woods Association is a UK wide charity that promotes and teaches sustainable woodland management. The Association has over 1900 members, many of whom own woodland or run small woodland businesses. Small Woods also supports the 100 or so active woodland initiatives across the UK, including community groups, through the Woodland Initiatives Network.
• The Green Wood Centre runs Coppice Products courses
• Craft Fairs
Argos and Homebase are both owned by the Home Retail Group, a company with a turnover of over £6 billion. It has reasonably well-developed Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies, but its CSR website has perhaps more style than substance. Argos was the focus of a CAFOD campaign in 2007 for refusing to sign up to the 12 Golden Rules, an initiative to improve human rights and ensure environmental protection in gold supply chains. Argos didn’t sign up but did join the Responsible Jewellery Council, an industry-led initiative. CAFOD’s Advocacy Media Officer Pascale Palmer described this as, “based on standards which are not as demanding as the Golden Rules”.(1)
B&Q is owned by Kingfisher plc, a company with a turnover of £10 billion.(4) It can therefore afford to have relatively well-developed policies. It does not source cotton from Uzbekistan, achieves Ethical Consumer’s best rating for Environmental Reporting and wood sourcing, and does not lose marks for problem chemicals and peat sourcing.
B&Q stocks a number of products made by the company Keter Plastic which manufactures in the Israeli industrial settlement of Barkan in the occupied West Bank.(2) Barkan factories are notorious for extensive industrial pollution of the surrounding area and causing associated health problems for the Palestinian population and their livestock that live in the vicinity.(3) Many of the factories employ Palestinians with scant regard for their rights. According to the Israeli worker’s rights organisation Kav Loved, only 27% of factories in Barkan observe a minimum wage, provide pay slips and pay on time, whilst just 15% meet basic health and safety regulations.(4)
Bensons for Beds and Harveys are owned by Steinhoff International, a group of companies that includes logging operations in South Africa and a factory in Zimbabwe. It also sources from China, Thailand and Vietnam, all considered by Ethical Consumer to be oppressive regimes.
The holding company for BrightHouse is registered in the tax haven of Luxembourg.
For a company that claims to be “passionate about the environment”, it seems that Country Gardens could be doing a great deal more. Whilst it claims to ensure its stock is “ethically sourced, using sustainable forest-grown materials” this is not backed up by any evidence. The company did not respond to our questionnaire and has no publicly available policies on any of our key issues.
DFS Furniture is owned by private equity firm Advent International which, as of March 2011, also owns The Priory, famous for providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation to celebrities. Advent buys and sells businesses ranging from finance to industrial chemicals.
Although its ownership by Tesco brings Dobbies’ rating down to zero, the company itself has some fairly progressive environmental policies on carbon emissions, chemicals, peat local sourcing, and as is clear from the wood sourcing policy table its policy in this area is much more advanced than that of its parent company.
Dreams Plc is owned by Exponent Private Equity, which bought Quorn Foods in 2011 for $328 million. Quorn™ has usurped tofu and soya based products to become the world’s biggest meat free brand.
The score of Focus, which itself has fairly sound environmental and social policies, is brought crashing down to one by the investments of its parent company Cerberus Capital Management whose most controversial investment appears to be in DynCorp, which have been described as ‘corporate mercenaries.’ The company has been criticised for its military involvement in the implementation of Plan Colombia, US intervention to halt the Colombian drugs trade, partly through aerial spraying of coca plantations.(16) Campaigners have claimed that the targets of Plan Colombia far from being wealthy and powerful international narco-traffickers, have been peasants and the urban poor with legal crops often being targeted. In Bosnia contractors of DynCorp were allegedly involved in illegal, under-age prostitution and human trafficking.(17) DynCorp has also been criticised for its behaviour in Afghanistan, where in 2008 it was said to be one of five firms that had swallowed almost half of the USAID’s Afghanistan budget.(18)
Garden & Leisure Group Ltd is owned by the Louis Delhaize Group, a company based in Belgium which operates supermarkets in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Romania and Hungary. Garden & Leisure list pets for sale in their stores.
Whist in the past the Garden Centre Group’s subsidiary Wyevale has received positive publicity for progressive sustainability policies, we could find no current information available and the company did not respond to our questionnaire. The group’s website advertised pets for sale.
Habitat has been owned by private equity company Hilco Merchant Resources since December 2009. Hilco specialises in restructuring ‘stressed and distressed’ retailers.
Heal’s is owned by Wittington Investments, and is a sister company to Associated British Foods, which owns Primark. Wittington is 79% owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation, one of the largest charitable foundations in the world, which has been particularly charitable to the Conservative Party and the Centre for Policy Studies - a right wing think tank.
Speculation on the future of the House of Fraser was running high when the Iceland’s Baugur Group collapsed in March 2009, as it owned 34% of the company. House of Fraser has come under fire for not having a policy in place to ensure it does not sell conflict diamonds. Its corporate social responsibility information is generally pretty sparse, but it does receive our best rating for its timber sourcing policy.
IKEA hit the press as this magazine was going to print for failing abysmally to meet its targets for the proportion of its wood certified as being from sustainable sources. The company admitted to The Times that its targets had been sacrificed partly to maintain its rapid growth. Times journalists were lied to by store staff, who stated that all its wood was certified as sustainable. The figure was in fact 23.6% in 2010, dropping to a disgraceful 16% when chipboard and fibreboard materials were included.(6) As one of the world’s biggest timber purchasers, it is hard to overstate the impact of this one company’s sourcing practices. However, IKEA manages to achieve our best rating in wood sourcing policy.
IKEA Israel has been criticised for policies that discriminate against Palestinians. It delivers its products to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank whilst refusing to deliver to Palestinian towns and cities. An article on the Electronic Intifiada website noted that in 2004 the International Court of Justice “emphasized the illegality of activity that normalizes Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank”.(7) IKEA has also been reported to source from a plastics factory in the occupied Golan Heights.(8)
Laura Ashley has franchise operations across the world, including the Far East, Australia, Scandinavia and South America. It is majority owned by Malaysian-based MUI Asia Limited, whose other investments include food, hotel, travel and finance companies.
Like most other clothing retailers, Next Plc has repeatedly come under fire for worker’s rights abuses at supplier factories. Executive Director Simon Wolfson received £1.7 million in 2010.(9)
Notcutts, which performed poorly last time we covered garden centres in terms of policy, has really turned things around in the past three years. The company sent Ethical Consumer one of the most comprehensive responses to our information request that we have ever seen, with detailed information on its peat policy, examples of factory audits and evidence of its FSC certification – definitely the best company in terms of improved performance since we last looked at them.
SCS Sofas is a brand owned by Sun Capital Partners which, through the Home Form Group, also own Sharps. Sun Capital’s many subsidiaries include Manoir Industries, supplier to the petrochemical, nuclear and defence industries.
Selfridges was one of the first companies to join the National Staff Dismissal Register (NSDR), a database of retail employees who had been dismissed, or left employment while under investigation for various offences.(15) A guilty verdict is not a prerequisite for someone to appear on the list, leading to concerns that the scheme will result in victimisation and the unwarranted blacklisting of individuals in the employment market.
Wickes was bought by builders’ merchant Travis Perkins for £950m in 2005(12) and now has an annual turnover of £10.5 million.(13) Travis Perkins Executive Director Geoff Cooper received £1.4 million in remuneration in 2009. The corporate history section of the company’s website tells of the period from 1800 to 1850 during which its precursor began selling tropical hardwoods, as “the fashion for furniture timber moved from Oak and Elm to Mahogany”.(14)