Behind the flatpack – how IKEA is helping protect virgin forest in Romania

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_MJW0256Copyright all images WWF / Justin Woolford

Strong, light, flexible, attractive and renewable – wood is the ultimate raw material. No one knows this better than global home furnishings giant IKEA. One of the biggest users of timber in the retail sector, a full two thirds of the company’s product sales contain wood. And yet while we all enjoy the affordable Scandinavian style IKEA brings to our homes, we perhaps don’t often stop to think about what’s behind the innovative design and the flatpack.

From paper and fuel to furniture and flooring, we all rely on wood in some way or another every day – but left unmanaged our ever-growing demand for it risks harming forests, polluting air and water, and worsening climate change.

Travelling to Transylvania last October to witness WWF’s partnership with IKEA on responsible forest management in action in the green heart of Europe, I packed a camera, a notebook and a bunch of questions – what’s happening in the forest; what makes my colleagues so passionate about working with IKEA; and can their business of providing affordable furniture for ‘the many people’ really be good for forests and local communities?

Man of the woods

costelDuring our visit to old growth forest in Valea Strambei in the Făgăraș Mountains a couple of hours north of the medieval city of Brașov, I meet Costel Bucur, Head of Forests and Protected Areas for WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Growing up in Maramures – a place known in Romania as the ‘wooden civilisation’, where everything from churches and chairs to tools and tables is made of wood – Costel was spellbound by the forest from an early age. Later, seeing that healthy forests could provide almost everything we need, he became passionate about their protection. “In my last year at high school, my peers were fascinated by computers, economics and social sciences but it was the beauty of the forest ecosystem that captured my imagination!”

In 2010, after time in the public sector, a desire to make a difference drew Costel to WWF. “I was desperate to save Romania’s forests from uncontrolled and illegal logging, and frustrated at not being heard. WWF gave me an opportunity – not least to speak with a louder voice!” Mixing jovial charm with a natural authority, Costel gives the impression of being a man on a mission with, importantly, enough energy and determination to achieve it.

Trouble in paradise

A country of natural contrasts, from the heights of Moldoveanu Peak in the Carpathians to the great delta of the Danube, Romania holds one of the largest and most magnificent areas of undisturbed natural forest anywhere in Europe. Covering a quarter of the country, it is a paradise for bear, lynx, wolf and all manner of other spectacular fauna and flora. And yet Romania’s turbulent political and economic journey into democracy and capitalism since the 1989 revolution has at times threatened to put the future of its forests in jeopardy.

Under communism, forests were state-owned. In the wake of its collapse, the 1990s brought the challenge of land restitution – a painfully slow process that did not see the legal architecture for full restitution (restitutio in integrum) put in place until 2005. “The upshot was an explosion of ownership claims, many of which were false or inflated, and a dramatic increase in illegal logging and damage to the forest,” says Costel. “And the authorities had no way of knowing if returned forest lands were being properly managed or not.”

Playing politics and over-regulation

The ensuing chaos, political wrangling and a chronic lack of consensus about what should be done, as much as illegal logging or disputed ownership, rapidly became the principal challenge for forestry in Romania, and to a great extent remain so today. “In the absence of any systematic evaluation, some exaggerate the quantity of illegal timber on the market which means many conclude that stopping harvesting altogether is the only solution,” says Costel. “It’s not good for the forest or for the local people who rely on it and are often unheard. Over-regulation and simplistic populist fixes can kill business and harm livelihoods and still not solve the problem of illegality.”

Some government measures supposedly designed to tackle illegal logging, for example, have caused serious problems for legitimate forest operators by obliging them to evidence harvest volumes at impossible levels of detail. Even the smallest discrepancy between permitted volumes and truck volumes can result in the total confiscation of all timber and trucks – something that is punishing for responsible business owners.

Beyond the law

Regulation alone is rarely the basis for either effective forest management or for brokering consensus between wildly differing interests and opinions. And when Costel joined WWF, the need to look beyond the law was something with which he was already familiar having previously managed Romania’s largest park, Maramures Mountains Nature Park. Multiple ownership, shared by schools, monasteries, churches, city halls and communities, made its management very messy, forcing him to think innovatively. “I knew from experience that law enforcement alone could not guarantee good forest management. Instead of focusing on what is taken out, we should concentrate on how we want the forest to look after logging, and on what services we want it to provide.”

Costel felt the answer was to put more trust in foresters to design a practical approach and also promote Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to help fill the gaps that legislation in Romania could not reach.

As an environmentally minded consumer, I’ve known about certification and the FSC ecolabel for a long time but without fully understanding its impact on the ground. Warmed by Costel’s homemade schnapps taken on a break in the forest and mischievously described as ‘Romanian water’, I get closer to the essence of things. “The appeal of FSC to me was its engagement with people – in communities beset by unemployment, whose only source of income was logging, we needed to find a way to involve them in the management process if we had any chance of success. The challenge was getting forest managers to actually pursue certification.” Even though certification systems were available, they were not being applied for the simple reason that for a long time foresters saw no point pursuing something that in Romania at least seemed to have no tangible return on investment.

The magic of partnership

Without market demand for sustainability and responsible forest management, FSC certification was going nowhere. Fortunately for Costel and WWF, help was at hand in the shape of WWF corporate partner, IKEA.

An influence in Romania through timber sourcing even in communist times, in more recent years the company has gone all out in pursuit of sustainability, including setting a goal to become what it calls ‘forest positive’.

MikhailLeading this mission is the highly motivated Mikhail Tarasov, IKEA’s Global Forestry Manager. Switching from radio-physics to forestry at St Petersburg Forestry University because it “connected people, planet, business and climate”, Mikhail loves inspiring others, which is handy given the scale of his task. “On one level forest positive means certifying more forest than IKEA needs to use in its products, and on another, it’s an attempt to change the whole timber market for the better.”

Although from a WWF perspective, IKEA’s conception of forest positive needs development and clarification, it is underpinned by an ambitious commitment to obtain all timber from more sustainable sources (FSC certified or recycled) by 2020. This commitment has proved instrumental in driving uptake of FSC in Romania and helping shape the very DNA of forestry practice in a country from which, as a vital source of beech and oak, IKEA sources 5 per cent of all its timber. What is more, IKEA is close to reaching its target in all source countries where there is a high risk of illegal logging, including Romania, and globally has contributed to the certification of significantly more forest than required to meet its needs.

“In partnership with IKEA, we’ve been able to clear up any doubts forest managers have about the market value of certification and, by degrees, position FSC as the means by which they can differentiate themselves and prove to both owners and buyers that they are doing a good job,” says Costel. Inspired by the partnership, a decade long journey has seen more than a third of all forest in Romania certified – a total of 2.4 million hectares, 1.75 million of which are state-owned.

Breakthrough benefits

Counter-intuitively perhaps, a significant effect of growing demand for FSC-certified wood from Romania is the protection of old growth forest. Beyond establishing FSC as a mark of good management, the partnership has also successfully brokered agreement on FSC Principle 9 criteria for the identification and management of what are termed ‘High Conservation Value’ (HCV) forests. This makes protecting old growth forest an integral part of FSC certification – a very significant conservation achievement in a country where large areas of valuable and unprotected old growth forest can still be found.

“Addressing legality as well as identifying old growth forest have been the twin engines at the heart of the partnership,” says Mikhail. “I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve demonstrated to forest managers how valuable conservation and protection are as part of overall good forest management.”

It is matter-of-fact statement that masks a breakthrough in forest management and market-driven conservation that has been precedent setting for all seven countries in the Carpathian region. Though protected old growth forest stands generate no revenue directly, they make timber from the forest units that contain them more attractive to buyers like IKEA who are committed to sustainable sourcing.

A question of virginity

ottoWhen it comes to old growth forest, however, not all forest is the same, as I learn from Otto Zvagins, IKEA’s Wood Supply & Forestry regional manager. A Latvian born in the former Soviet Union at a time when, as Otto puts it, “things were not exactly as they should have been”, he chose to study forestry over law or economics, and is one of the most insightful and outspoken members of our party. “It’s valuable forest, no doubt. But there is some debate over whether this really is virgin forest … it would be better to say that it’s a forest that’s been influenced by people in the past but also the best example of old growth forest we have in Romania today, and that’s why we want to put it aside for conservation purposes.”

“Labelling something as virgin, without understanding the science, risks more than just degrading the value of the label. It can also provoke unhelpful competition for funding based on the next latest discovery of so-called virgin forest, which in turn can trigger calls for protection that frustrate local people who rely on working the forest for their livelihoods,” adds Otto.

Whether virgin or secondary, the ancient stands of beech, oak and fir that surround us in Valea Strambei are undeniably a magnificent autumn spectacle, and there is no questioning the impact of FSC Principle 9. Until it was identified as being of high conservation value, the local Forest Management Unit had originally earmarked the forest we are visiting for harvest. Instead, its trees still stand proud amongst velvet moss and glistening fungi, elephant hide-like bark bear-scratched and sweating in the cool mist.

High value, high stakes

In 2015, driven by a central strand of its sustainability strategy around ‘resource independence’, IKEA decided to become a forest owner in its own right and bought various stands of forest in Romania. It is a new phenomenon for a company that has traditionally grown its business on the basis that it knows how to make and sell furniture while relying on suppliers for its wood. Totalling 33,600 ha, its forests make the company the country’s largest private forest owner with around a 1 per cent share.

Owning your own raw material is one way to safeguard supply but it has turned the identification of high value old growth forest into something of a double-edged sword and put IKEA in the spotlight in a country where the pursuit of responsible forest management is a delicate mission. Sorely needed, it has often been near paralysed by questions of legality, virginity, ownership and restitution. “The lack of consistency in Romanian forest policy and polarised debate around old growth forests are a risk for business and conservation,” says Mikhail. “Together we need to initiate a revision of forest legislation and eliminate illegal logging. What could help the sector in Romania to become sustainable in the long-term is a dialogue on good forest policy – setting goals, designing a legal framework to deliver them, building the right institutions, and enabling society to participate. But it’s a fragile and volatile space at the moment.”

Leading by example, IKEA does not use wood from identified high conservation value forest unless it is FSC-certified and has been quick to put its own forests into the FSC certification process, even planting one million new seedlings in its first year of ownership. Nevertheless, the company is not immune to controversy and has to be constantly vigilant about the risk of illegal activity or any suspect material entering its supply chain.

Community benefits

While much remains to be done, an approved FSC national standard for Romania is at last on the way, which is good news for local communities. “Getting a national standard and going beyond general principles will massively increase FSC credibility and give local people a chance to be heard,” says Otto. “And when a forest is certified, IKEA can purchase its timber, which means people have jobs.”

“Forest positive is not just about going beyond what IKEA needs, it’s about our values,” adds Mikhail. “We are the company for the ‘many people’, and in forestry the many people are very often smallholders. We want to break down barriers, get them into the supply chain and make sure they benefit.”

Together possible

WWF recognises the need to work with others to deliver conservation at the scale and pace required. And that together, anything really is possible.

WWF relies on progressive partners like IKEA, not just for funding but also for influence and leadership in shaping global industry and market practice; and IKEA relies on WWF for expertise and credibility in delivering its sustainability commitments. “The magic is what comes from our shared values around responsible forest management, the rule of law, recognition of environmental values and benefits for local communities,” concludes Costel.

A shared vision delivered through a combination of scientific rigour, persistence, innovation, pragmatism and trust are what make those involved passionate about the partnership. Driving responsible forest management and making the most efficient use possible of the natural resource that is wood are central to creating a sustainable global timber market that meets all our needs. By any measure, in collaboration with WWF, IKEA are doing more than most for the forest and ‘the many people’. As consumers, we can do our bit by looking for the FSC label on wood products and asking brands and retailers like IKEA to promote it.

Justin Woolford, Communications & Advocacy Manager, WWF Global Partnerships

In partnership, WWF and IKEA are working to increase the area of responsibly managed forest; identify and map old growth forest and push for protection; support forest managers and communities to achieve FSC certification; and push for improved forest management legislation and policy.

The FSC is a global forest certification system that promotes responsible forest management. Its ‘tick tree’ logo indicates that products are certified according to FSC standards and allow consumers to purchase wood, paper and other forest products produced from well-managed forests and/or recycled materials.

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