Before buying wood, it’s important to know (or remind oneself) that there is no guarantee of legality for wood products.

That’s right, there is no government document, certification, or third-party assurance that can guarantee the legality of wood.

So how can that be possible? Let’s consider four things buyers commonly mistake for legality.

Official government documents can be false

Official government documents can be completed with false information. Examples of commonly falsified information include invoice values, product volumes, and the botanical names of species.

They can also be provided to companies fraudulently. This often occurs when corruption is involved – payments are made to officials who provide documentation to legitimize illegal logs or lumber.

Demand for false and fraudulent documentation can be significant enough that markets arise just for the trade of documentation, not a physical product.

This is why some nations have adopted laws like The Lacey Act, or EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) which require commercial buyers of wood products go beyond the simple collection of traditional trade documents.

(Ironically, many of these nations have much less rigid documentation requirements for their own production and distribution of wood products.)

Even when official documentation is issued legitimately and correctly, the owner, like a sawmill for example, can have legal proceedings pending that could make the documented material illegal in the future.

Or likewise, the issuing institution could be charged or found guilty of crimes in the future that would make its documentation process illegal in other jurisdictions.

See: U.S. seizes wood in Seattle and New Orleans for return to Brazil: Globo

Certification rarely occurs of individual wood shipments

Certifications, like FSC, are snapshots of a company (or forest) at a point in time. It’s not a reflection of the current state of the forest, or company. What was certified might now exist in a different state.

Beyond that, most certifying bodies – like the FSC – do not certify wood shipments. While the company or a forest may be certified, a shipment can carry FSC certification labeling despite any actual audit/verification of the shipment having occurred.

In deed, there are numerous ways in which FSC certified companies can engage in the illegal trade of wood products and retain their certification by the issuing body.

See: Can FSC certified wood be illegal?

See: 31 Romanian timber companies fined a record 26.6 million Euros

See: Operation ‘Akuanduba’ investigates links between Brazilian officials and suspected illegal wood trade with U.S.

Third-party service providers cannot guarantee product legality

With the application of laws like The Lacey Act and the EUTR, many commercial buyers of wood products have looked to service providers to help ensure legality of their wood purchases.

But just like certifying bodies – due diligence providers, or providers of data used in due diligence – cannot guarantee legality, only degrees of risk.

Assurances of legality by service providers is an easy way to tell whether that provider truly understands the nature of legal risks in wood product supply chains – many of which are emergent – meaning not all the data is available until long after a product has been traded and/or due diligence has occurred.

Buying local wood and species

Over the years, many of us have been trained to think that illegal wood is a tropical problem because of the emphasis on these origins by various groups and organizations. And that species in temperate climates are rarely illegal. But illegal wood flows occur throughout the world, and yes, probably from your ‘local’ forests too.

See: Lookout Mountain timber theft caught by hidden camera trap

See: Whiskey barrels and illegal White Oak timber

Avoiding the myth of a ‘green lane’

The prevalence of documents, certification bodies, and legality assurances create a false sense that there is a magical way to avoid illegal wood risk.

Policy in the European Union has even lead to the idea of a ‘green lane’ for timber licensed by FLEGT. If the wood carries the right documentation, then the buyer is not required to perform due diligence as they would for non-FLEGT products.

At the moment, only products from Indonesia carry the FLEGT license.

Fundamentally, FLEGT appears to be just a European approval of the Indonesian chain-of-custody documentation system. And yes, of course, there are many instances where Indonesian wood products have been traded illegally despite being accompanied by their own ‘legality’ documents.

Data can lower risk of illegal wood purchases

Because there is no guarantee of legality, the burden is on the buyer to conduct their own due diligence as to the legal risks involved in a purchase. And good timber due diligence starts with data. In the long run, investing in supply chain data promises to lower your risk of illegal wood purchases more than reliance on traditional methods.

This article is open source. If you would like to suggest changes to this document, or have concerns with any of the information presented here, please leave a comment below.

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