Speaking up and out for FLEGT

The IMM interviews Managing Director David Hopkins on the UK Timber Trade Federation's communication and promotion of FLEGT.

IMM: At the reception for the Timber Trade Federation-sponsored Momentto Project recently,  the timber pavilion designed by architecture students for the London Architecture Festival incorporating FLEGT-licensed yellow ballau, you said to guests that ‘the forest that pays is the forest that stays’. It’s a phrase you’ve used at other events looking at FLEGT, including IMM Trade Consultations. It’s something you clearly believe and also that FLEGT can be a tool to help ensure forests pay.

David Hopkins (pictured above): Certainly. We’re talking particularly about tropical forests.  These are in often poorer countries with growing populations and a desperate need for development and economic growth. They need their forests to pay and if that can’t be done through sustainable management for timber production, the clear risk is that they’ll be converted for agriculture, plantations or development. FLEGT and associated Voluntary Partnership Agreements between supplier countries and  the EU can provide the commercial incentive for maintaining forest land as forest. At the same time, they also communicate to environmentally sensitive markets and consumers that they’re doing this in a systematic, legal, transparent and sustainable way. 

IMM:  You’ve also said that FLEGT steps in where private third-party certification leaves off and makes up for its limitations?

DH:  Yes, there are advantages to both. TTF members are great supporters and admirers of the FSC and PEFC. They have been from the start. They’ve helped promote and communicate their value throughout the marketplace – one reason they’ve been such a success, particularly in brand recognition. 

Certification schemes have been pioneers and performed an invaluable service in embedding in popular consciousness the value of the forest and timber to the environment generally and, more recently, their carbon benefits and role in climate change mitigation. They’ve set standards and provided the tools for business to ensure their sustainability and established international brands to demonstrate it to customers. They also filled the void left by a lack of governance in the forest and in many tropical countries. They must be applauded for the leadership they’ve  shown. 

At the same time their limitations have become increasingly apparent. When you look globally, they have only really taken off on any scale in Europe, both for forest management and chain of custody and brand recognition. This is mainly because Europe is already a fairly highly regulated market for all aspects of business. But if you go to the tropics it’s a different story. There is not the same large corporate culture of management systems and auditing. There’s very little reporting. And there isn’t the money to invest in such things. 

Certification also tends to rely on Western companies investing in concessions and bringing their auditing system with them. That may have worked if there was widespread Western investment. But this is in decline and the dominant companies across large parts of the tropics are Chinese. They don’t have the same views on certification! So, it is understandably now in decline – along with European influence. 

Usually, certification schemes will promote their success based on the number of Chain of Custody Certificates they have licensed. It’s fair enough. It’s how they make their money, so it’s how they measure success. However, if you rate their success by the most important criteria, their coverage of forest land in tropical countries, which is where they originally set out to have their impact, they don’t measure up so well. Ten years ago, PEFC and FSC certification covered roughly 10% of global forests. Today that’s only 11% or so and most is in Europe. They seem to have hit a barrier. 

FLEGT and VPAs are not about substituting certification, but they can take the process of driving legal and sustainable forest management and timber trade to the next stage. They provide that governance and regulatory framework tropical countries were previously lacking.

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Momentto's young architects

IMM: At the same you and your members have expressed misgivings about certain aspects of FLEGT and highlighted some shortcomings.

DH:  Clearly the length of time taken for sawmills and suppliers to get through the VPA process is an issue, perhaps an irritant, for the trade. Obviously, it’s a complex, demanding business, but having still only one country issuing FLEGT licences limits licensed product variety and availability, which in turn limits market traction, impact and awareness of the wider FLEGT initiative. When there are more countries issuing licences and a greater range of products available, it will gain more recognition and market share. There’s just an understandable impatience for it all to happen faster. Let’s hope Ghana and perhaps Viet Nam get there soon. They have a willing market waiting for their products! 

IMM: You’ve also said your members have problems with some practicalities of the FLEGT licensing system?

DH: It’s chiefly about the fact it doesn’t take account of the timber trade’s practice of keeping imported stock in bonded warehousing and breaking up shipments into individual lots as orders are placed. That way importers spread the cost of customs duty, paying it piecemeal as separate orders go out. It eases cashflow and it’s been built into companies’ budgeting. But a FLEGT licence applies to the whole shipment and can’t be divided, so customs have to be paid on the whole consignment at once. That needs to change. The system has to allow for trading realities. 

IMM: You have a background in communications, including as director of the long-established UK generic timber promotion and marketing campaign Wood for Good. Communications is another area where FLEGT has come in for criticism from the TTF and other trade federations you work with closely across the EU.

DH: FLEGT is a great initiative and the EU should take real credit for it, actually be out and proud of what they’ve done, not least in the UK where a lot of people, clearly view the EU solely as a negative organisation, hell-bent on straightening their bananas. 

But, FLEGT is positive. It’s about enabling, supporting business and individuals, helping them achieve development, improved working and living standards and growth through legal, sustainable forestry. But this has not been adequately communicated and particularly it’s not been marketed and promoted. 

We shouldn’t be focused on what it prevents and avoids, but on what it achieves and makes possible. It’s not just about legality, but a different way of looking at forest management and making a real difference on the ground, socially, environmentally and economically. It really is transforming communities across the world – even just the process of achieving the goals of a VPA before countries start FLEGT licensing. 

It’s about Europe caring in a positive practical way about the impact it has on forests around the world.  That’s a story we should be telling over and over again. 

So far communication has tended towards the technocratic and legalistic. The EFI’s new trade-oriented www.timberbuyers.org website, which focuses on the wider benefits of the FLEGT initiative, including its positives for business , is definitely a step in the right direction. We need more communication like this.

It also hasn’t helped communication and marketing that more local and municipal authorities across the EU are not recognising or accepting FLEGT licences as proof of legality and sustainability in public procurement policies. This is an area where the EU itself really needs to act. 

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David Hopkins (right) with former UK Minister of State for International Development Hilary Benn at the Timber Transformer exhibition

IMM: You also feel it’s important to highlight the human dimension of FLEGT?

DH: Definitely. We need more case studies of what it means for people; the transformative impacts it can have for them. FERN has highlighted some great examples, which we used in our Timber Transformer exhibition at the Building Centre last year. 

IMM: The topic of a FLEGT logo has been raised several times at IMM Trade Consultations across the EU. What is the TTF view on this?

DH: We think it could be a useful tool – it’s certainly proved so for other eco-initiatives, certification and so on. Of course, FLEGT is not a one-size fits all initiative. It’s adapted to the specific requirements and structures of the VPA partner country. But the right branding could take that into account, even accentuate it as a benefit. So a common FLEGT logo could be teamed with the country’s name; FLEGT/Ghana, FLEGT/Viet Nam and so on. Brands are a valuable marketing trigger. They grow recognition and awareness. It wouldn’t turn things around overnight – look how long it took FSC to get to the level of international awareness it enjoys today. But it can help the process.

IMM: You clearly believe too that trade bodies, including the TTF, have a role and  responsibility for communicating and promoting FLEGT and VPAs.

DH: FLEGT is a trade-based initiative and we should all do as much as we can to raise awareness and explain what it’s about.  That’s why the TTF organised the Timber Transformer exhibition. This was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID)under its Forest Governance, Markets and Climate programme (FGMC).  It ran for four months in central London and was open to everyone, attracting hundreds of visitors; members of the public, government representatives, leading timber companies, students, specifiers and end users. At its core was what lies behind the FLEGT licence. It told the story of Indonesia’s progress through its VPA to the start of licensing and focused strongly on the social, economic and environmental benefits. It featured a series of display boards, which were visually very striking, with clear, impactful messages, taking visitors through the process step by step.  It got a lot of media coverage and great feedback.  We’re now putting it on our website as an online exhibition, and there’s an open invitation to other trade federations to use the text and imagery in their own promotion. 

IMM: EFI published a report on the IMM website titled Beyond Legality, which underlined elements that FLEGT and VPAs have in common with third-party certification. Is this something the trade should pick up on?

DH: It should be another aspect of communication. The two do share a lot of elements and FLEGT can be a rung on the ladder to third-party certification.  We should also focus on how FLEGT links with and complements wider development goals and climate change initiatives. It’s not enough to focus your efforts on emissions reductions in your own country, you have to take action internationally. FLEGT is one way of doing and demonstrating that. 

IMM: Where else does FLEGT and FLEGT communications need to focus?

DH: It’s also increasingly important to bring products into the spotlight. Architects don’t design buildings and manufacturers don’t make furniture out of sustainability certificates.  In procurement and specification decisions, the first consideration is always the product. We should account for that in communication; informing the market what products are available with FLEGT licences or from VPA countries. It would give marketing a much more effective trade hook. 

This was an element of the Momentto Project. It was partly aimed at getting young architects excited about timber generally and familiar with using it. But it also spotlighted that the Indonesian yellow Balau used is available with FLEGT licensing and what that means. 

Following the example of the American Hardwood Export Council, which has a great record for high profile architect and designer showcase projects demonstrating the potential of US hardwoods, we want to support more product and structure-based initiatives like this to raise the profile of FLEGT and VPAs with designers.

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Reception at the Momentto installation in central London, featuring FLEGT-licensed Indonesian yellow balau

IMM: TTF is now in the early stages of another FLEGT communications project,  which sounds ambitious. Can you give some details?

DH: This is again funded by DfID under its FGMC programme and it’s about supporting FLEGT promotion and communication on a pan-EU basis, working with European partners and tropical supplier countries to encourage better comms throughout the supply chain.   

 Product-based marketing will be an important element of this, along with design and installation. To coordinate the project, we’ve recruited Lucy Kamall, a leading marketing consultant, who has extensive experience working with the timber sector. The first step is to create awareness around the products which will be available, show what can be done with them, then use that to tell the transformational global story behind them.  It’s exciting and we believe could generate a lot of market momentum behind FLEGT. 

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