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Buyer Beware: One Study Finds 62% of Wood Products Mislabeled

You’re shopping for a new kitchen table. After poking around online and visiting a few stores, you find a beautiful six-seater made from solid oak.

At least, that’s what the label says.

The reality is that the table could be made from oak, or it could be something else entirely—even an illegally logged, rare or protected tree species.

World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Lab obtained 73 wood products from some of the most well-known wood products’ retailers in the U.S. and tested these products to determine if product claims were accurate and further, if a threatened tree species was illegal used. Our study found that 62% of these products were mislabeled by inaccurate species claims and/or inaccurate product claims.

The mislabeling of wood products intensifies the pressure of illegal logging on forests, hurting biodiversity conservation and greenhouse gas emission efforts. Right now, lack of capacity and access to wood identification methodologies prevent legislative safeguards from working properly.

How and Why Is Wood Mislabeled?

Mislabeling can happen anywhere along the supply chain, and can be intentional or unintentional.

Intentional mislabeling early in the supply chain is often used to cover up the illegal harvest of timber. Illegal harvest could be over quota, outside concession boundaries or the wrong species. For example, it is illegal to trade in species of rosewoods originating from Madagascar, yet these timbers are some of the most highly valued, sought-after timbers in the world. Subsequently, illegal loggers use many tactics, including mislabeling, to obscure illegal activity and make handsome sums selling rosewood timber on the black market.

Towards the end of the supply chain, intentional mislabeling is used in retail by marketing a low value, common timber species or wood product as a high value, rare species—thereby garnering a significant profit. In this study specifically, we purchased a piece of furniture labeled as “rosewood” that, when analyzed, proved to be an inexpensive, rose-stained pine species.

Common, unintentional reasons for mislabeling are often related to inability of a lay person to differentiate between species of a wood product by eye. Even to highly trained wood anatomists, differentiating wood species can be incredibly difficult and most would agree that without significant and accurate metadata associated with the wood sample, identifying beyond genus can be impossible.

Mislabeling Illegal in the US, but Still Common

Whether mislabeling is intentional or accidental, it is a violation of the U.S. Lacey Act. The Lacey Act prohibits import, export, sale, or transport of illegal wood and wood products. The results of this study shed light on some issues in limiting the risk of mislabeled products ending up on shelves in the U.S.

One persistent issue: Retailers lack understanding—or commitment to—supply chain verification. The Lacey Act considers this part of retailers’ “Due Care.”

Another major issue is that customs officials lack the capacity to enforce the Lacey Act across retail forest products. Unlike other imported commodities, verification of species in declared wood products is close to impossible without scientific intervention.

Last, consumers are unaware of how to responsibly shop for wood products, and the impacts of purchasing illegal or high-risk wood products remain less well-known.

Luckily, wood identification technologies like the method we used in this study can tell users about the product, including its species and in some instances, origin. If widely adopted, they could increase the capacity of consumers, retailers and governments to root out mislabeling and bring the wood market into more sustainable practices.

How to Verify Wood Species

This study utilized an analysis method called “forensic wood anatomy,” where expert wood anatomists studies the cellular structure of the wood to verify its species. Historically, this has been the go-to method for product claim verification.

However, there are only a handful of forensic wood anatomists in the world who can carry out this work. This lack of capacity, juxtaposed with how much illegal wood is being traded on the global market, makes it clear that forensic wood anatomy cannot combat the illegal trade forest products alone.

Additional wood identification technologies are beginning to be scaled and soon should make product claim verification more accessible to retailers, governments and consumers—and alleviate the current burden being placed on the world’s few forensic wood anatomists. But deeper investment in these technologies is desperately needed.

Companies, Governments and Consumers Must Do Better

Inaccurate species claims are made too often about consumer wood products. The above examples pose problems for consumers who increasingly want to know where their products are from, how their products are produced and whether or not they are contributing to deforestation, unfair trade, labor and human rights abuses. The results of this study show that lack of capacity and access to wood identification methodologies prevent legislative safeguards from working properly. Most of the responsibility lies with the private and government sectors to take the initiative and start researching and employing wood identification technologies as a method of due care.

Although consumers are impacted by wood fraud, they are limited in the steps they can take to help solve the problem. Still, the public should know about mislabeling. Responsible shoppers should make some attempt at “due care,” for example by inquiring with companies on where and how they source their wood products and purchasing “certified” wood products.

If the status quo continues, forests and consumers will suffer, especially with global demand for wood products continuing to rise.

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