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Coverage of New Study on Labeling Errors Misses the Point

Posted By Cindy L. Squires, Esq., Friday, November 8, 2019
Updated: Friday, November 8, 2019
This summer, the World Wildlife Fund, the World Resources Institute, and the U.S. Forest Service released a study about the efficacy of forensic testing (including the unreliability of forensic wood anatomy) and the labeling claims of products containing wood that has garnered sensational headlines. In November, MarketWatch used the study to conclude that “Your Hardwood Floor was Probably Harvested Illegally.” While a greater understanding of legitimate fraud and misrepresentation is helpful, this shallow reading of the study is reflected by the misleading MarketWatch headline. We should not confuse the diversity of tree species with legality.

The study, titled “Fraud and misrepresentation in retail forest products exceeds U.S. forensic wood science capacity,” tested 73 consumer products acquired from major U.S. retailers against product claims about wood species (is the species claimed accurate) and product type (e.g. solid wood versus composite wood). The study’s authors conclude that 62% of products tested had either an incorrect species claim, an incorrect product type, or both. In my view, it is an irresponsible – and indefensible – leap then to extrapolate from those findings that “your hardwood floor was probably harvested illegally.”

Monocultures do not exist in the forest – especially in the tropics. It is estimated that one hectare of land in a tropical forest can hold 650 tree species. In 2015, researchers from 43 countries determined that 40,000 to 53,000 tropical and subtropical tree species exist. In contrast, North America is home to roughly 1,000 tree species, a little over 200 of those are traded commercially. With such diversity, it isn’t surprising at all that species identification is a considerable challenge. Species identification can even be a challenge for plantations where it is likely that volunteer pioneer tree species will emerge and mix into the planted stand without active expert management.

While the U.S. Lacey Act declaration form and CITES permits require explicit information about genus and species, stakeholders that sell products containing wood have long used “marketing names” to group species with similar characteristics for simplicity and to build demand for these species. Such marketing can reduce pressure on more well-known species. There are also legitimate reasons for species substitution, such as fiber availability and when the aesthetics and performance characteristics are similar enough to be fit for purpose. It is important that product labeling not contradict such uses. That is why we have taught a helpful mnemonic device on labeling claims: If it’s ON the box, it’s IN the box.

Wood is a remarkable renewable resource. Its beauty and performance cannot be beat by non-wood substitutions. IWPA will continue to work with our members and government and NGO partners to build acceptance and demand for this resource and address instances like the press accounts that mistakenly sow doubt about its use.

Tags:  Biodiversity  Labeling  Lacey Act 

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