The true cost of IKEA: logging old-growth forests

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

Those labyrinthine IKEA showrooms full of dirt-cheap shelving units have to come from somewhere. According to a report released May 16 by the Global Forest Coalition, some of them are clear-cut from old-growth forests in Western Russia.

According to the report, the Swedish nongovernmental organization Protect the Forest and the Russian environmental organization SPOK conducted a field inspection in the Russian Karelia, an area along the border with Finland, and found IKEA’s wholly owned subsidiary Swedwood was clear-cutting virgin trees 200 to 600 years old and in areas of “high conservation value.”  

The Global Forest Coalition, an alliance of NGOs with members in more than 40 countries, is also supporting a petition drive by Protect the Forest aiming to persuade IKEA to reform the company’s logging practices.

"In response to our critique, Ikea has so far only answered with lies, claiming that they do in fact not cut virgin forests or forests with high conservation values, saying that the forests they log in Karelia are only 160 years old, with only a few older trees scattered around," said Daniel Rutschman and Linda Ellegaard Nordström, both of Protect the Forest, via email. They noted that their investigation began after a conference in Russia in 2008, and that Rutschman has been part of the investigations in 2010 and 2011. "We have our own documentation, statements from Russian NGOs and the international mapping project that proves the opposite."

IKEA has long used the slogan “We Love Wood” to highlight its claim to environmentally, socially and economically responsible practices, and the company is defending its logging in the Karelia.

“Karelia is an area with high nature values and the decision to source wood in this area brings on great responsibility,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We take that responsibility very seriously. We source with long term consideration and we want to make sure that the way we source helps protect biodiversity.

“In Karelia, IKEA has taken the lead to develop responsible forestry together with authorities, NGOs and local interests. This is paving the way for a more responsible forestry, in our lease and in Karelia as a whole,” the statement continued.

"In Swedish media, Ikea has also stated that 'conditions are different in Russia than in Sweden,' and that it is not fair/possible to make comparisons. Protect the Forest state that it can never be right to log a high conservation value forest," added Rutschman and Nordström.

IKEA said its practices were certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international forestry organization based in Bonn, Germany.

The Global Forest Coalition and Protect the Forest, on the other hand, have used their findings on the ground — which IKEA has not exactly refuted — to question the value of certification. Both have pointed out that Swedwood is monitored by a company with the “Transformers”-sounding name of NEPCon, which has approved the logging of old-growth trees and maintains that they are within certification guidelines. Statements from IKEA confirm that “the average age of the trees we are cutting in the lease is 160 years.”

FSC spokesman Sasha Hughes replied in an emailed statement from their offices in Germany, which included: "In Russia, as in many countries, the age of a tree or trees is not the single factor which determines whether a forest area is considered to have ‘high conservation value’ (HCVF, a term which was developed by FSC in 1999 to help define forest areas of outstanding and critical importance).  The classification of HCVFs is highly dependent on the particular socio-cultural and ecological context. HCVFs are determined following a broad and inclusive stakeholder consultation process. In Russia, this was determined by a group of stakeholders which included Russian NGOs and an equal representation of environmental, economic and social interests."

The statement provided by Hughes also encouraged any group with evidence of violations to submit a complaint to the FSC. Protect the Forest has already done so, and was rebuffed.

"Yes, they violate a whole set of rules and principles of international and Russian FSC standards, first and foremost FSC principle 9, which prohibits logging of High conservation value forests (HCVF). We sent a complain to NEPCon, who are the certifiers of Ikeas forestry in Karelia, who answered us with a very controversial statement saying that logging of virgin forests does in fact not violate the Russian FSC standard. So Ikea were free of all charges, even though we had proof of virgin forest destruction. According to us there is no credability left in the FSC system," wrote Rutschman and Nordström (in English, with a few forgivable mispellings).

NGOs including Protect the Forest say that clear-cutting leads to forests managed as monocultures, where one type of tree is planted like a farm and which do not replace the many ecological functions of a diverse forest.

"We have seen what total devastation that the "swedish model" with clear cuts has lead to in the forests of Sweden (same thing also in Finland), and it would be terrible if the same thing would happen also in Russian Karelia," Rutschman and Nordström added.

A large-scale mapping project undertaken by NGOs and universities in Russia and Finland is now being released to demonstrate that areas being logged are, indeed, forests of high conservation value.

The petition from Protect the Forest lists five demands, including that IKEA/Swedwood stop logging sensitive forests as well as more general imperatives to “Be a positive political force for environmental sustainability, instead of repeating old colonial patterns” and “Speak the truth!”

[For the record: 8:50 a.m, June 4: Protect the Forest and FSC representatives replied to requests for interview after publication, and were added. Also, a previous version of this story stated the the Global Forest Coalition was the source of the petition against IKEA, but that petition is actually coming from Protect the Forest.]

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