Select Committee on Environmental Audit Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter to the Clerk of the Committee from Dr Alan Knight OBE

  I was most interested to see that the Environmental Audit Committee has launched an inquiry to examine the Government's role in promoting the use of timber from sustainable sources. I have been involved with sustainable timber issues since 1990, first as Head of Sustainability at B&Q and more recently as Head of Social Responsibility for B&Q's parent company, Kingfisher. I am also Chair of the Government's Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment, and a UK Sustainable Development Commissioner. In view of these multiple and overlapping roles I wish this letter to be regarded as having been written in my personal capacity.

  Throughout the last 12 years, in these various roles, I have taken a close interest in the practical process of ensuring that timber procurement is from sustainable sources and hope that my observations will be of interest to the Committee in the course of its inquiry.

  I would like to start by observing that the Government now appears to find itself in the sort of situation that major retailers faced in the early 1990s. The problem starts with campaigning organisations claiming that timber from unsustainable sources is being used in a particular application or location. This allegation produces an immediate denial from the user. It then rapidly becomes clear, first that the organisation purchasing the timber has no idea where it came from, or the conditions under which it was grown and harvested and, second, when the matter is properly investigated, that the source is indeed unsustainable, or at best uncertified.

  B & Q found itself in exactly this situation in 1991. We had no clear idea about where our timber was coming from, let alone how it was produced. Our products bore more than 25 different labels in an unsuccessful attempt to reassure our customers that they came from well-managed forests. We only made real progress when we instigated a major change management process, led from the top of the company and encompassing our buyers, our suppliers and our stakeholders. This required us to make a large number of changes, effectively rebuilding our entire timber supply base.

  I want to stress three aspects of this process. First, it was a practical "hands on" process. We had to understand the whole timber purchasing chain, in detail, before we could talk sensibly to our suppliers about our new requirements. Specifically, we had to be able to track timber right back to the forest, and not allow the activities of "middle men" to be used as a smokescreen. Second, we had to talk to all the people who mattered, in person. Writing letters and sending them specifications was not sufficient. They had to know that we were serious and we had to get them engaged as individuals in the process. Third, we had to have a simple, crystal-clear process of deciding what did and did not meet our criteria. For this reason we chose to adopt FSC certification as a requirement for all our timber purchases (though we have since made a few limited concessions in certain areas).

  We chose the FSC standard for three reasons. First, we need the simplicity of one label. Our customers have neither the time nor the skill set to judge what different labels stand for. Second, the FSC label delivers high forestry and audit standards. Third, the label has strong support from the environmental NGOs, who in turn have the trust of our customers.

  I recognise that there are legal constraints on Government which prevent it restricting its own procurement to one single certification scheme. But it is possible for procurement specifications to be drawn up in a way which require good standards to be met and which allow companies which have certification to use that as simple proof that they met the specification. The more important issue is the management methods that need to be adopted in order to achieve the stated Government aim. The people making procurement decisions, and their suppliers, must regard themselves as a positive and engaged part of the process, and not as victims of it. They must know that the Government understands the issues in detail, that it means what it says, and that the demands being made of them are not unreasonable. They will also need the clearest possible guidance, about what is and is not acceptable.

  I recognise that this a formidable challenge and suspect that it is a task that a Government is not naturally equipped to handle. But these are all issues that the business community has largely succeeded in managing, so there is at least a model to follow. I also see this as an important test case and a learning opportunity for the whole of green procurement. If we cannot achieve sustainable procurement of timber, where there is a clearly-identified issue, high public awareness and an accepted certification process, I believe we will struggle with more complex issues.

  I would also like to draw your attention to the recent report of the Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment, which I Chair.

  The Committee's general remit is to advise the Government on the development and co-ordination of policies to reduce the environmental impacts of goods and services. Over the last year we have considered the potential for bulk purchasers of goods, such as the Government and retailers, to use their influence and ability to demonstrate best practice examples and set standards for others. Chapter 6 of the enclosed report Action for Greener Products: a tool-box for change makes some particular recommendations in the area of government procurement and expresses some disappointment at the progress made so far on the commitment on timber and in other areas.

  The report welcomes the review underway of the how the Government recognises sustainable development in its procurement activities and makes a number of recommendations that we hope will feed into the group set up by Margaret Beckett. We call for an adoption of an explicit Government policy to use its purchasing power in active pursuit of sustainable development aims; a strengthening of the information and intelligence resources to help implement this policy; and a strengthening of the institutional arrangements for co-ordinating green procurement activities across government.

  I note that your inquiry will also be considering the development of the forest certification system for domestically-produced timber. This system appears to me to be working well. Securing equivalence between the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme and the FSC standard was a major achievement. But, on the basis of my own recent experience, I believe that more concessions may be required before the owners of small woodlands can participate economically in these schemes. More significantly, the refusal of the FSC scheme to certify products with a high recycled content is leading to confusion and seems to me to be a direct impediment to achieving sustainability.

  I hope the Environmental Audit Committee will find these observations interesting for consideration as part of its inquiry. I would be happy to expand on any of these matters should you wish, and to make myself available to give oral evidence if required.

May 2002

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