As a renewable material, timber does need extensive, carbon emission-heavy processes to make it suitable for building. It also has strong thermal properties and can actually store carbon. However, its environmental benefits are diminished due to illegal timber harvesting.
According to a United Nations Environment Program and INTERPOL study, the illegal timber trade accounts for 30 per cent of annual timber production around the world, causes mass deforestation and can be a source of labour exploitation and abuse of worker rights.
In Australia, certification schemes such as that offered by the Forestry Stewardship Council as well as laws such as the 2012 Illegal Logging Prohibition Act aim to ensure all timber used throughout the country is derived from sustainable sources.
As outlined in a recent report in The Guardian, however, when it comes to actually tracking the wood back to its original source, technology is starting to play an important role and a number of approaches are being adopted.
One is DNA testing, an approach which has been around for a number of years and involves the checking of wood fibres against the genetic code of trees known to exist in sustainably managed areas.
John Simon, chief executive officer of Simmonds Lumber, a Sydney-based timber wholesale firm which was the first to trial a system developed by Singapore based Double Helix and certification body Certisource, says this this type of approach delivers a higher standard of proof than that offered by major certification schemes, which focus upon auditing company processes as opposed to authenticating individual shipments.
Other vendors meanwhile, such as UK-based compliance assessment firm Track Record and Swiss testing and certification outfit SGS are offering approaches such as digital barcoding, radio frequency identification tags and even satellite tracking to corroborate timber batches.
Some of the certification bodies are getting on board. Phil Guillery, systems integrity director for FSC International, says his organisation is involved in a project with British IT firm Historic Futures to develop an online claims platform to verify the certification status of FSC suppliers.
Still, technology has its limitations. For instance, Guillery notes that DNA testing is difficult on composite woods products because the DNA is generally removed. Further complications arise out of the existence of a large number of closely related relatives for some tropical species.
Moreover, Bill Street, chairman of Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, another forestry certification body, points out that the bigger picture goal of stopping deforestation or worker exploitation is about more than just technology.
“I don’t see how a DNA test will guarantee that workers in Malaysia or China or anywhere have their freedom of association or bargain rights honoured,” Street says. “I don’t see how barcoding will guarantee that forest workers come home at night with the body parts that they left with in the morning.”
Technology, it seems, is not in itself an ultimate panacea in stopping deforestation, but it certainly has a role to play.