WWF Finds 62% of Wood Products Are Mislabeled


A new study from the World Wildlife Fund looked at 73 consumer wood products from major US retailers – everything from hairbrushes to furniture to cheese plates – and found that 45, or 62% were mislabeled, meaning a product is advertised as one kind of wood, but is actually a completely different species. As consumers, we should be looking for the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) label on any products that come from forests, but as a country, we also need a better system to minimize mislabeling and support wood verification.

How Does Mislabeling Happen?: Amy Smith, deputy director, forests, World Wildlife Fund explained to ODP that there are several ways that mislabeling can happen:

“Sometimes it’s simple human error – for example, suppliers sometimes change the species composition of products depending on species availability, and these changes might not be updated properly a company’s website. Other times the mislabeling is more egregious, with companies falsifying the names of wood species on shipping or other transportation or sales documentation as a way to pass illegal wood off as legal.”

The Other Factors: It’s really difficult to identify a species of wood with the naked eye–especially if it’s stained or painted. As WWF explained, that means when you’re buying wood products like flooring, tables, and guitars, you rarely know for certain that the tree listed on the label is the tree you’re bringing home—or, more importantly, from which country the wood was harvested.

The History: In the United States the Lacey Act was passed in 1900 and was the first law established to protect wildlife. In 2008 it was amended to include a wider variety of prohibited plants and plant products, including products made from illegally logged woods, for import. In fact, Gibson Guitar was famously raided and fined by the Justice Department for its violation of the Lacey Act in 2011. While the Trump Administration hasn’t taken aim at the Lacey Act, its moves to weaken the Endangered Species Act show where its priorities lie in protecting endangered plant and animal species. Either way, there have never been enough resources allocated to enforcing the Lacey Act which is why violations are prevalent.

Why This Matters: Just because wood is mislabeled doesn’t necessarily mean that’s it’s illegal, but fraud and misrepresentation in forest products are often associated with illegal logging. In the US we need to enable companies to verify the wood species they’re importing to ensure it’s sustainable but we also need lawmakers to step up enforcement efforts. When I asked Amy Smith what our government could do to ensure the legality of our wood products she had the following suggestion:

“Policymakers could ensure more funding is allocated to support the relevant government agencies tasked with enforcing the US Lacey Act and CITES.  They could also support more government investment in wood anatomy, DNA and isotope testing as tools to verify wood species and/or origin claims that can ultimately help reduce the incidence of illegal logging.  In particular, building more robust reference libraries to support the accuracy of these tools is needed, as is the need to grow US lab capacity to offer these types of testing.”

Go Deeper: There’s a similar problem (and very complex) with the mislabeling of seafood that the US government is also actively trying to tackle.

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