• Meranti and sapele remain popular species in the UK.
• Lesser-known species can sometimes be cheaper and of better quality.
• A large proportion of timber from the WWF’s GFTN producers is from lesser-known species.

The tropical timber markets have been enjoying a period of relative stability. Seasonal issues, of course, continue to affect supply but, generally, the market is balanced. However, in the long term, that could change as pressure on supply – especially with demand from China and India unlikely to abate – reduces availability of our favourite species.

Timbers such as meranti, sapele and iroko are our species of choice but there is huge, relatively untapped potential in a wide palette of lesser-known alternatives.

According to WWF consultant George White, often 95% of standing timber is not what the timber industry is looking for and a key to securing the future of tropical hardwoods – both environmentally and commercially – is to make use of this vast resource.

Taking a risk

It’s a case of the proverbial chicken and egg – agents and importers buy what their customers want – and, while Mr White acknowledges that many timber traders will have stories of the time they took a risk, he urges them to consider alternatives to their stock species. “I think the timber industry has to show a little bravery in taking even modest amounts from the suppliers they buy sapele and meranti from, and they will probably find they earn tremendous goodwill from the producers, even if they buy only 5% of a lesser-known species.”

It may be a risk, but these timbers can be up to 50% cheaper than a similar, popular species. “There’s great commercial potential,” said Mr White. “It’s a marketing opportunity that’s being missed.”

It also makes commercial sense for the producers. The cost of opening up a new compartment and the necessary infrastructure is the same whether two species are harvested or twenty. “It would make a massive difference to producers who are trying to get it right but they’re not going to fell trees that they can’t sell,” he said.

James Latham plc’s range of FSC-certified hardwoods includes familiar species such as sapele, utile and iroko, as well as lesser used timbers like padouk and movingui. “As demand and popularity grow, there is no doubt you will see more UK importers offering secondary species from Africa,” said director Chris Sutton, “and, assuming the government procurement policy is adhered to, we will see demand for certified hardwood increase significantly.”

Danzer UK‘s main species are sapele and meranti for joinery, sipo for higher quality products, and iroko, but managing director Ken Walsh agrees that the market needs to take a wider view. “In the long term, we have to consider they are going to become more difficult to get hold of because forest management and certification mean we will be required to extract species that we don’t use at the moment,” he said.

Market resistance

Danzer has considered lesser-known species but there is some resistance from a conservative market, and there are other factors. “You also have to think about the logistics,“ said Mr Walsh. “Often these species are in the middle of Africa so they have to have a minimum value to be cost-effective.”

The company’s main motivation is transparency in the supply chain, he said, but as well as the environmental issues, supply continuity and the technical specification are also important.

The continuity issue is not helped, said Mr White, by countries using different names for similar species so a change in supply means “you have to start all over again”.

“A lot of West African species are logged out but similar species exist in Central Africa where there is lots of volume,” he said.

And, he said, technical data does exist for many lesser-known species. Eighty per cent of the 1,000 species available from 100 producers in the WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network is lesser-known but two-thirds carry test data from respected laboratories such as the US Forest Products Laboratory.

Timber Neutral’s Jonathan Kitzen, who champions lesser-known species, and unusual sources, agrees that alternatives can offer a commercial edge. “Sometimes they are superior in quality and sometimes the price is better,” he said. “An advantage of alternative sources is that we can find something that fits all occasions.”

He tends to spread his net widely for suppliers. “If we take a little bit from different places then we are better off. By being diverse we can help biodiversity.”

Wood salvage

Recently Timber Neutral has extended that to salvaging wood felled by hurricanes. “A lot of wood in the world rots,” said Mr Kitzen. “The number of hurricanes means we could almost rotate our operation every year.”

Mike Bekin, director of Ecochoice, which sources from Brazil, is also an advocate of alternative species. “Why are people so attached to old timbers?” he said. “Alternatives offer a better choice of quality and price. The UK market is hung up on balau; it’s strong and durable but it’s overlogged and the quality is declining.”

As an agent for Reef, the company adheres to its sustainability ethos, which means buying all species available from the forest.

Further down the supply chain Mike Woodward, managing director of Finewood Marketing, which imports timber components in species such as ksk, durian and merpauh from Malaysia, reports a more receptive market. “There are many more species than there were three to five years ago,” he said. “People are more open-minded, much more commercial.”