A three-year study of timber companies had revealed a confusing proliferation of self-appointed logos and certificates, the WWF said. The report, Truth or Trickery? Timber labelling past and future, sparked a row at its London launch as proponents of two rival schemes, both called 'Woodmark', produced plans to certify wood and wood products as coming from sustainable sources.
In a keynote address to the seminar the Prince of Wales gave strong endorsement to one of the schemes, drawn up over the past two years by the Soil Association, an organic farming group. He has asked the association to inspect and certify the Duchy of Cornwall's woodlands near Liskeard. This scheme, which has the WWF's support, will operate under the auspices of the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organisation set up to monitor claims on sustainably-produced timber.
The rival scheme, devised by the Forestry Industry's Committee of Great Britain, a trade body representing the British timber industry, was criticised by the Soil Association as hastily put together for the meeting by an industry fearful of losing its authority. This would certify wood that met British regulations enforced by the Forestry Commission.
However, one retailer said his customers had less confidence in schemes based on government- led standards than in those seen to be truly independent. A representative from B & Q accused the director-general of the Forestry Commission of missing an opportunity to promote British timber by refusing to commit to an independent certification scheme, allowing British wood to compete with imported timber carrying detailed information on its source.
The WWF report said labelling was being used as a public relations exercise by companies aware that consumers will select products displaying environmental claims. The majority of these appear to view sustainability as little more than the production of a sustained yield of timber, ignoring wider social, ecological and environmental effects of timber harvesting.
During yesterday's seminar the WWF was criticised for sending letters to timber companies threatening boycotts of their products. Robin Pellew, director of the WWF, apologised for any heavy-handed approaches and said he looked forward to a spirit of co-operation with the industry.
The WWF report criticised the Timber Trades Federation, representing importers, for its 'continued failure' to play a positive role in solving the labelling problem. It congratulated 24 companies, 'the 1995 Group', committed to phasing out, by December 1995, the sale and use of all wood and wood products that do not come from well-managed forests.
In his speech, Prince Charles confessed to 'an overwhelming sense of despair' over forest loss. He urged consumers to press for wood products from sustainably grown timber, stating that he had asked suppliers to the Royal Household to supply only timber from sources independently certified as sustainable from 1995.
Truth or Trickery? Timber labelling past and future. WWF, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GU17 1XR. Tel: 0483 426444.