World Rainforest Movement

Contradictions in European Governments’ Timber Procurement Policies

Many European NGOs believe that government procurement has a great potential to contribute to responsible forest management globally. According to WWF figures, governmental purchase of timber and timber products is estimated to account for 18 percent of total timber imports into G8 countries. Worth $20 billion annually, this constitutes a formidable economic force in the international timber market.

This force was clearly recognised at the G8 meeting in 1998 when the United States, Italy, France, Germany and the UK, together with the other G8 countries, agreed to a range of actions to control illegal logging and the international trade in illegally harvested timber. These actions were to include an assessment of each nation’s internal measures – including their procurement policies. Seven years later, governments of the UK, France, Germany and Japan have, or are in process of, developing timber procurement policies, as well as the non-G8 countries the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium. The UK and Denmark are ahead of the pack as they have already adopted a timber procurement policy.

All above mentioned countries aim at procurement policies, which would encourage governmental bodies to only buy ‘sustainably’ produced timber and exclude illegally sourced timber. So far, so good. The difficulty comes –of course- with the implementation. How does one define ‘sustainable’ and ‘legal’ and how does a procurement officer know whether the timber he or she wants to buy is legally sourced and coming from sustainably managed forests? This is where the procurement policies of the different countries start to be very different.

The Danish policy only focuses on tropical timber, thereby –wrongly- assuming that there are less problems in non-tropical countries; the UK policy claims that it cannot include ‘social criteria’ in defining what is ‘sustainable’ as that would violate the EU Procurement Directive. However, the draft Dutch and Belgian policies- which have to adhere to the EU Directive as well – do include all timber from all forests and include social criteria. Green procurement is clearly not as easy as some thought.

What is clear is that any government procurement policy in relation to timber must include all timber. The Danish government agrees and will revise its policy. It is also clear that sustainable forest management must include social issues, such -as workers’ rights and land rights and user rights. The UK government does not yet agree but hopefully will change its mind. A coalition of UK-based NGOs has formally challenged the UK policy. (See for the submission to UK Environmental Audit Committee).

The NGOs argue that there is no legal basis in the EU Procurement Directive to exclude social criteria. A first success was booked last month, when the NGOs ensured a commitment from UK Minister Elliot Morley to revisit the UK position and start a discussion with EU officials. This discussion is now under way. FERN and other NGOs hope to convince the Commission and the UK government that sustainably produced timber without including the social issues does not exist and furthermore that there is no basis for exclusion in the EU Procurement Directives. A first legal study looking into this seems to prove us right.

Adding to the confusion, the European Commission has published ‘Buying Green’ (see web address below), its handbook on environmental public procurement. But the handbook, co-produced by DG environment and DG Internal Market, creates some confusion when it comes to advising on ‘sustainably and legally logged timber’. It is widely agreed, and acknowledged in the handbook, that ‘sustainable forest management’ explicitly takes into account both environmental and “social aspects, such as the interests of forest dependent people”. In complete contradiction to this, however, the handbook goes on to advise that governments are not able to employ specifications that address ‘the protection of forest dependent people’ when putting out tenders for any public timber purchases. Not only is the handbook itself muddled on this, but it is also in conflict with the original Directive on this issue (2). FERN’s 2004 analysis of the Directive (3) shows that governments clearly can specify ‘sustainability’ as a technical specification in their procurement policies, and that the definition of ‘sustainability’ includes social aspects. Only by Member States pushing to promote socially responsible forest management can this conflict be resolved. This will require some Member States writing social requirements into their technical specifications and a subsequent Court Ruling in favour of those States when they are challenged for doing so.

(1) “Buying Green”
(2) 2004/18/EC
(3) FERN (2004) To Buy or Not to Buy. Available

By Saskia Ozinga, FERN, e-mail:,