The forest products industry ranks as one of the world's most important industries ;for the global economy and the environment. It represents close to 3% of the world's gross economic output. The forests upon which it depends are among the most critical ecosystems for the health of the planet and for human well-being. The size of the industry, its links to the rest of the world economy, and the importance of its resource base for environmental services make it the target of intense public scrutiny and government regulation. Understanding sustainable forestry requires understanding the evolving dynamics of the forest products industry an evolution that is increasingly making the cost of wood a smaller fraction of the final value of a forest product.
Two frameworks are used here as prisms through which to view the industry. The first section describes how the major business and environmental trends sweeping the industry are transforming Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) into a major industry force. It then outlines the most critical nonenvironmental drivers that make or break all businesses within the industry, and explains how they will influence sustainability issues. The second section describes how all these forces play out within each of the three major industry segments: paper, solid wood, and engineered wood products, and maps out in which parts of the industry sustainable forestry is already a major issue, where it is not, and why.
This approach makes sense given the history of SFM. Most sustainable forestry businesses have started from the forest, then tried to move forward to the market. An analysis that assesses the industry and links market conditions back to sustainable forestry supply capabilities reveals where sustainable forestry is well integrated, where it may not have much current opportunity, and where opportunity for closer end-market integration remains untapped.
The forces transforming the industry include: tightening supplies, a shift in production regions, globalization, increased raw material efficiency, intensified product consistency, and heightened government regulation. Just as these forces are affected by environmental pressures, they also have environmental impacts of their own.
As population growth and burgeoning economies spur the consumption of forest products, wood supplies are tightening worldwide. While no crisis is imminent, the industry is turning to new regions, especially South America and South Asia, as a source for wood. It is also gradually shifting from a supply based largely on natural forests to one that depends on plantations, many located in the southern hemisphere. Just when environmental restrictions are curtailing wood production in many northern countries, heightened demand elsewhere is causing the industry to expand into delicate ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the industry is becoming increasingly globalized, with raw materials sourced throughout the world to create products for equally diverse markets.
Shifts in producing regions and globalization are creating new opportunities for value-added industries in the southern hemisphere. Primary and secondary processing industries will follow wood supplies for financial reasons, as timber producing nations try to capture a larger share of the production from forest products. These changes will draw significant investment to the Southern Hemisphere.
Globalization brings improvements in communications, shipping, and distribution that facilitate the transfer of knowledge about state-of-the-art forest management techniques. These same developments make the emergence of an international trade in certified forest products possible. As capital travels to formerly untapped forest reserves, for example those in eastern Russia, the forces unleashed by globalization will exert even greater pressures on forests worldwide in the next twenty years.
Evermore efficient raw material use and increasing product standardization are also contributing to the industry's transformation. Over the past several decades, the industry has created many technological silver bullets that enable it to create more product from less wood.
The industry-wide drive for standardization and consistency is moving down the value chain from final consumer products through to the forest. Instead of emphasizing efforts to use individual species such as oak and cherry, resources are now allocated to figure out how to make a vanilla feedstock such as rubber wood look and perform like oak or cherry. Eventually, this trend will lead to more investment in processing assets that can guarantee consistency, and a movement toward either tree plantations or homogenization during primary and secondary processing.
Environmental forces have flexed their political and market muscles, placing the forest products industry under intensifying public scrutiny and government regulation of its environmental performance. New regulations and market initiatives are curtailing access to government controlled forest resources, and influencing the management of private forests. While a number of international agreements designed to improve forest practices might eventually affect the industry, few now have the teeth to do so.
In the past five years andquot;certificationandquot; has emerged as a nongovernmental initiative that may further transform the way the industry manages its forests. Certified forest products are defining the market for wood products grown in an environmentally sound fashion. While the full impact of certification is still unknown, if it focuses the concerns of consumers and purchasers on the quality of the forest from which a product is harvested, and if certification is widely adopted, it could dramatically improve forest management and change markets.
How the business and environmental forces affect the paper, panels, and sawnwood segments of the industry will determine, in large measure, the future of sustainable forest products. The paper industry, with its massive capital investments, huge pollution abatement costs, extreme business cycles, and susceptibility to buyer power, has long been beleaguered. The paper industry's recent shift to greater use of recycled paper demonstrates both its vulnerability to outside pressures and its ability to adapt rapidly to a new business environment.
Panels and engineered wood products may be a model for the future. Products in this segment, capitalizing on rapid-fire technological advances, are among the fastest growing in the industry. From an environmental perspective, these products' ability to use a variety of woods now makes them more attractive than plywood, the once dominant panel product. On the other hand, certified panel products will be much tougher to bring to market because it is so difficult to ensure that all the woods used in them come from sustainably managed forests.
Sawnwood products draw most of the attention from the certification community. The sawnwood segment is more fragmented, less capital intensive and adds relatively less value to its products than paper or panels. Sawnwood companies in temperate regions that produce hardwood will have opportunities to sell to markets opened up by a new resistance to tropical hardwoods. The forest management practices of softwood producers, however, are under heavy scrutiny, and they will find fewer opportunities to leverage superior forest management. Although tropical countries are under enormous international pressure to improve their forest management practices, most of the internal and Pacific Rim markets they serve, so far, remain relatively uninterested in the environmental qualities of forest products. Niche opportunities, though, are available in Europe to tropical producers that can produce certified forest products.
In the future, the successful forest products company will understand and embrace the forces that are transforming the industry. Environmental trends are at the leading edge of these changes, and will be instrumental in determining the industry's winners and losers. Companies that understand the role of the environment will profit by doing so: Those that underestimate the force of environmental issues will do so at their peril.