Ikea faces Swiss complaint over wood believed to have been illegally logged

  • A Swiss foundation has filed a complaint against furniture giant Ikea for failing to properly declare the origin of the wood used in two of its best-selling chairs.
  • Under Swiss laws, the company is required to declare to consumers the country of origin of all the wood used in its products.
  • The complaint stems from a report issued in June that found Ikea’s timber suppliers in Romania and Ukraine were engaged in illegal logging.
  • Swiss authorities are aware of 166 declaration infringements by Ikea, but have not penalized the company for any of them, saying it has “always corrected any deficiencies identified.”

The Swiss NGO Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF) has lodged a complaint against the local subsidiary of furniture giant Ikea and its CEO, Katharina Anderen, accusing them of violating Swiss wood declaration laws and deliberately misleading customers.

BMF’s research found that 80 items sold in five Ikea branches in Switzerland did not adequately indicate the origin of the timber as required under the country’s Wood Declaration Obligation.

“We examined chairs and tables which, under Swiss laws, require the company to declare the country of origin,” said Jonas Schälle, a researcher at BMF. “For the first time, we systematically checked whether the declaration obligations were being met.” They were surprised about the “scope of the violations,” he said, adding that samples checked at Ikea’s Swiss competitors proved more transparent.

The complaint was the result of BMF following up on a report released by the U.K.-based NGO Earthsight in June, which found illegal logging activities by some of Ikea’s suppliers in Romania and Ukraine. A similar investigation focusing on Romania, carried out by a Swiss consumer television show, confirmed Earthsight’s findings.

The BMF researchers looked at 12 chairs and 12 tables sold in Ikea’s Swiss stores, including the internationally best-selling chair models Ingolf and Terje, which had been traced by Earthsight.

The researchers checked the labels on the chairs at five Swiss Ikea stores and documented their findings in an Excel chart that Mongabay has reviewed.

In three of the stores, the Ingolf chair, which sells for $49 in the U.S., had no indication of the origin of the beechwood it is made of. At the store in the town of Lyssach, the country of origin was declared as “unknown,” while at the Aubonne store it was labeled as coming from “Europe, Turkey.”

An Ikea store furniture showroom. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“Labeling Ingolf as ‘unknown’ speaks for itself, since we know through the investigations that Ingolf has illicitly sourced wood from Ukraine,” Schälle said. “We assume that this is a conscious cover-up tactic by Ikea.”

The beechwood used in the folding chair Terje was declared as originating from “Belgium, Bosnia, Germany, Romania” in the Lyssach store, and from “Europe, Turkey” in the Spreitenbach, Aubonne and Vernier stores. In the fifth store, in Pratteln, the chair was not available.

Mongabay’s requests for comment to Ikea Switzerland CEO Katharina Anderen and the company’s press office have not been answered. In a letter to BMF, Anderen wrote that she has “taken note of the complaint against Ikea Switzerland and me, after we were informed by the media. In the meantime, we have also been in contact with the BKF (Consumer Affairs Bureau) and will inform about the next steps as soon as appropriate.”

Switzerland adopted the Wood Declaration Obligation in 2012, forcing the industry to clearly indicate the origin of round and raw timber and a number of products made from solid timber.

In the years since the regulation was introduced, however, Ikea has been subject to multiple investigations by the Swiss authorities relating to its declaration practices. According to a press release issued earlier this month by BMF, the Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (WBF) is aware of 166 infringements by Ikea; the company hasn’t been penalized for any of them.

Confiscated timber at the regional government’s forestry office in Ucayali, Peru. Image by David Hill.

“They have always corrected any deficiencies identified” by the BFK, said Evelyn Kobelt, a press officer for the WBF. The main reason why Ikea doesn’t abide by the requirements is “system-related deficiencies in the implementation of the declaration obligation.”

With an annual turnover of $1,2 billion in 2018/2019, Ikea is Switzerland’s market leader in the furniture industry. This position makes it even more important that it abides by the law, says Michael Gautschi, president of the Swiss Timber Association.

“It is a big nuisance if Ikea does not play by the rules and applies standards that we are not used to here in Switzerland. It is unfair towards the many companies in the industry who adhere to requirements,” Gautschi told Mongabay. The timber association was one of the entities that pushed for the introduction of the law.

Unlike the EU’s European Timber Regulation (EUTR), which prohibits the import of illegally logged wood but does not require the declaration of the wood origin at the point of sale, Switzerland’s regulation is mainly customer oriented. “Its aim is to increase transparency for consumers,” according to the WBF. In case of a deliberate act of omission, which BMF alleges Ikea engaged in, violations can result in fines of up to $11,000. To date, however, no entity has been fined for such offenses.

Last year, an attempt by the Swiss Federal Council to repeal the Wood Declaration Obligation and adhere to the EUTR was opposed by Swiss NGOs and the timber association. Gautschi said the regulation is necessary. “Especially when wood comes from countries with known problems such as corruption, the consumer must know and be able to understand this.”

He recommended having both regulations in place — the Wood Declaration Obligation and the EUTR — rather than compromising the former that empowers consumers. “We are currently working on introducing a similar regulation to EUTR in Switzerland,” Gautschi said.

In Romania, Gabi Paun of the NGO Agent Green, who facilitated the investigations by the TV documentary crew in June, welcomed the complaint. “In terms of public awareness it is a great action,” he told Mongabay. Over the past 20 years, he says, he has witnessed how Ikea has used the weak laws in Romania to source wood “from clear cuts, national parks and virgin forests” with impunity.

“Instead of becoming more transparent they are doing the opposite,” Paun said. He called the legal action by Bruno Manser Fonds “a small step into the right direction.”

The complaint is now under review by the Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. BMF is calling for an immediate investigation into alleged violations of the Wood Declaration Obligation, a penalty for the accused, and the imposition of a short notice to provide the declarations in a “complete and customer-friendly manner.”

“Public pressure needs to increase so Ikea abides to the law,” said BMF’s Schälle.

Awareness is on the rise in Switzerland. But while people know about problems relating to wood from tropical forests, he said, “people do not yet know much about what happens in Eastern Europe.”

Banner image: An Ikea storefront. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. 

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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