Sunday Dispatch: Illegal Logging in Romania and the role of Ikea
March 4th 2022
Photo by: Gabriel Paun
Each week on the Sunday Dispatch, Lindsay Riley talks with writers, activists and experts to better understand issues from all around the world. This week, he sat down with journalist Alex Sammon to discuss Ikea’s role in the rampant illegal logging industry in Romania.
Almost half of all wood logged in Romania is done so illegally. There have been hundreds of reports of extreme violence against activists investigating the practice, including two forest rangers who were killed. Alex explained how the control over the illegal logging trade by Romania’s “wood mafia” can be traced back to Romania’s exit from the Soviet Union. The exit meant forests that were previously environmentally protected were opened up to the European Union (EU) and global capital investment. This was especially destructive as Romania was home to some of the world’s last major old growth forests, which play a critical role in capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“From the moment it enters the EU, something like half of that forest land has disappeared, just in the 15 years since then. So it’s one of these things where joining the EU really made those forests part of the global market and that neoliberal management regime.”
Enter Swedish/Dutch furniture conglomerate Ikea – not only does it source a lot of its wood from Romania, of which large amounts are illegally logged, it’s the country’s biggest landowner, having bought the land from Harvard University. Alex traces this back to the land restitution program that occurred after Romania entered the EU, which was so “addled with corruption” that people who had never lived in or didn’t even have links to the country were claiming land as a way to make money fast.
“I’d heard stories of grandmas in nursing homes in Hungary who had no involvement whatsoever ending up with, you know, a thousand hectares of forest land because they paid the right lawyer to go and do it… This is common, actually, in a lot of post-Soviet states, people who end up getting this forest land are looking to sell it quickly, they’re not looking to sit on it.”
Ikea is proud of its environmental record. It claims that 98 per cent of its wood is logged legally, and is confident it’ll reach 100 per cent soon. But Ikea’s major reliance on Romanian wood has activists extremely skeptical of the company’s claims. Much criticism has been pointed at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – an influential environmental accreditation group that Ikea itself helped create. It’s supposed to assess and certify the environmental reputability of Ikea and other companies’ supply chains, but Greenpeace has called it a “tool of timber extraction.” Alex said that even if FSC members have good intentions, they’re ultimately not capable of enforcing the standards needed to properly assess the sustainability of these companies.
“If one of those affiliates refuses to give them the stamp, the logging operation can just shop around to another affiliate and another affiliate until, finally, they find someone who will take their cheque and give them the approval… It’s very easy to get around, these standards.”
The rise of multinational companies like Ikea over the last few decades has gone hand in hand with increased environmental destruction across the globe. It’s hard to tell between legally and illegally logged wood once it enters supply chains, allowing companies like Ikea to remain willfully ignorant to the origins of the wood in its products. This also makes it hard to make sustainable consumer choices. Alex encourages instead to buy products that last, instead of the “fast-furniture” that companies like Ikea sell.
“If nothing else, I think that maybe the best thing as a consumer to take away from this is that if you can buy things that are going to last, if you can get second hand things, if you can use stuff that actually has a long shelf life, it may be better for the earth, better for people than to get this super cheap stuff that you’re only going to have for a couple months and then throw it away because its so cheap because you can afford to.”
Follow Alex on Twitter @alex_sammon. For more interviews like this, tune in to the Sunday Dispatch from 8:15am each week on the Sunday Overhang with Lindsay Riley. In the meantime, you can listen back to Lindsay’s full interview with Alex Sammon up top.