The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has escalated quickly, and sanctions stand to impact the birch plywood supply and the domestic engineered wood flooring industry. Importers, distributors, and flooring manufacturers are quickly trying to determine their next move.
Recent wood industry developments include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) announcing their Board of Directors has agreed to suspend trading certificates in Russia and Belarus, and to block all controlled wood sourcing from the two countries. This means wood and forest products from Russia and Belarus cannot be used in FSC products or be sold as FSC certified as long as the conflict continues.
Additionally, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine requested that the European Union ban the import of Russian forest and wood products. In the Decorative Hardwoods Association’s weekly newsletter, Keith Christman, president of the Decorative Hardwoods Association, noted that in 2021, Russia was the third-largest source of U.S. hardwood plywood imports, with a total volume of more than 567 million square feet worth more than $334 million.
The Floor Covering Institute (FCI) and National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) partnered last week to provide an informational session for those interested in learning more about the situation. Participants were encouraged to submit questions and to share their own knowledge on the topic to help the industry prepare for change. Speakers included Brian Beakler, president of the FCI; Michael Martin, president and CEO of NWFA; Kip Howlett, past president of the Decorative Hardwoods Association; and Mark Boldizar, associate with the FCI.
“Many NWFA members are looking for answers about how this situation will impact supplies, potential legal or social issues, and alternatives,” said Martin. “Bringing a group like this together to share best practices, information, and solutions will help the industry get through this issue.”
Prior to the webinar, NWFA posed a survey to some of the organization’s engineered wood flooring manufacturers. Of those who responded, 95 percent currently use Russian birch for making engineered wood flooring. Martin said the amount of inventory these manufacturers have in stock ranged from one to six months, with the average being around three months’ worth of supply.
“It’s not as easy as snapping your fingers and being able to substitute materials. The reality is Baltic birch is a highly stable platform, it has a good density to it, and it’s very homogenous and predictable. Not all plywood structures that you’ll be able to source, either domestically or from Southeast Asia, will provide those same attributes,” said Beakler. “There’s this element of due diligence around alternative core materials, and many in the industry have started to look at, or produce, solid core engineered structures, and there are currently several technologies that can be applied to help make this happen.”
Alternatives were a major part of the discussion. According to the NWFA survey, manufacturers mentioned considering Canadian red pine, domestic plywood, eucalyptus, Malaysian/Southeast Asia/Vietnamese plywood, and solid poplar as options. Beakler categorized viable alternatives as composite wood, domestic hardwood and softwood plywood, Southeast Asian and Western European hardwood plywood, and solid core.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there, it’s just managing the pros and the cons of each as it applies to your customers down the line,” advised Beakler. “Make sure you understand where the material is coming from because in this time of ‘hey, we’ve got to react really quickly,’ a lot of mistakes can be made.”
Regarding how to test substitute products, Beakler offered suggestions about what to take into consideration. One concern he raised is how do the structures perform in varying environments and would that be within the manufacturer’s warranty. Additionally, he noted the importance of understanding what is going to happen to those structures at low and high equilibrium moisture content (EMC) conditions and recommended environmental chambers as a good way to test prototypes.
Beakler also stressed that replacement alternatives might not be as dense as Russian birch. This is important with respect to indent resistance on engineered wood flooring structures. Alternative plywood structures may also have thicker veneers than exist in most Russian birch, which too can impact dent resistance. “If I drop a mug off my countertop at 42 inches, is it going to indent now where it didn’t before?” said Beakler.
The group closed out the session by noting that while no one has all of the answers in this rapidly-evolving situation, having a network that comes together to discuss the issues hopefully will connect manufacturers with solutions. For more details, the full session may be viewed by visiting: https://floorcoveringinstitute.com/fci-nfwa-webinar/