The wood flooring industry gathered to discuss the latest developments regarding the birch plywood supply as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues. The Floor Covering Institute (FCI), National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), and Decorative Hardwoods Association (DHA) partnered this week to provide an update, answer questions, and share possible solutions. Speakers included Dr. Brian Beakler, president of the FCI; Michael Martin, president and CEO of NWFA; Keith Christman, president of the DHA; Kip Howlett, past president of the DHA; Mark Boldizar, associate with the FCI; and Josh Hosen, managing director of certification for Capital Testing.
The webinar began with a recap of concerns related to the Russia and Ukraine situation that were raised by wood flooring manufacturers during NWFA’s recent 2022 Wood Flooring Expo in Tampa, Florida.
“I think this was the big topic of the week, as far as trying to figure out challenges in the industry,” said Martin. “For the most part, people are really having a good year. They’re seeing good sales; they’re seeing good things happening in the marketplace. This is definitely a concern, so we added a special session during the Expo to provide our members with the opportunity to talk about it in person.”
The session, “Industry Issues in a Post-COVID World,” was led by Beakler and covered the war between Russia and Ukraine, COVID-19, inflation, supply chain issues, worker shortages, and more.
“There were a lot of questions as it pertained to domestic hardwood/plywood production,” said Beakler. “Concerns about where we go from here as an industry, what options are there, what stigma may encompass our products if we continue to bring Russian birch through, and inventory that we already have. Also, how the rest of the world looks at Russian wood right now.”
Next, Christman shared data with the webinar audience to further put the scale of the challenge into perspective.
“In 2021, the U.S. imported about 1.7 billion square feet of birch plywood. It was more than 500 million square feet directly from Russia, another 653 million square feet from Vietnam, and 322 million from Indonesia,” explained Christman. “To put that in context, the U.S. produces about 750 million square feet of hardwood plywood of all types. So, it is a large amount of material that the U.S. would be hard pressed to make up in a short run.”
In giving the current state of affairs, Christman noted the U.S. government suspended normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, immediately raising tariffs on Russian birch plywood to 50 percent in many cases. He said that the European Commission has proposed somewhat of a ban on imports of Russian wood, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has withdrawn certification for Russia and Belarus.
“Folks are going to be looking harder at the potential for circumvention for bringing in material from Russia through third-party countries,” said Christman. “I think that has the potential to have some impacts and be restricted in the future, but today I don’t think there are any direct laws that prevent folks from using that Vietnamese and Indonesian material. Besides the impact it could have on the perception of your organization using Russian material, which is a significant concern and if you were counting on FSC and things like that, that’s no longer available.”
Some webinar attendees asked if they could use material from Russia that was obtained prior to the FSC’s suspension. It was recommended that manufacturers visit the FSC website for details. Christman stated that going forward, companies will need to be cognizant of the public affairs impacts of using some of that material.
“Meranti, eucalyptus, and rubber wood are all certainly potential core replacements for birch. Will they be as good? I don’t know. I have my doubts because there’s a reason Russian birch has been around the industry for so long and it’s been wildly successful. So, again, everyone has to do their own due diligence,” said Beakler.
Beakler went on to recommend keeping in mind the thickness of the wood, the type of wood, thickness of the core, and type of core. He told the group to make sure they vet it and test it – and reminded them to never assume anything when it comes to performance.
To watch a recording of this webinar, visit floorcoveringinstitute.com.
The discussion will continue in person at the Decorative Hardwoods Association’s 2022 Spring Conference and 101st Annual Meeting. Taking place in Nashville, May 16-18, experts will outline how the pandemic, war, tariffs, and illegal wood will continue to affect trade and trends. More information can be found here.
Finally, the International Wood Products Association (IWPA) and the NWFA are hosting Due Care Week at the NWFA Headquarters in St. Louis in June. The course provides attendees with a comprehensive analysis of the requirements of the Lacey Act and other laws relevant to trade in wood products. The day-long sessions arm those buying and selling wood products with the latest information about resources and procedures that will allow them to tailor a compliance system to their company’s market niche. Register here.