It has been two years since TFT started working on responsible charcoal.
What is responsible charcoal?
It has been two years since TFT started working on responsible charcoal. It all started when we found out that between seven and nine tonnes of wood is needed to produce one ton of charcoal.
We then realised the impact that charcoal can have on a forest.
Sixty percent of all wood taken from the world’s forests is believed to be burnt as fuel – either directly or by first converting it into charcoal. The proportion of fuel wood used to make charcoal can only be estimated but it is probable that around 400 million cubic meters are transformed into charcoal per year throughout the world.
TFT has been working with companies in France for 10 years, helping them understand
their supply chains and changing the story of their products. We support them to define forest policies that aim to reduce their footprint on the forest.
After having made significant progress on furniture, it made sense to start working on charcoal with TFT member retailers, especially considering the 120,000 tonnes of it that are consumed per year in France for barbecues.
We weren’t charcoal specialists at that time so the first step of our work was to meet with the charcoal market stakeholders, get to know the market better and find out where the supply chain led to.
A company cannot change their product story if they don’t know the supply chain.
In 2011, when we started looking into the charcoal market in France, around 60% of all supply chains led to high deforestation rates and high corruption level countries. We spoke to the retailers and suggested they take action and ask their suppliers for better guarantees.
Most of them had already made an effort to encourage better sourcing however they sometimes didn’t know what to ask their suppliers for. The shortcut most were tempted to take was to ask for FSC charcoal although availability is limited and still not able to meet market demand.
We initially lost our audience because we were trying to tell companies that the product story of responsible charcoal did not have to be about FSC certification as long as the story behind the product was responsible. We tried to tell them that it was about the journey taken by charcoal along the supply chain, directing it towards a better story.
Companies were looking for a framework or a defined list of requirements they could ask their suppliers to fulfil but we were opening the door for them to push for innovation.
Case study: an example of a better story
The first charcoal factory I visited was in the centre of France. It is a family-owned charcoal producer that has been cultivating its know-how for around 150 years.
They have maintained very good working relationships with 130 of the local sawmills, most of whom are foresters that carry out the thinning in the region. They only supply this type of sawmill waste for making charcoal.
This producer knows exactly where the wood used for charcoal is coming from and can guarantee its operations have a low impact on the forest.
This producer is one of the few remaining French producers that survived the cheaper imported charcoal that invaded the market a few years ago. They are not FSC certified but their story and every effort they make to ensure traceability makes their product and their company responsible.
Responsible (from the Latin respondere: to respond) means being liable to be required to give account, as of one’s actions or of the discharge of a duty or trust. Many more producers and charcoal importers could give account and prove to their clients that their charcoal is a good story worth sharing.
Is FSC charcoal responsible?
FSC charcoal can enter into the better story scenario as long as traceability is ensured and the factory has a real commitment that does not involve corrupting the certification body officer.
I had the opportunity earlier this year to visit a FSC charcoal producer in a below 50 CPI country . This company supplies a few retailers in France that have asked for responsible charcoal but I was amazed to see so many inconsistencies, including the never-seen-before yield they had.
Where the best producer can make one ton of charcoal with 7 tons of wood, this producer can make it with 3. The volumes of FSC wood did not match the volumes of charcoal output, with or without the conversion rate they were claiming.
Considering the area of FSC forest in this particular country, it is absolutely possible to ensure traceability, avoid fraud and be certain this charcoal is truly responsible.
Let’s make our own story
Responsibility should not be a black or white situation questioning whether or not a company complies with a standard.
Responsibility is about the way people act and can include a very large panel of actions.
There can be many definitions to responsible charcoal – it depends on how the story is written, now we ask: what is yours?