As B&Q increases its efforts to source its timber products sustainably, Retail Week takes a trip to the retailer’s Finnish timber suppliers.

The public reaction to the horse meat scandal and Rana Plaza factory collapse last year showed that, when it comes to fashion and food, consumers are increasingly concerned about the provenance of products.

B&Q is on a mission to ensure shoppers are equally concerned about the origins of the timber they use. If the current rates of destruction continue there will be no rainforests left by 2060, according to B&Q. Forest areas the size of football pitches are being lost every two seconds. It is in B&Q’s interests, then, to ensure the timber it buys is sourced sustainably, and it has done so since 2011.

B&Q’s partnership with supplier Metsä in Finland is a good example of the work B&Q has been doing behind the scenes.

Metsä, which supplies B&Q with about 10% of its timber, is co-operatively owned by 123,000 forest owners, many of whom are local families. Juho Rantala, silvicultural manager at Metsä, says sustainable forestry is a “big part of Finnish culture. It’s in our heritage”.

Two thirds of Finland’s forests are owned by families and more than 90% are sustainably managed.

In Metsä-owned forests, after trees are felled, the soil is prepared and more trees planted. For every one tree felled, Metsä plants a further four. It takes around 60 years to rebuild a section of forest and Metsä works on rotation, chopping different sections and rebuilding as it goes.

It takes three months for B&Q decking to get from forest to store.

Cutting-edge technology

Impressive R400,000 harvesters chop down the trees and cut trunks into several logs in just 50 seconds. The logs are cut to minute specification dictated by customers – for example, the length of a particular piece of decking for B&Q.

The harvesters can cut 40 cubic metres per hour and each hectare can deliver about R15,000 (£11,960) worth of timber. Each owner typically controls 30 hectares, so forests can be a sizeable money-spinner for them. Because the trees can only be felled every 60 years, Nordic families see their forests as life-long investments.

Metsä’s focus on sustainability also  stretches to its mills, where there is a relentless quest to ensure each stage of the process is managed for maximum efficiency. For example, its Vilppula sawmill – in which Metsä invested R30m (£23.9m) and which it describes as the most modern mill of its kind in the world – is powered entirely by bioenergy from tree leftovers. The mill’s new sawing line is three times as fast as its old one, processing 90 truckloads of logs a day.

Once the logs are on the production line, they are stripped of bark and cut into chunks, again determined by customers’ specifications. Quality control is critical, so logs are X-rayed to determine how best they should be cut in order to obtain the highest yield. Each log is photographed 2,500 times to get a perfect image. They are then cut into planks and graded according to quality.

Planks are then shipped to Metsä’s facility in the UK where they are transformed into the products shoppers see on retailers’ shelves. The whole process, from forest to shopfloor, takes three months.

Metsä supplies 107,000 cubic metres of timber to B&Q each year to help make some of its 16,000 timber-based products. They range from garden furniture to wallpaper and baths. B&Q’s parent Kingfisher sells the equivalent of an area of forest the size of Switzerland every year.

B&Q director of corporate social responsibility Matt Sexton argues shoppers want sustainably sourced products. “If you ask customers, do you want ethically sourced products?, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. But most will say they don’t want to trade off in price or performance. The challenge is, how do you sell people stuff at a price they can afford?”

He concedes that B&Q has “some way to go” before effectively communicating its green credentials to its shoppers. But he says: “There’s a collective awakening among the public as to the impact the environment is having on us. It feels quite close to home now, with the recent flooding. It’s starting to bite in consumers’ minds.”

B&Q’s timber

  • The UK represents B&Q’s single biggest source of timber, accounting for 21% of overall volume
  • 9% of wood products sold at B&Q are sourced from the Tropics
  • 16,000 B&Q products are made with or contain wood
  • 60 million people worldwide depend on forests to make their livelihood and forests are home to 30 million people
  • A single tree produces enough oxygen to support two people for a year