The dirty truth about teak

Teak is beloved by boat owners and shipyards for decking and yacht building, but any claims that it is sustainably or even legally sourced are questionable, says Jessie Rogers

With each passing year it seems that reality becomes more and more subjective. And so it proves when researching the provenance of teak.

Jessie Rogers

Jessie Rogers works at the Jeremy Rogers boat yard in Lymington, which restores boats of all sizes. Credit: Jessie Rogers

Some companies claim to have access to certified legal Myanmar ‘eco’ teak whilst other ‘experts’ insist there can be no such thing, and the recent military coup in Myanmar is unlikely to have improved the situation at all.

Our use of teak has long been a source of concern to us running a boat yard which sees uncomfortable quantities of this beautiful wood passing through our doors.

Back in 2010, when we started to get involved with running the family business, we were on a mission to stop using Myanmar or ‘Burma’ teak.

Regardless of legality, it was clear that the industry’s appetite for this versatile wood was playing a big part in devastating habitats and being used in a way that was not sustainable.

What’s the alternative to teak?

We tried to find alternatives and had some success with a modified maple called Kebony, which we used on our ‘eco’ Contessa 32 Calypso.

But Kebony is not as versatile as teak, its extreme harness makes it more difficult to work and not as easy to bend round corners.

We tried to source recycled teak with sporadic success and plantation teak just didn’t come up to scratch on quality and so, in the intervening years, old growth teak found its ways back through the door as we joined the ranks of customers who accepted vague assurances from a timber supplier that the teak they were dealing with was ‘sustainable’.

A synthetic teak yacht deck

Synthetic teak looks good and is durable, but is not a natural material

I started investigating to see if I could get to the truth behind these assurances.

The price of teak has been steadily rising but considering the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) came into force in 2013 prohibiting the sale of illegally harvested timber in Europe it is surprising how easily available teak has remained.

The EUTR requires that the first importer of timber carries out ‘due diligence’ to ensure there is no more than a negligible risk that the timber is illegal.

If, in bureaucratic-speak, there is non-negligible risk anywhere in the supply chain then the timber cannot be certified legal and the EUTR gives the power to prosecute to national governments.

When this new legislation was adopted, some importers chose to stockpile Myanmar teak via countries which had a more generous interpretation of that risk.

Teak then continued to flow out of Myanmar, highlighted in 2019 in a damning dossier State of Corruption, compiled by NGO The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), following a two-year investigation.

A lorry carrying teak logs

Fresh teak logs being exported from Myanmar. Credit: Environmental Investigation Agency

The official allowable harvest of all hardwoods from Myanmar went from more than 1,275,000 trees between 2008 and 2011 dropping to a little over 850,000 between 2012 and 2016 with a total ban on felling in 2016/17.

It is this pre-2016 stockpile that most of Europe has been relying upon, meaning that the teak you and I have been buying and will continue to buy until that supply has run out should not be sold as ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ or any other prefix that makes us feel better about it.

Teak decking companies and suppliers continue to promote Myanmar teak as an ‘eco’ decking solution, showing pictures of axes and elephants to comfort the purchaser that they are buying something inherently green and artisanal.

One big teak decking company even sported the logo of the American charity The Nature Conservancy across the front of its webpage, giving consumers the impression that by decking their yacht with Myanmar teak they were actually contributing to rainforest conservation.

When pressed on the subject The Nature Conservancy stated that the donation from the company ‘represented a one-time gift and …. Is not an endorsement’, going on to explain, ‘a request has been made to remove all TNC logos and programme information from the webpage’.

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When questioned the decking company explained they were not actually an importer but a ‘trader’ and were not willing to tell me which timber merchant they use or through which countries they import their teak.

All reference to The Nature Conservancy has now been removed from the company’s website.

Although this sort of ‘greenwash’ is not unusual, the truth behind the loss of more than two million hectares of forest in Myanmar in the 12 years to 2016 is harder to swallow but quite clear: there is more than a negligible risk that Myanmar teak is illegal and that is the conclusion the Expert Group of the EUTR has continued to reach as recently as July 2020.

Despite this, as it is, only those importers who first land the timber are responsible for carrying out due diligence and therefore liable to prosecution, while the rest of the supply chain is left free to soothe away customers’ concerns with comforting, but mostly baseless, assurances.

Teak in a warehouse

Current supply depends on non-sustainable stockpiles. Credit: Jessie Rogers

The 2020 seizing of timber shipped into the EU as part of a criminal investigation against three timber importers sent some shock waves through the industry.

These cases have led many timber importers to halt importing teak directly and to rely solely on stockpiles or via third parties through countries in the EU who have a more lenient interpretation of the legislation, such as Italy who will only impose fines rather than actually seize timber.

Questions about provenance

I talked to one UK teak supplier and decking company who assured me that despite being offered timber from numerous other sources who they ‘wouldn’t touch with a bargepole’ their sole source was a well-known European importer who was ‘squeaky clean’, citing regular visits to Myanmar to check on provenance.

When I spoke to the timber supplier in question he informed me that they have not been directly importing teak for the last few years because of concerns about sourcing, instead relying on several third-party importers (presumably to avoid responsibility for due diligence).

Looking to the future he said he was confident that the steps being taken in Myanmar to address legality would mean teak coming out of the country would soon be verifiable as sustainable as soon as a proper verification system on chain of custody was in place.

A teak forest

Natural teak trees grow slowly with a dense grain, where plantation teak often grows too fast and has a soft, open grain. Credit: Libin Jose/Alamy

This clearly raised questions about the UK teak supplier’s assurance that the teak they are selling is indeed ‘squeaky clean’.

An oft repeated line of reassurance is that the trees are DNA traced so that individual trees can be identified back to their source, but as a researcher from the EIA pointed out, ‘even if you can verify the validity of that DNA report, proof of where the tree was felled does not tell you it was done so legally.’

It is true that there are efforts on behalf of the Myanmar government to clean up their act and improve the situation.

Going forward, it is theoretically possible that teak harvested in Myanmar will be done in a traceable, well managed and sustainable way, but given that the same players are involved – a government run, owned and managed timber industry Myanmar Timber Enterprises (MTE) overseeing a system which has been responsible for eye-watering levels of corruption – it’s going to be very hard to know for sure that what you are buying is legal.

New post-Brexit rules

On 1 January 2021, following Brexit, the EUTR was replaced by the UKTR, meaning that UK timber suppliers will no longer be able to source timber via third-party importers through countries like Italy, Croatia and Poland, who are not taking the longstanding EU wide ‘common enforcement position’.

Bluntly put, all the while the UK continues to take the view there is more than a negligible risk that teak from Myanmar is illegal, the supply of teak stops.

That’s not a problem for those with sufficient stockpiles or until, as one timber salesman I spoke to put it, ‘the paperwork can be sorted out and we can persuade people it’s all right’.

Although it’s not clear exactly what that means, there is some concern that pressure will be brought to bear to change the regulation, even though the UK Office for Product Safety and Standards, which implements the UKTR, has indicated it intends to enforce the law as before.

Preventing ‘laundered teak’

Despite a long-standing ‘common position’ amongst EU countries that there is a more than negligible risk that imports of Myanmar teak cannot currently comply with the requirements laid down by the EUTR, a handful of countries have adopted a different approach to enforcement.

The vast majority of tropical sawnwood from Myanmar is imported through Italy as well as Poland, Greece, Sweden and Croatia, who are then free to export on to the rest of the EU.

While countries have the power to seize timber, countries such as Italy instead rely on fines.

Given that in June 2020 imports from Myanmar to Italy were up 22% compared with the first six months of 2019, despite at least 30 fines being handed out between 2017 and 2019, it would seem these fines are not a sufficient deterrent.

So what’s the solution?

Making supply chains subject to enforcement in both the country where the timber was first put onto the market and all EU Member States and the UK where the timber is subsequently traded would close the loophole for companies trying to circumvent the law.

And for the consumer there needs to be clearer guidelines coming out of the EU and the UK, so that customers are not greenwashed into a false sense of security.

Alternatives to teak

Here at the boatyard, despite still being able to source Myanmar teak relatively easily, we remain on the lookout for workable alternatives.

The answer isn’t easy.

In some applications synthetic teak, such as Permateek, is really effective – it works well for decking and toe rails but there are some occasions and jobs when a real wood solution is necessary.

Kebony is a highly durable modified maple but is less versatile than teak

Kebony is a highly durable modified maple but is less versatile than teak

We will continue to use Kebony and will also try cork and Lignia, a modified Radiata pine, which has been used to good effect by Spirit Yachts.

Accoya is another modified Radiata pine using a greener acetylation process, and although this wood has been around for many years it is not often used in the yachting market as it’s not the ‘correct’ colour to be a teak replacement, being more white than the orangey hue of teak when varnished.

Sykes timber are working with a plantation in Java to bring on stream sustainable plantation teak grown on a 40-year cycle, so that could certainly be an option to consider.

Lignia wood decks Spirit 50C

Lignia is a Radiata pine, heat and resin treated to become like hardwood. Credit: Theo Stocker

Our short-term approach at Jeremy Rogers Ltd is to encourage customers to use alternatives.

For interiors, for example, they could consider other beautiful woods such as cherry, walnut or maple.

Cherry woodwork

Woods such as cherry make good alternatives for internal joinery

As for teak, in the short term and while stocks last, it should be treated like gold and used accordingly; repairing an existing set of toe rails could be an example of where it might be justified to use.

But the bottom line is, the marine industry’s insatiable appetite for Myanmar teak has got to end, and we all have a part to play.

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Source: Yachting Monthly

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