What do organized crime, Siberian Tigers and reasonably priced hardwood floors have in common?

real-hardwood-flooring-engineered-floors-laminate-394619We’re in the process of buying our second house. (Yay!) But it needs some work. (Meh.) And we have a strict budget. (Boo.) After we scoured our local big box home improvement stores for hardwood and laminate flooring samples, we decided to check out Lumber Liquidators (Or “LUMBER LIQUIDATOR$, as the sign reads.) Since the name actually has a dollar sign in it, we assumed that is where all the great flooring deals were hiding.

The showroom was quite small, brightly lit and although the floors honestly looked rather cheap, I wasn’t blown away by the prices. The prices were pretty comparable to the big box stores (some even higher). The flooring looked flimsy and because I wasn’t familiar with any of the brands, I assumed they probably were of a low quality. So, we walked away. After learning where that hardwood likely originated, I’m really glad we did.

The hardwood flooring illuminated in that small showroom likely came from a forest in Russia’s Far tigerEast (RFE), where it was illegally harvested, manufactured in China and now can be installed in my American house. According to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the largest specialty retailer of hardwood flooring, Lumber Liquidators, happens to also be the biggest offender in terms of illegally harvested timber.

So, what’s the big deal? I have a budget and need cheap flooring and Lumber Liquidators claims to have the cheapest. Although we have plenty of oak right here in the states, I assumed the timber came from overseas. Why should I, or anyone else, care that the lumber comes from Russia?

The RFE is home to one of the world’s largest hardwood forest. It’s also home to the last 450 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild. The number of Siberian tigers are dwindling and continue to be threatened because tigers prey on deer and wild boar, which eat acorns and walnuts that grow in the forests. Depleting certain tree species poses a severe threat to the region’s ecosystem by undermining the food chain.

Legitimate companies obtain logging permits and in a perfect world, the companies legally obtain as much lumber as they’re allowed and the forest is sustained so the tigers (and local economy) can thrive. That’s not what is happening.

Some companies cut much more than they’re allowed, cut species that aren’t permitted or steal the lumber outright. An estimated 50-80 percent of hardwoods are harvested illegally. The “Timber mafia” (yes, I said timber mafia) bribes Russian officials to turn a blind eye to the illegal logging. Then most of the lumber (96 percent) goes to China, where it is manufactured and its illegal origins are hidden. Then the resulting products are sent to be sold all around the world.

A team from the EIA posed as buyers of wood flooring and went to one of the largest wood products companies in China– Xingja, which supplies to Lumber Liquidators. According to the EIA report, the team spoke with a Mr. Yu, an executive at Xingja, who basically said the lumber was harvested illegally, he conceals the fact that it was harvested illegally and he uses corruption to stay out of trouble. The EIA alleges that Lumber Liquidators likely has known that the flooring was made from illegally logged wood, which is in violation of the Lacey Act. 

EIA investigators estimate that Lumber Liquidators has received at least 35 seperate shipments, containing nearly three million square feet of hand-scraped solid oak florring from Xingja in the period from May, 2012 until August, 2013. — Liquidating the Forest, page 20.

Lumber Liquidators founder and CEO, Tom Sullivan, denies the claims made in the report.

Reading the lengthy report from the EIA is pretty overwhelming and although they made lots of suggestions to governments on a global scale, there weren’t any suggestions for little ol’ me– the consumer. (Except the implied suggestion not to shop at Lumber Liquidators)

Many flooring products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is an independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. They have a nifty little logo you can look for when shopping for flooring. fsc

We found a type of flooring we really liked at our local big box store. After a quick Google of the brand (Armstrong), I found that the hardwood they use isn’t from the RFE. It’s from the Appalachian Hardwood Region, right here in the States, where the growth rate is 2+ trees for every tree that is harvested. The wood isn’t manufactured using shady practices in China, it’s manufactured in one of the two FSC-certified plants in Kentucky and West Virginia.

We may have been able to get a cheaper product at Lumber Liquidators, but I now know the real cost of cheap flooring.

 

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