In a statement sent by email, Princess affirmed the company is “extremely careful in sourcing raw materials for our products and take all reasonable steps to ensure that these are provided to us by reputable licensed suppliers, in accordance with all relevant international laws, including those of the United Kingdom and the European Union.”

“In terms of the label, ‘Burmese teak’, it’s almost like it’s being used in a derogatory way. Burmese teak is not necessarily ‘bad’ teak, as long as the teak is sustainable and sourced accordingly,” said Princess’ marketing director Kiran Haslam in an interview.

However, the company’s due diligence extends back one step in its supply chain, namely to Moody Decking and D.A. Watts & Sons, revealed Haslam. In light of the recent allegations, legal and purchasing departments were requesting information from all relevant parties. Haslam said that until that information is gone over “with a fine tooth comb” he would not discuss the allegations directly, nor comment whether the company’s due diligence procedure should be reformed.

Sunseeker said that if there’s independent verification of claims, it will seek government advice on how to improve its due diligence to stop illegitimate timber passing through its supply chain. “Various options” would also be available, said spokesperson Clare, including asking Moody’s and D. A. Watts to terminate relationships with their suppliers. Were these suppliers unwilling to budge, “another source” would be found.

Attempts to contact Moody Decking and Vandercasteele Houtininmport were unsuccessful. A representative for NHG Timber did not return Mongabay’s call before publication, while D. A. Watts & Sons said that a statement on the issue would be forthcoming.

Myanmar

An EU-funded study from 2016, “Legally and Illegally Logged Out,” found that Myanmar lost a total of 2.07 million hectares, or 11.3 percent of its intact forest, between 2002-14: an estimated two thirds from non-reserved areas. An 8-month nationwide logging moratorium that expired in March was intended to provide breathing space for forests. Myanmar has also committed to cut its Annual Allowable Cut of teak for 2017-2018 by 55 percent.

Illegal logging and the illegal international sale of timber have both remained rampant, despite the temporary ban.

The EIA maintains that demand for the timber by the luxury yacht industry is contributing to illegal logging, a claim disputed by Princess when put forward by Mongabay.

A key problem, say critics, is that the current system does not allow sufficient traceability, with traders only able to see what is happening at the point of sale in Yangon.

In March 2017, Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC) acknowledged that its current traceability system “may be complex for external parties to navigate.” They also stated that, “Mixing of logs from multiple sources at various points in supply chains may complicate tracing of timber supplies in exported products.”

MONREC has said it is committed to “streamlining” those systems, and is currently working on developing a comprehensive Timber Legality Assurance (MTLAS) that meets the best practice standards at an international level.

Supply chain woes

According to the Illegal Logging Portal, a website maintained by the British think tank Chatham House, buyers of Burmese teak have often relied on something called the “Green Folder” – permits and documentation from Burmese government bodies – in order to prove their purchases comply with the country’s forest laws.

In November 2016 Swedish courts ruled the “Green Folder” insufficient to prove a negligible risk of illegality concerning a shipment of teak imported into Europe by trader Almtra Nordic, and found the latter to be in violation of the EUTR.

“There’s a fundamental deficit of information,” Cooper stressed. Until greater transparency efforts have succeeded, therefore, companies “need to make use of readily available, legally sourced alternatives.”

At the London Boat Show, several traders said it seemed unlikely that companies did not realize that some of the teak they were purchasing was illegal.

Teak decking on a luxury yacht at the London Boat Show, January 2018. Photo by Sophie Cohen/Mongabay.
Teak decking on a luxury yacht at the London Boat Show, January 2018. Photo by Sophie Cohen/Mongabay.

Many place the blame on the perceived luxury of Burmese teak itself.

“The problem is with people who buy super yachts, they’ll get whatever they want,” said Rob Tilney, director of synthetic teak maker, Flexiteek.

At Swallow Yachts, their managing director Matt Newland says that given the demand from high-end users, any outright ban on Burmese teak would simply “drive a whole part of the market underground.”

Others believed Sunseeker and Princess are being unfairly targeted.

“They’re assuming that it’s sourced well, that it’s come from the right areas, and they’ve been let down,” said Tony Banks, director of Banks Martin Boats. Banks has worked in the industry for nearly 20 years. He predicted the news would prove harmful to the industry and force companies to “now seriously put systems in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

A further concern for those sourcing the timber is that the material will eventually run out.

Exports for wood systems and sawn timber entering the EU from Myanmar totaled $45.1 million in 2015, according to the Milan-based Federlagno Arredo Centre and Conlegno Consortium in Italy.

However, the EIA believes the figure could actually be three times higher, as those cited in the report do not include indirect imports from Myanmar.

According to the EIA’s Cooper, about one-third of the Burmese teak enters the EU marketplace as direct import from Myanmar. Cooper said that the other two-thirds is “either transshipped via third countries, or coming from the large volumes offshored prior to Myanmar enacting a log export ban in 2014.”

Synthetic teak

Traders at the London Boat Show also highlighted the growing popularity of synthetic teak, whose advantages include greater longevity, and minimal maintenance. Although it has been available for over a decade, recent improvements are winning new customers over.

As little as two years ago, things were very different.

“The bigger players, Sunseeker, Fairline, Princess, looked at synthetic products as, not a joke, but didn’t feel it was right for their products,” explained Jeff Webber, a sales representative at Dek-King, which has been selling artificial teak for over a decade.

In 2016 Dek-King’s sales of the product were up approximately 30 percent on the previous year. Flexiteek sales have also grown by 30 percent, 3 years in a row.

“We are seeing signs of [the luxury yacht companies] accepting synthetic teak and are sure that the demand from the builders will grow in the not too distant future,” said Chris Berry, joint managing director of Dek-King.

At Sunseeker and Princess, customers may opt out of having teak decks.

However, to date the 68 Predator has been the only large yacht by Princess to be fitted with the synthetic material, with mixed customer responses, said Sunseeker’s marketing director Clare, who noted that customers like “natural products.”

Certain woods (cedar/iroko/certain varieties of oak) may be used for sea-faring vessels, thanks to their flexibility, durability, and ability to withstand deterioration from things like wood rot. Teak is considered the best-quality timber for boats, however, thanks to unrivalled durability, stability, and workability.

“Some people are very adamant that they want teak: They’re used to the teak feeling, they’re used to the density, they’re used to the color, they’re used to the look,” Haslam agreed, who underlined the potential harmful environmental and health effects of using plastics over natural materials.

Banner image: A yacht at the London Boat Show. Photo by Sophie Cohen/Mongabay.

Sophie Cohen is a freelance journalist based in London specializing in culture, conflict, and terrorism. You can find her on Twitter at @sophiecohenr.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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