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Behind the Music: Gibson Guitars’ Timber Sourcing Debacle

By Nick Kordesch

As the legendary guitar riff of “Sweet Child of Mine” blared through Cowboys Stadium at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, did Slash’s guitar secretly have an appetite for destruction? In 2009, iconic guitar maker Gibson Guitars’ Nashville headquarters was raided by federal agents who seized guitar parts that may have been harvested illegally in Madagascar. Welcome to the jungle of illegal timber.

The raid instantly made Gibson into one of the most visible examples of enforcement of the U.S. Lacey Act amendments, which outlaws illegal timber sales. One of Gibson’s suppliers was threatened with jail time and the company faces fines if the United States Department of Agriculture finds that the wood was illegally harvested. Though the company has not been formally charged with any wrongdoing, damage to the company’s brand has already been done.

The Lacey Act, which has been around since 1900, combats trafficking of illegal wildlife, fish and plants. The US Congress expanded the act in 2008 to include most plants and plant products, making the United States the first in the world to make it a legal offense to import illegally harvested wood. Companies that import timber products are required to demonstrate "due care" in taking appropriate measures to verify that their wood was harvested in compliance with local laws.

Did Gibson get singled out unfairly?  The company’s CEO certainly feels that they did. As a longtime buyer of wood certified to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (a respected nonprofit dedicated to responsible forestry), Gibson is known as one of the “good guys” in responsible forest practices. The investigation came as a shock to the industry—but illegal timber can trip up even the most environmentally-focused companies because of hazy, cross-border supply chains.

The musical instrument industry has an especially high risk of sourcing endangered or poached wood because of its reliance on traditional exotic tonewoods for instruments parts, such as guitar backs, sides and fret boards. Because timber supply chains pass through developing countries, it can be difficult to track the exact origins of the wood.  Gibson was accused of importing ebony and rosewood for its fingerboards, which have been illegal to harvest in Madagascar since 1996.

For companies with valuable brands to protect, it pays to reduce the risk of unknowingly running afoul of the law.  There are a number of organizations that offer legality verifications, like SCS LegalHarvest and Smart Wood, which are aimed at giving timber companies a way to assure buyers that their products are legal, thereby minimizing risk for the manufacturer.

While all importers of timber products need to comply with Lacey Act enforcement, lower profile companies that get caught typically only face fines.  High profile, consumer-facing brands have the most to lose from public relations debacles like the embarrassing raid of Gibson’s facility.  Businesses can reduce the risk of brand damage by verifying that the wood they purchase was harvested legally.

Sadly, the harvest of wood from national parks or endangered species is widespread and the workers harvesting the timber tend to be paid far less than what these exotic woods fetch on the open market. Sourcing legally harvested timber is just the first step in supporting responsible forestry practices.  More comprehensive certification programs like FSC and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) go beyond legality and look at sustainability of the resource, ecosystem and dependent communities.  The European Union and Australia have followed suit and are in the process of implementing illegal timber bans as well which will close off some of the world’s largest timber markets to poachers.

Nick Kordesch is a Communications Associate at Scientific Certification Systems, which is a leading environmental certification company and a founding member of the Forest Stewardship Council.

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