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Timber yard near Rome, Italy.
©FAO/Jeanette Van Acker

Naming forest products

Product classifications promote transparency and sustainable development.

When a country exports tropical hardwood, roundwood, cross-laminated timber panels or pulp, that shipment becomes one among millions of data points describing the international trade of forest products. As these data points are compiled in the FAO Yearbook of Forest Products, a panoramic picture emerges of where such products are produced and consumed. This compilation is made possible by classifying each forest product – essentially, assigning it a name – through a global classification system.

Classification of forest products 2022 book
Plywood Eames chair
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The Lounge Chair Wood Base (LCW) by Charles and Ray Eames. Moulded plywood revolutionized furniture in the twentieth century.

The origin of forest product classification

In 1973, FAO and UNECE first published their Classification of Forest Products. It – along with its subsequent editions – lists the names and definitions that are the basis of data collection on wood and paper products around the world. These definitions highlight the characteristics that differentiate one product from another. All parts of the tree except needles and leaves are classified, each of them potential raw material for new forest products.

Classification of Forest Products provides a crosswalk for forest product classifications under the Harmonized System developed and maintained by the World Customs Organization (WCO), the Central Product Classification (CPC) of the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and those of national statistics agencies. For example, FAO classification “041. Wood pellets” equals “Harmonized System 4401.31” and “CPC 39281”.

FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit now collects data on 59 product categories. This includes production and trade of primary products such as roundwood, sawnwood, pulp and paper, as well as trade of secondary products including wooden furniture and packaging materials. Staff monitor research reports and industry trends to determine when a forest product rises to the need for classification. They also meet annually with specialists from research institutions and statistics offices to discuss emerging forest products that may require classification.

FAO: a leader in classifying forest products

In March 2022, the third update of the Classification of Forest Products was published, following collaboration between FAO, UNECE and the UNSD Expert Group on International Statistical Classifications. This revision includes new codes for wood briquettes; sawdust; wood charcoal; laminated veneer lumber; engineered wood products (cross-laminated timber, glulam and I-beams); and wooden furniture. For the first time, these products can be tracked. We can finally, so to speak, see the trees for the forest.

Forest product classifications directly support SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), which looks to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation. In the nearly 50 years since the publication of the first Classification, a paradigm shift has occurred in the product cycle. Where once, in the pursuit to rebuild Europe, roundwood and sawnwood were the primary products being traded and produced, the focus is now on the bioeconomy and products that encourage and support sustainable development and forest management. For example, leftover sawdust from sawmilling is turned into pellets for powering power plants. That, too, needs classifying – and it has been.

SDG 9
SDG 9

Classification as an agent of regulatory change

Classification can increase transparency and improve legality of the trade of tropical wood, leading to more sustainable forest management, encapsulated in SDG 15 (Life on Land). The Forest Product Statistics unit has generated codes for tropical wood to track it by origin, which enables better regulated trade and potential detection of overexploited species, as well as an assessment of the risk of tropical deforestation.

As research continues into the use of wood in the manufacture of batteries, clothing and concrete, more classifications are in the pipeline, bringing us ever closer to decarbonizing emissions-intense sectors.

FAO forest product statistics and the Lower Mekong Region

A hotspot of tropical forests and biodiversity, the Lower Mekong Region (LMR) has also become a hotspot of deforestation in recent decades. (The region includes Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.)

Between 1990 and 2015, the LMR lost about 4.7 million hectares of forest to logging, mining and the expansion of unsustainable agriculture and infrastructure. Countries have struggled to incentivize sustainable wood supply chains and effective forest governance, while the increasing international demand for wood products and regional trade has fuelled illegal forest exploitation.

Since March 2020, the UN-REDD Programme’s Sustainable Forest Trade in the Lower Mekong Region (SFT-LMR) initiative has worked with national governments, and regional and local partners, in the five countries to combat the trafficking of forest products and develop systems that ensure legal, sustainable timber trade.

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Wood into furniture in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
©UNDP/Cory Wright
FAO’s Forest Products Statistics unit and the Lower Mekong Region FAO’s Forest Products Statistics unit and the Lower Mekong Region FAO’s Forest Products Statistics unit and the Lower Mekong Region FAO’s Forest Products Statistics unit and the Lower Mekong Region FAO’s Forest Products Statistics unit and the Lower Mekong Region

The Transformational Change for Forest Product Value Chains in the Lower Mekong Region report recommends pathways linked to data collected by FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit. These are:

  • Developing internationally competitive forestry enterprises – The Yearbook and the Pulp and Paper Capacities Survey serve as a guide to profitable forest products.
  • Growing and diversifying export markets for LMR legal and sustainable wood products – These wood products will be assigned an FAO classification upon export. This classification increases transparency for the exporting country and increases the likelihood of countries importing sustainably-sourced tropical hardwood.
  • Adopting systems to support the transition to legal and sustainable wood resources – FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit provides training that allows countries to develop and enhance their capacity to collect and disseminate forest product data.
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