Charcoal in the future

Charcoal comes from trees, so when you buy a bag of charcoal you have bought a small piece of forest. The question is, where has that charcoal come from? And has it been produced at the expense of the people making it and the environment it was made in?

Between four and 12 tonnes of dry wood are needed to make a single tonne of wood-based charcoal. Charcoal production in tropical countries is sometimes linked to illegal logging, forest degradation and the clearing of High Conservation Value forests. To put that into further perspective, it is reported that more than 90% of charcoal is produced in tropical areas. Charcoal production also has links to poor working conditions and poor worker rights.

Since starting work in charcoal in 2013 we have raised awareness about the environmental and social impact of untraceable charcoal. This led to the development of a methodology that identifies where charcoal comes from. We are using it in our work with several retailers and many producers to transform the charcoal industry for the better.

Charcoal might all look the same, but there are subtle differences which allow us to distinguish its origin. In 2014 we developed a methodology which identifies the origin of charcoal sold in European supermarkets. This has allowed us to tell the difference between charcoal produced in a temperate European climate and that from tropical regions.

In 2015 we used this approach to discover the origins of charcoal sold in French supermarkets. The results were surprising. 52% of bags did not specify origin –they contained tropical charcoal coming from unspecified places, and therefore could have been produced at the expense of forests and workers.

We shared the results with the supermarkets. Now they could find out what wood was in their charcoal bags, they wanted to help transform the industry for the better. This led to them changing the way they bought their charcoal, with supermarkets asking their suppliers to demonstrate their charcoal came from are sponsible source. Many of these retailers created new traceability policy requirements for the charcoal they buy. This helped begin a change in the European charcoal industry that we are supporting retailers to drive.

We then took our approach to other countries. Firstly, Germany – the biggest charcoal market in Europe, which faces the same problems with a lack oftransparency. In 2016, our tests found more than half the bags we analyse dcontained tropical wood, with nearly 90% of bags not declaring the origin ofwood. We have just finished the same analysis on the UK market, and we will share the results later this year. We now conduct annual analysis of UK, French and German bags.

Sharing the results to the main buyers helps raise awareness and creates a need forfurther sources of responsible charcoal. And although charcoal is not yet included within the European Union Timber regulation, the charcoal industry itself is moving towards a more responsible supply.

Charcoal in the future

We are developing an online platform to share transparency between actors in the sector and also communicate the product story to the end consumer. This tool should also help to promote charcoal alternatives, reforestation and sustainable energy sources in developing countries.