Don’t accuse James Barker of not seeing the wood for the trees – nor even of not seeing the trees for the wood. He’s got it all worked out, hopefully, though it’s fair to think, even so, that – as the youthful looking 44-year-old’s feet were probing through mists to conquer for pleasure the Three Peaks of England, Wales and Scotland recently – his mind almost certainly would have been straying back from time to time to Indonesia, with its steamy forests and exotic creatures like bearded pigs and Javanese flying squirrels.
In the midst of global concern about receding forests and their inhabitants, the managing director of Barker and Stonehouse – the UK’s biggest independent family-owned furniture retailer – is deep into Trees4Trees. This is a community project extensively his pet, and involving some 12,000 farmers in Indonesia.
Its endeavours are giving others in the developed world a lesson in sustainability, through a scheme that has seen one million trees planted – offering self-progress and better living standards for Third World villagers, while revolutionising timber procurement for manufacturing.
It may seem quirky that Barker and Stonehouse, based in a corner of Middlesbrough where barely a tree’s in sight, has been instrumental in planting a million seedlings of mahogany, teak, mango and sengon trees to benefit all those farmers and their communities in impoverished parts of South East Asia.
It is also to the benefit, of course, of the furniture industry, enabling Barker and Stonehouse among many more to now promote a popular range of lines that allow buyers at the same time to make an ethical choice in furniture buying – even as effects of recession are carried over.
Suddenly, buying teak is no longer selfish and inconsiderate towards nature. This wood once thought finite and threatened is now being sustained. Barker and Stonehouse has funded and supported Trees4Trees since its inception four years ago. Barker himself is no sandalled and sack clothed campaigner, nor even in the Green Party. But he did study agricultural economics at Newcastle, and did farm work in his youth.
“I’ve always had an outdoor life and I suppose the whole environmental thing has grown,” he explains. “We have to pay attention now. You think: ‘What difference can we make?’ I can realistically do it through the business. That’s what we’ve done.” His firm has worked very closely with several suppliers in Indonesia over many years.
“One evening,” he recounts, “we got talking. One of the co-founders of Trees4Trees is an Australian, very receptive to ideas, very creative. We asked ourselves how we could put back a little of what we were taking. We talked and talked various ideas around.
“After a few months we came round to this. The scheme and the detail, he very much came up with – Geoff Hardy, our biggest supplier. He has a furniture factory in central Java. It supplies furniture you can see in our showrooms here.” Though there wasn’t much Indonesian red tape at government level, and the project proved quite straightforward in the end, it took nine months to get a trust set up for the purpose.
“We had to look at various angles. Who’ll benefit? How will you benefit? And how that feeds all the way back to the retailers. And at what level of funding will retailers want to get involved.” The system’s simple, as Barker explains.
“We retailers pay a small levy on every container of furniture we buy. That goes back into the Trees4Trees programme, which is run in central Java. Barker and Stonehouse itself has a wholesale operation called Big Furniture that supplies about 200 shops throughout the UK and Southern Ireland.
“The seeds come from native trees and are grown in nurseries. Seedlings are then distributed to the villages and farmers. The seedlings and the growing trees need looking after all the time. If the villagers are not directly involved the trees will not be looked after, maybe even will get stolen.” He and others of the company visit the projects regularly to ensure progress.
The farmers get technical guidance on planting and forestry practice, and so far there have been no grounds for misgivings. The farmers seem happy, even though benefits may be slow initially, given the life cycle of trees. The scheme appears to have caught on with retailers also.
“I think there may be other schemes where money is put back into forestation – but nowhere near as community-based as this. It’s quite an original idea,” Barker says. “It’s all very well to run plantations. But plantations in Indonesia, for example, are very much government-run and monocultural, whereas this is community-run. We have agricultural colleges, universities and schools all very much involved.
“Free seedlings to anyone with marginal land who wants them – that was the offer and the response was terrific. Even here if you went round saying ‘anyone want free seedlings for their back garden?’ everyone would take it up.” The 170,000 teak trees planted so far will take about 40 years to mature on about 100,000 metres square of land.
“But even at today’s values that’s worth $25m,” Barker estimates.”We’re not taking that money. All those communities have that resource. If they got even half, it would still be a big input. The buyers participating then have the opportunity to buy the raw material.
“We don’t sell much teak furniture at Barker and Stonehouse, but we didn’t want a monoculture-type operation. So mahogany has been planted too, also mango wood – which we use predominantly in our furniture – and also some very quick growing trees like segnon, which are ready for replacement within seven or eight years.
“If a farmer plants 300 trees on marginal land – Indonesia is very hilly – he’ll have a variety of trees maturing at different times. Over, say, 40 years he’s got something to harvest every few years. He may not always be planting trees we’ll necessarily use ourselves. But he has the opportunity to sell that timber. The industry has become a lot more global in sourcing wood over the last 15 or 20 years.” Does this mean cheaper furniture? “Not necessarily – it’s solid timber, after all, and well finished. But I would say it’s good value and you’re at that level of providence where you know there’s money going back into timber.
That’s the big thing for customers.” Every piece of Trees4Trees furniture gets a tag with a specific number on. Customers can go on to the Trees4Trees website, tap in that number and see where the next trees resulting from their contribution will be planted.
“We’re trying to get it on to Google Earth too, so customers can see it down to a 500 metre level. It gives a sense of participation.”