The wood of the Sonian Forest

Cities produce vast amounts of resources, much of which goes under used or overlooked.

Cities produce vast amounts of resources, much of which goes under used or overlooked. Good quality hardwood is a resource that many cities have, found in parks, forests and street-trees. Yet wood in most European cities is treat as waste or a liability. The Sonian Wood Coop explored ways to localise a valuable resource, creating jobs and an appreciation for local wood.

The Sonian forest sits on the edge of the Region of Brussels and is considered one of the largest urban forests for a European city. It produces some 20,000m2 of wood per year which is cut and sold to the highest bidder. While this may seem logical, the wood is largely felled and sent directly to Asia (mostly to China) as uncut logs. No processing or transformation is done locally before it is exported. Conversely, furniture makers and builders located in and around the Sonian forest often purchase wood from Scandinavia, Canada or even Asia as local wood is hard to come by. We saw this absurd contradiction as an opportunity to research and then shift local value chains through entrepreneurship.

Case study

Project: Sonian Wood Coop

Client: Self initiated

Year: 2020

Partners: Centre d’ecologie urbain Bruxelles, The Walden Project

Location: Brussels, Flemish and Wallonian Brabant


Team: Adrian Hill, Hanne Van Reusel, Stephan Kampelmann, Marco Kooistra

Sector: Production, vision, process management

Services: Business model & financing, systemic & service design, governance models, facilitation of events and meetings, user research & engagement

What goes around

Why does wood from Belgium end up being shipped across the world? There are a number of reasons and various speculations. China has little to no local wood and is prepared to pay premium prices for high quality material. Asia, as the world’s factory, often ships containers back that are empty, so transport costs are considered low. Finally, speculation is being made that there is a concerted industrial strategy to break local production chains in Europe so that they can be bought up by multi-nationals.

 

The sale of wood for export markets was common knowledge to both local institutions and researchers, yet little had been done about it. One reason is that local policy makers could not see how to interrupt a value chain that the market considered was working.

 

When we looked into how the wood value chain operated, we found that it involved a vast number of steps, through which it may be possible to access the wood. Firstly, the source of wood. Much of the wood was sourced from the three main forest owners: the regions of Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. The regions auction wood in a complex system amongst a small group of merchants, once per year. Private landholders in the region also owned wood, but the volumes were far smaller.

 

Purchasing from auction also meant arranging a lumber-jack and other logistics, which considering the small Belgian market was challenging. A second source of wood is from the timber merchants, who have purchased the wood from the landholders. This meant that prices were far higher but risk was lower as it was clearer what was being purchased. A third source would be from the lumber yard, however the limited remaining yards in Belgium meant that prices were not competitive.

 

After establishing where the wood comes from, it was important to explore where it can go. We considered two main ‘clients’. Firstly carpenters and carpentry companies. Considering that Brussels has a higher income population, companies exist that work with quality hardwood and are prepared to pay for quality and the local branding. Secondly, retail customers were an opportunity for finished items that did not require intensive processing (such as tables). Finally, other markets were considered such as the construction sector and a market for flooring.

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Breaking the cycle, establishing the Coop

In this self-funded project, Osmos was developed everything required to launch the cooperative and make the resource attractive to the local market. We, called the venture the Sonian Wood Coop, with the ambition to source local wood for the local market with the result of reducing carbon emissions, providing jobs and creating value from the local resource.

 

Establishing the coop involved researching existing production chains, understanding local interest groups, developing businesses partnerships, sourcing start-up capital (such as a successful crowdfunding campaign), defining the branding and website, campaigning the media, exploring processing, marketing and selling the wood. Osmos was involved in all steps of the process.

 

The Coop has now been in existence since 2020 and has grown to five full-time staff. This can be considered a successful case of re-localising local resources.

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