WATCH ABOVE: 16×9’s “Liquidating the Forests” follows the trail of illegal lumber stolen in Russia, shipped to China and sold in Canada.
Ron Ander spent more than three decades selling Canadian hardwood floors made almost entirely from the oaks, maples and birches cut from the vast deciduous forests which blanket Ontario, Quebec and the northeast United States. No more, though.
For the last 10 years, Ander has had a front row seat to the erosion of Canada’s hardwood and engineered flooring business, as it’s succumbed to incursions from cheaper flooring made in China, woods of dubious origin that have undermined the viability of domestic products and may pose potential health risks to Canadian consumers.
“He sells made-in-Canada hardwood flooring that’s made in China, if you know what I mean,” Ander said this week.
The 63-year-old president and general manager of Hardwood Flooring Stores Ltd in Toronto was speaking about one of his competitors across the street. But at this point, it might as well have been any number across the country.
“This business has gone down the sewer,” Ander lamented.
Experts in the hardwood flooring retail business suggest as much as three quarters of all hardwood flooring sold through big-box renovation chains and other direct-to-public retailers now hails from Chinese producers.
That amount has surged from well below 20 per cent just a decade ago.
The problem isn’t so much lower cost competition – at least from the perspective of the consumer, who has benefited from lower prices – but where the flooring is sourced from.
And as Chinese wood-based flooring imports continue to grow, there’s also increasing concern about the lax oversight in China over chemicals used in its manufacturing, such as urea-formaldehyde or “UF”, a known carcinogen.
WATCH: Don Finkell is chairman of the Hardwood Federation. Working with environmental and industry groups, he developed voluntary standards for importers to make sure they are bringing in legally cut wood.
Consumers in dark
Yet the majority of consumers don’t know any of that; still under the impression – ruse even – that the oak floor in the dining room is made from trees culled sustainably from a not-too-distant Canadian countryside rather than a depleted forest that may or may not have been illegally logged half a planet away.
But in at least some cases, that’s exactly what’s happening.
In one of Ander’s stores sits about 20,000 feet of flooring that purports to be made here. “I’ve got the box right here. It says ‘solid hardwood flooring, Quebec, Canada,’” Ander said.
“There’s not a chance this isn’t from China — not even close,” he said. The wood itself is South Asian Walnut.
He and other experts say the influx of Chinese hardwood products has seen wholesalers who once prided themselves on selling exclusively North American and European flooring, quietly slip the cheaper wares into showrooms and catalogues. And the contagion has spread far and wide.
A close look at Canada’s trade balance with China makes the point. In recent years, it has swung sharply in favour of the Chinese.
In 2013, Canada – a nation of forests — imported $219 million worth of hardwood flooring, mainly from China and the United States, according to the Forest Products Association of Canada.
Chinese hardwood flooring exports to Canada totalled $84 million of that sum. By comparison, in 2000 Chinese exports to Canada amounted to $3 million, according to Industry Canada data, a 2,700 per cent increase.
China is now neck and neck with the U.S. in hardwood flooring export into Canada, followed by Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Another major issue for domestic manufacturers is Canadian logs which are shipped to China for processing. Those logs are then turned into floors there and sent back and sold in Canada.
With growing access to cheap Chinese flooring, some domestic companies have ceased making Canadian hardwood, and instead are simply re-branding foreign products to give the appearance of being made here, experts say.
And with demand from wholesalers and retailers for domestic hardwood flooring taking a hit, some major sector players in its production have sold off or shuttered facilities.
In late 2011, forest product giant Tembec sold off its hardwood flooring plant in northern Ontario, saying the plant had become “non-core” to its business.
The facility was one of the biggest in the province producing tens of millions of dollars’ worth of high-quality flooring annually. The factory employed more than 60 workers.
Adapt or perish
Yet while foreign pressures have forced changes down the line within the Canadian market place – from manufacturers to wholesalers to retailers like Anders – some of Canada’s biggest players have adapted.
Firms like Toronto-based Satin Finish Hardwood Flooring Ltd. and Preverco in Quebec have pushed relentlessly to find new technological efficiencies in order to keep one step ahead of the low-cost competition.
Still, many domestic players appear to be going long on China, banking on the tide of cheaper hardwoods from the Asian giant continuing to rise.
Back in Toronto, Ander tells the story of the head Torlys, a main Canadian supplier, who has uprooted his family to move to mainland China to help foster business relationships.
Until recently, Torlys was a firm that historically sold European and North American sourced products only, Ander said.
Four months ago, Ander made the decision to move to zero Chinese-made flooring in his two stores. The final straw was when Torlys put Chinese samples in Ander’s showrooms without notifying him.
“We decided we didn’t like the idea they were slipping in new products without telling anybody,” he said.
Torlys did not respond to our request for comment.
— With files from Gil Shochat