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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rosewood + Ebony + FSC certification = Trouble for Gibson Guitar

Readers of Go Wood may remember the student project posted back in the spring that involved the production of guitars by the students that included one made from rosewood. One commenter asked about the status of the rosewood and mahogany used in the project, to which Brandon Treece, one of the students on the project, replied...
"These materials were purchased by C.F. Martin guitar company in Nazareth,PA. As their website states "committed to corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship, and to support this commitment, Martin maintains FSC chain of custody certification.""

At the time, I assumed that was assurance enough that the guitars were legal. Now I'm not so sure.

Last week, facilities of the Gibson Guitar Company were closed down by government officials for alleged violations of the Lacey Act. Since the action involves legalities and actions I'm not familiar with, I won't comment on this story other than to say that global regulatory processes seem to be getting more teeth in them, and that companies can find themselves in hot water even while trying to comply with them. Many are concerned that regulations and actions such as these will be targeting an even broader restriction of wood use in the near future. Let's hope that isn't the intent.

The following local news video was posted on YouTube from, of all sources, the news program "Russia Today". Perhaps the Russians can't believe the extent to which large government can intrude into industrial operations.



From The Wall Street Journal...

Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly broad laws to make the company cry uncle.

It isn't the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian's ES-150. In 2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case with the delightful name "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms."

The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards. And if Gibson did knowingly import illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, that wouldn't be a negligible offense. Peter Lowry, ebony and rosewood expert at the Missouri Botanical Garden, calls the Madagascar wood trade the "equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds." But with the new raid, the government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India met every regulatory jot and tittle.

...

John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."

The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900's Lacey Act require that anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna being brought into the country. One is under "strict liability" to fill out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.

It's not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What's the bridge made of? If it's ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar's headstock bone, or could it be ivory? "Even if you have no knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever," Prof. Thomas has written. "Oh, and you'll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration."
-The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2011


Finally, here is a video recording from a cable news show last week that gives the company's side of the story, straight from the mouth of the company's CEO. It is especially interesting to watch for its background video footage of the Gibson manufacturing process.



Here's hoping that the whole thing gets worked out, that we come to some kind of reasonable solution to protecting endangered woods, and that companies will be provided with clear guidelines that allow them to purchase and produce quality wood products within the intent of the law.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is disturbing to see the Federal Government or any institution with the power to enter an establishment and shut it down. It is scarey! But, there are good intents that have legitimate concerns. OSHA for instance has the ability to "visit" a work place establishment. While the interaction is disturbing, the reality of a safe workplace is a good thing! The Lacey Act unfortunately is not widely understood and "illegally" procured wood is really only a concern for those who deal in that. This becomes a designer issue as well. Designers may specify some wood that falls into this category and businesses try to fill that need (God forbid for a profit). Now the responsibility falls on the purchaser of the product to insure proper management and harvesting techniques. There are many domestic hardwood people that think FSC is a complete waste of time. Well, FSC designation should be the appropriate proof to an acceptable purchase. The third party designation is good and has teeth! I would be interested to hear more about Gibson's use of FSC material, because if the Feds stepped in, chances are that the FSC audit trial was incomplete! But that probably won't come out in the press. This will be an interesting story to follow. By the way, North American Hardwoods are considered sustainable by a loose interpretation of the US Forest Service Inventory run every 10 years. Now, that may quell some in this illegal logging area, but hold onto your hats and thank some groups like PFPA (Pennsylvania Forest Products Association) that look at legislation and the implications that will have on industry.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous apparently does not have a clue as to the real meaning of this. The article shows that the govt does not care about FSC cert since so many are falsified. So making the FSC some kind of arbitratorfrom on high as Gibson has tried to do leads back to the same place complete with govt harassment. The problem lies with govt rules like the Lacey Act thatare too broad, too vague etc so if a govt bureaucrat wants to get noticed hepicks a juicy target like Gibson and goes after it in the knowledge that no matter what Gibson does he can make a case.



Your readers should try reading either the Robinson-Patman or Sherman Acts some time. They are terrifying to a businessman. They are so vague the only defense is not to get noticed since following the letter of the law is virtually impossible without closing your doors. So the regs themselves become an incentive to break the law in many cases. (Just wait until the unfinished 60% of Dodd-Frank is fully written)



So for those like your commenter that think gov’t regs are a good thing because they keep those nasty corporations in line…be careful what you wish for as it will eventually catch up with your favored company or organization. The regs aren’t limited to oil companies.

John Krier

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Krier,
Thank you for your passion about keeping government out of business! In most cases, I couldn't agree more! I operate a business and spend far too much time and money making sure we are following riduculous regulations. However, you took my comments in a very wrong tone. Forgive me if I set that tone improperly. My comment about government having the power to come in to a private business had more to do with safety issues, than enforcing the Lacey Act. My comment about FSC has turned out to be right spot on! I hope you were able to read the Wall Street Journal Articles and the Wood Products magazine articles that followed this original news break. The CEO of Gibson Guitar used the affiliation as an FSC producer and purchaser to insinuate they follow environmentally sound practices and don't dabble with illegally produced lumber products. It turned out that both occasions of the Feds raiding Gibson's plants did NOT involve FSC labeled materials! Gibson claimed they had other appropriate documentation from the government of product origin and that is the basis of the raid. The Feds claim it does not hold up and Gibson says it does.

I disagree with the gov't ability to step in and shut down and operation. I agree the Lacey Act is very vague and therefore extremely dangerous. But do you know how this Lacey Act came about to be applied to illegally processed imported logs? Our industry pushed hard for that to battle the imported lumber that comes in at abnormally low prices and takes market share away from domestic hardwoods. The government got involved at the prompting of our own lobbying efforts. Obviously, not many beyond primary producers were paying attention when that happened! Domestic producers of hardwood wanted to protect the market place. Secondary producers are obliging the demand from many sectors and that includes some of the specified exotic woods. My comment about dealing with the specification/architectural design community would be far more effective in negating illegally obtained woods. American Hardwoods do not pertain to the Lacey Act. That Act dealt with Imports. Thank you for asking me what I know about the Robinson-Patman and Sherman Acts. I don't know enough- that I am sure. I do know that if imporperly administered the Lacey Act will do far more harm than good as in this case it applied to a guitar maker! Ask the domestic (if you find any) furniture makers and the cabinet businesses how much market place they lost to cheaper imported product finished goods. I would be interested to know the economic impact of that compared to straight lumber imports alone. At least if lumber is imported, it gets worked here is the US. Finished goods coming in serve no manufacturing base at all.

No, I do not agree with having Big Gov't stepping into my company or anyone elses. However, that does not give permit to people operating illegally either.

Even big government realizes the need for independant business to operate profitably. We are their life blood, and they sure recognize that now.......I hope not too late!

Anonymous said...

All of you people do not seam to understand that "ebony" and "rosewood" are two generic terms which do not mean anything - these are generalities that can cover and mask many things: some inexpensive substitute, a poorer species OR an endangered specie! I am therfore not suprised that some people want to investigate Gibson who btw never specifies on their website which timbers they are using (mahogany neck... rosewood fingerboard... blablablabla.. and this has been going on this day 1)