On a crisp fall morning in 2011, Alexander “Sascha” von Bismarck arrived at a wood-flooring processing plant in Dalian, China. He was there as part of a years-long project, knee-deep in an investigation tracing the path of illegal lumber as it moved from forest to consumer. All of his efforts had led to this moment.
Thanks to earlier work, he already knew that illegally harvested oak and ash were being funneled into China from the far east of Russia. So von Bismarck, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Environmental Investigation Agency, and a colleague had flown halfway around the world to investigate how that illegal wood was being laundered for export. They wanted to know who was buying it.
As von Bismarck walked toward the warehouse, he saw dozens of pallets of wood flooring. Drawing closer, he was stunned to discover that they were stamped with three incriminating words: Virginia Mill Works, a proprietary brand of the retail lumber company Lumber Liquidators. Which begged the question: Did the heads of Lumber Liquidators know they were profiting from the destruction of Russia’s plundered forest, home to some of the last wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards?
Under the guise of securing supplies for their Delaware-based family hardwood business, von Bismarck and his colleague toured multiple facilities, peppering the Dalian Xingjia Wood Industry Company officials with questions. How did they source their wood? Where did it come from? The surprisingly frank answers detailed an extensive degree of bribery and corruption. They also confirmed what von Bismarck had suspected: Lumber Liquidators was fully aware of the deception and knowingly selling fraudulent products.