Everything You Should Know About Sustainable Wood

Once upon a time you simply went out and bought wood, wherever it came from and however it was harvested. These days preserving the planet’s trees, woodlands and forests is an imperative, essential for the future survival of the human race and something we absolutely have to get a grip on. As a result, buying wood has become quite a complex matter.

All about sustainable wood

If you don’t want to support illegal logging or encourage deforestation, you need to be aware of how to buy sustainable wood. We thought it’d be useful to take a look at the subject to help you avoid buying the ‘wrong’ stuff.

What is sustainable wood?

Sustainable wood comes from sustainably managed forests. It’s renewable because the forest stewards manage the landscape to prevent damage to eco-systems, watersheds, wildlife and the trees themselves, taking a long term rather than short term view of the resource.

Sustainability in this context means the forest should still be there for your grandchildren and great grand-kids, able to soak up carbon emissions and keep our air clean for generations to come as well as a haven for wildlife.

Wood from unsustainable sources, on the other hand, is chopped down willy nilly leaving bare areas that, unless they’re carefully treated, never really recover to their former glory. The effects are clear – illegal logging leads to wholesale destruction.

Why bother buying sustainable wood?

Brazilian Amazon deforestation might not seem very relevant. It happens thousands of miles from home, exotic and remote. You might not realise the harm that buying new mahogany flooring or teak garden furniture does. But buying unsustainable wood has a profound effect on the areas where it’s harvested, including human rights abuses, hunting of endangered species, threatening the lifestyles and even the lives of indigenous tribespeople as well as making countless rare and threatened creatures homeless.

Just 8% of the world’s forest is properly protected from destruction. The timber industry is insatiable, as is our demand for wood. And much of the time it’s harvested unsustainably despite the best efforts of conservationists, governments and lawmakers. Sadly, money often speaks louder than common sense and today is often more important than the future. In Malaysia, for example, timber production demands more trees than there are in existence. In some areas there are no trees left and wood is being smuggled in from Indonesia to meet demand.

In a nutshell, buying sustainable wood is one way you can support the future of the planet’s forests and, at the same time, protect the future of our children.

Which woods are most sustainable?

Timber is usually classified as either hardwood, from broad leafed trees like beech and oak, or softwood from conifers like pine and fir. Simply because they’re replaceable, fast-growing species like pine trees tend to be more sustainable than slow-growing trees like oak. Oak forests have to be managed carefully to make them sustainable, grown and harvested in the right way, but it can be done.

The EU has introduced legal measures to protect its woodlands and forests, and these days more trees are planted than felled. It’s great news for the future, with EU forests actually growing instead of diminishing. Because the law places a minimum requirement on replacing harvested trees as well as limiting annual harvests, buying European wood is usually a safe choice.

What about wood from outside the EU?

Wood sourced from Asia, Africa, South America and even the USA and Canada comes with fewer guarantees. These sources can be made sustainable through hard work, determination and dedication to the environmental cause. Several international organisations are involved in assessing forests across these regions. But they have a long way to go.

Wood is big money, forest clearance is big money, illegal logging is big money. If you’re buying non-EU wood, take care not to buy wood from an endangered tree species. You’ll find an up to date list of threatened trees on the United Nations website and also on the Friends of the Earth website.

Exotic woods to avoid

All these wood types are particularly endangered and should be avoided:

  • Murbau
  • Sapelee
  • Wenge
  • Ebony
  • Brazilian Mahogany
  • Burmese teak, and teak in general

How to identify sustainable wood – The FSC

Always look for official certification of the wood’s sustainable source, even if it says it’s from the EU. There have been questions about wood from some EU sources, for example illegal logging has long been suspected in Russian and Siberian forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council – FSC – is an independent not for profit organisation promoting responsible management of the world’s forests. Their certification system provides internationally recognised standard-setting and trademark assurance to anyone, business or individual, who is interested in supporting responsible forestry.

The FSC logo is something you can rely on, and there’s also the PEFC logo, a sign that the Programme for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification has been involved.  Together they help guarantee wood comes from sustainable sources, replaced after harvesting, taken without harming the environment and neighbouring ecosystems.

5 sustainable woods… but only when you buy wisely

Bamboo

While you can’t buy FSC certified bamboo, the wood can be sustainable. It depends on its origin. Bamboo grows across vast areas of the earth in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, north Australia and the Americas. It’s amazingly light and strong and grows like mad, so can be naturally sustainable. It’s used for furniture and floors, scaffolding, fences, bridges and even bricks. With about 1500 species it’s very versatile, harvestable in 3-5 years compared with 10-20 years for most softwoods.

On the other hand you need to source it carefully. A billion people depend on bamboo for their living and if it’s harvested unwisely they suffer. As do the wild creatures who also depend on it, including giant pandas and west African mountain gorillas, whose favourite type of bamboo is already under threat. How do you know it’s sustainable? Check the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan website.

Oak

Most newly-harvested oak originates in Britain, Europe, the USA and Australia, used for a wide range of joinery, furniture and wood flooring projects. Take care buying oak from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, all linked with illegal logging and the destruction of ancient forests. French oak is also poorly-regulated and oak from Estonia may even be illegal. Oak forests in Spain and Portugal are still in need of much better management, too.

Keep your eyes open for FSC oak and make the best use of reclaimed and recycled oak wherever it’s possible.

Teak

Usually from Burma and Africa, teak is used in building as well as furniture. It’s common enough – many people’s garden furniture is teak – but it’s a challenge to find environmentally sound teak. Burma still exports teak illegally, harvested from ancient forests, and the alternative, African teak, is so scarce these days it’s not far off the endangered list.

FSC teak is your best bet, but good substitutes include FSC favinha, guariuba and tatajuba woods.

Mahogany

Mahogany originates in Brazil, Asia and Africa, commonly used for garden furniture and in building. Asia is home to more than 70 species of mahogany, more than 50% of which are either endangered or critically endangered. Brazilian mahogany is also vulnerable and at least five species of African mahogany are either endangered or vulnerable.

There isn’t an alternative to Asian mahogany but FSC mahogany, andiroba and jatoba are all good alternatives to African and Brazilian mahogany.

Douglas Fir

Usually from Europe and North America, good old Douglas Fir is used in building, for panelling and to make furniture. Sustainable Douglas Fir from Europe comes from well-managed plantations but North American imports are usually from temperate coastal rainforests where irresponsible logging is rife, despite it being some of the planet’s biggest intact rainforests. Canada is also a sinner, engaged in the unethical logging of the Great Bear Rainforest.

You can buy sustainable Douglas via the FSC.

What about sustainable wooden flooring?

Wood flooring looks fantastic, but it’s always a good idea to make sure the flooring you’re buying comes from sustainable sources. The thing is, there are so many tree species and wood types out there, it’s a minefield.

Your best bet is to buy from a supplier with FSC accreditation, someone like Flooring Supplies, a UK-based firm that has made great efforts to achieve accreditation from the FSC and is proud if its green credentials. You can read more about their sustainability here. As they say:

“In order to achieve FSC accreditation, retailers, suppliers and manufacturers have to meet rigorous standards relating to the management of the forests from which the wood is taken. FSC flooring products are internationally recognised as meeting these exacting standards and treating the environment responsibly. An extensive audit process was undertaken before FlooringSupplies.co.uk was allowed to sell FSC flooring, but now approximately half of our Natura range of engineered wood floors is certified by the FSC, as well as a number of Kahrs engineered products. FSC flooring will feature the organisation’s logo, so you can quickly tell if the product you are considering is environmentally friendly.”

Here’s an interesting little video about British grown sustainable wood.

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2 Responses to “Everything You Should Know About Sustainable Wood”

  1. Neil Macleod Says:

    Dear Sirs,
    We have a small holding on which there are a row of 200year old oak trees adjacent to the public road. Last winter one got badly damaged in a storm and so for the safety of the public we cut down the tree as we could not prune it into a safe condition. It had a lovely straight trunk and now it lies adjacent to the public road.
    This past week I was speaking to a representative of a kitchen fitting company which makes all their own units and he told me that oak wood was very popular and in demand just now so I told him about the oak trunk which we have for sale and which up till now we cannot find anyone interested to buy. He phoned his boss about buying it and his boss replied that the company only uses wood from sustainable forests. Could you please tell us if there is a way of getting this tree into the buyers market Regards Helen Macleod

  2. Sam Taylor-Casey Says:

    Hello Neil,

    It certainly seems a shame to waste the Oak but this is not something we deal with and so I do not know the answer I am afraid. I would recommend getting in touch with the Forestry Commission as they are the best placed to help you with your dilemma http://www.forestry.gov.uk/

    Kind regards Sam.

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