Sustainable Woods
Sustainable Woods

Which Woods Are Most Sustainable?

Wood is one of the most frequently used materials throughout human history. Today’s wood products, though useful and attractive, are largely obtained through unsustainable logging practices. If current trends continue, these harvesting methods could one day result in our world largely stripped of the forests we depend on. Most of our wood products come from forests harvested by a method called clearcutting. The result is a barren, muddy landscape of stumps and debris which is often burned and then treated with herbicides to prevent non-tree vegetation from coming back. To “restore” this land, harvesters commonly replant it with just a single variety of tree. Typically planted in evenly spaced rows to make future harvests easier, these seedlings create a massive tree farm where a biologically diverse living forest once stood. It affects the biodiversity of the area and doesn’t last very long in a particular area. After all this it has to move on to another part of the forest and start the cycle all over again.

The environmental costs of clearcutting are clear. Of the 7.5 billion acres of virgin forests that once blanketed the earth only half remain today, and logging threatens over 70 percent of those that remain. Every year, at least 40 million additional acres disappear and the world’s tree species are now endangered.

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

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

The answer to this dilemma lies in sustainable wood products obtained from thoughtfully managed forests. These forests are never clearcut. Instead, only carefully selected trees are removed. A healthy mix of different tree species of different ages is left behind and loggers take care not to damage vegetation or soils as they go. Instead of returning to cut more trees in 7-10 years (as is the case with fast-growing replacement tree farms), loggers typically wait up to 30 years to allow the forest to regenerate. The original forest is thus left largely intact to provide healthy habitat for plants, animals and people to enjoy and a steady supply of lumber.

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.

Whether you need a finished wood product, a few small pieces of lumber for a simple project, or timbers for the construction of an entire home, sustainable wood is always a safe choice. Given the benefits to the environment and our future, it’s the one kind of wood you can feel good about using. Big chains like Home Depot and Lowes have begun to offer it. When buying furniture, there are a few tips to be sure your wood is sustainable. Look for products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an organization that has developed sustainable standards for forest management and operates programs that verify adherence to them. EnviroCitizen.org suggests you avoid all tropical hardwoods (like mahogany and teak) and woods like redwood, Douglas fir and many western cedars which typically come from irreplaceable old-growth forests unless they are certified.  Look for products made with reclaimed or “rediscovered” wood. This is wood that has been used before, so no trees are cut.