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By Jody McCutcheon
Traditionalists say it looks and smells great, and best of all, it’s a familiar, durable building material. Conservationists rightly point out that wood comes from trees, which come from forests, which we can scarcely afford to lose any more of at the moment. The question then becomes: How to create with wood that satisfies traditionalists and conservationists alike?
Certainly, there are some kinds of wood which, thanks to human expansion all over the planet and greed for wood for furniture, are now at risk of complete extinction. Anyone with a conscience should therefore avoid certain slow growing hardwood species, such as ebony, rosewood, teak, mahogany and Spanish cedar, all of which are now endangered. Not only is buying such wood hurting the planet, it’s also illegal in most cases.
Other woods are so popular, you’d think there’s no end to their supply, but in fact, walnut, cedar, larch and oak are all disappearing rapidly, and take decades to mature. Whilst not endangered, these species are classified as ‘vulnerable.’
Fortunately, there are some woods that are sourced sustainably, with the Forest Stewardship Council ensuring that for every tree cut, another one is planted. These plants are usually the kind that grow quickly, and the FSC gives a stamp of approval on the lumber, so furniture manufacturers can rest assured that their designs are sustainable–and legal.
How to Buy Sustainable Wood Furniture
What to look for:
–First, try sourcing reclaimed wood at salvage yards like www. salvo.
–Failing that, try buying used furniture from auction houses, Ebay or look on Freecycle–you’d be surprised at what you can find!
–Buy wicker or bamboo furniture instead of wood.
–Any new furniture should come from a FSC certified shop.
–If there isn’t an FSC stamp on the piece, use these guidelines below to know more about the sustainability of the material.
Bamboo: Treated bamboo is a light, fast-growing material that’s so strong, it is used to replace steel in the tropics. Perfect for floors, even in bathrooms–it’s quite waterproof. There are around 1500 species of bamboo, hence its versatility, and it can be harvested in just 3-5 years compared with 10-20 years for most softwoods.
Ash: Widely used for light-coloured furniture and panelling such as wardrobe doors. Most of Europe’s ancient forests have already been destroyed so your ash should come from plantations, but watch out for ash from Romania and Bulgaria where illegal logging is rife. A decade ago much of the far east of Russia was covered with ash trees, but today nearly all these trees have been felled and exported to China
Beech: Commonly used in flooring, much of the beech used in Britain is imported from France whose industry certification, the PEFC, is very weak compared to the FSC. Beech from Romania and Poland may have come from ancient forests. Beech is one of Armenia’s most popular exports, to furniture-producing countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Italy, even though it has already lost most of its forest cover and loses around 1 million cubic metres of trees annually from illegal logging. Make sure your beech is FSC certified, or use reclaimed beech for wood strip floors.
Pine: Most pine on sale in the UK is FSC certified. The bad news is that most pine comes from sustainable plantations because we have already razed most of the primary pine forests to the ground. Watch out for pine from Finland and parts of Norway that carries a PEFC certificate, as it may have come from ancient forests. Other pine may have come from illegal logging in Latvia and Estonia. Also, Chinese pine products are very risky: ancient Korean pines are logged in Siberia and exported to China
Oak: Be careful when buying oak as imports from Eastern Europe, as they are often linked with the destruction of ancient forests and illegal logging. Oak from Estonia may well be illegal and French oak isn’t well regulated at all. Cork oak forests cover much of southern Europe and north Africa. In Spain and Portugal these forests are home to the Iberian lynx, the world’s most endangered big cat, and the Spanish imperial eagle, of which there are only 150 pairs the world. These forests need improved management
Douglas Fir : Douglas-Fir from Europe should come from managed plantations but if it comes from North America it will no doubt be the product of destructive logging practices in the coastal temperate rainforests – some of the largest intact rainforests in the world – or the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada. If you buy from Canada, check that the supplier is working with environmental groups to improve local practices. Click here to check.
Avoid at all Costs
Mahogany: Sadly still used in garden furniture, over half of mahogany species are endangered or critically endangered. And in Indonesia, for example, although 50 million indigenous people and orangutans depend on its forests, conservative estimates predict the ancient lowland forests of Sumatra will be destroyed by 2010. Brazilian mahogany is a vulnerable wood and five types of African mahogany are now endangered or vulnerable. Stay away! Bamboo outdoor furniture is just as strong.
Teak: Environmentally sound teak is hard to come by. Burma/Myanmar is the only country that still exports teak from natural forests, mostly illegally. African teak is at risk of becoming endangered
Walnut: So common now in North America and Europe, we forget that this wood actually comes from the rainforests of west and central Africa, and is critical to the survival of gorillas and chimpanzees. Millions of hectares have been lost in the last 30 years. Moreover, many African woods are part of the trade in “conflict timber” and sold by groups or governments who use the money to fund conflicts. Avoid at all costs.
Merbau: Greenpeace estimates that if levels of legal logging continue, merbau will disappear within 35 years. Demand for the golden wood (used commonly in flooring) is ruining New Guinea, until recently one of the world’s untouched beauty spots. New roads are ripping up the rainforest to allow for timber transportation. China is the largest exporter of merbau products, but these are knowingly sold on by household names on the British high street–watch for it!
Cedar: The sauna-must-have wood is causing the logging of western red cedar from North America’s coastal rainforests is destroying this unique ecosystem and threatening the habitats of grizzly, black and white spirit bears, some bird species and thousands of wild salmon runs. Two species of Brazilian cedar are endangered and another is vulnerable. The Brazilian government believes that up to 90 per cent of the timber coming from the Amazon is being logged illegally, and more than 87 indigenous cultures have been wiped out by deforestation. Avoid.
Use Designers You Can Trust
With the depletion of natural resources becoming a huge international concern, furniture designers around the world are making sure customers know their products are eco-friendly.
One such designer is Spanish lamp-maker LZF Lamps (nee Luzifer). The company uses only wood that comes from Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests, i.e., forests managed responsibly in regards to restoration and conservation. Moreover, LZF’s patented surface treatment is non-toxic and chemical-free, producing wood that’s supple yet resistant, making these beautifully created lamps popular in the hospitality industry. But they’d look just as luxurious and spectacular in decorating your own home.
Australian outfit Team 7 (motto: “It’s a tree story”) is extremely aware of the delicate balance between trees and not-enough-trees. The Down-Under furniture-maker produces unique wooden pieces with a gentle enough touch that they can “be returned to the natural cycle at any time.” Creating furniture for kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom, Team 7 uses European wood that’s grown under ideal conditions, free of pesticides and toxins and finished with natural oils. This is wood used sustainably, taken from well-managed forests. Furthermore, Team 7 uses locally sourced materials to minimize its carbon footprint, and the production methods maximize water and energy efficiency. The entire process is coordinated by an eco-management system tied to rigid environmental criteria.
If you really want to use wood sustainably, quirky American company rePly Furniture espouses the value of upcycling with one-of-a-kind, earth-friendly pieces. In a process refined over time, rePly essentially transforms salvaged scrap plywood donated by local cabinet shops into hand-crafted furniture: chairs, benches, stools, tables, mirror frames, lamps, cabinets, boxes, even clock faces. Many people probably haven’t experienced finished plywood. They may be surprised to discover a beautiful, high-quality aesthetic, not to mention an imaginative approach to the adage that “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.”
Nicole Belanger finds her inspiration in tree trunks. The designer started out by gathering up the trunk debris that littered the landscape in the area she lived in–lumber companies would just leave them in the ground. Whilst working on each piece, she allows the natural grain, age rings and different layers of bark express themselves to give each piece its uniqueness.
The final process is to ensure a good after life for them by adding legs and transforming them into sturdy
functional “objet d’art” pieces that should be around for over 100 years. The hands-on work is a joyful process that begins with respect for the forest and the trees that are its memory.
Clearly, there are plenty of stunning interior design solutions that don’t involve endangered woods. The answer to the earlier question about creating wood that satisfies traditionalists and conservationists alike, then, is conscientiousness of sustainability in the selection and gathering of materials, in production, and in the finishing process. This answer is a boon to everyone on the planet, mainly because it’s a boon to the planet itself.