Know the Forest and the Trees
A Consumer's Guide to Buying Wood
Four Questions to Ask Before Buying
If your local retailers don't know this basic information about their wood products, ask them to find out.
1. Where is the wood from?
For both consumers and companies, knowing the source of wood products is the first step in making good purchasing choices. At a minimum, retailers should know what country the wood came from -- not just where it was processed. Ideally, they will also know the region within the country and what timber company harvested it.
2. What species is the wood?
(e.g. Teak, Ipê, "Philippine" or "Honduran" Mahogany) Slow-growing hardwood tree species are often more endangered than fast-growing softwood species (see table). A tree's origin also matters. For example, plantation teak from Central America or Indonesia is lower risk than teak from the forests of Myanmar.
3. Is the wood certified by the Forest
Stewardship Council (FSC)?
FSC certification is your best assurance that the wood you are buying is from a legal and sustainably managed forest. You can also ask about the specific type of FSC certification given to the wood, e.g., 100 percent, recycled, or mixed-sources.
4. If the wood is not FSC certified,
how can I know it was legally or
Some certification labels on the international market are not rigorous or independently evaluated. Retailers may also have their own internal systems to ensure that they are selling legal products. Let suppliers know through your questions that you care about how these systems work.
Whether you are building a deck or buying a nightstand, the source of the wood you buy matters. In the best case, your purchase could support a sustainable community rainforest initiative. But in the other extreme, the wood in your new deck could contribute to continued impoverishment of families in Latin America or deforestation in Southeast Asia.
As a consumer, you can hold retailers accountable by inquiring about the origin of the wood they sell. And by purchasing legally and sustainably harvested wood -- or by choosing recycled or composite alternatives -- you help steer the market away from destructive and illegal logging and towards sustainable business practices.
Buying sustainable wood can be tricky, because the same species may have been harvested legally and sustainably from one place, and illegally and unsustainably in another. For that reason, this guide focuses on how you can educate yourself and make informed decisions before spending your money.
In addition to the four key questions to ask wood and furniture retailers (see right), here are a few additional guidelines for smarter wood buying:
Give Wood a Second Life
You don't have to cut down a tree to build your deck. Buying reclaimed or salvaged woods prevents unnecessary logging in tropical forests and its associated greenhouse gas emissions, and it also provides incentives for municipal recycling programs. If you can't find used wood, give recycled plastic lumber or composites a try.
Look for the FSC Logo
If you do decide to build with non-reclaimed wood, look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. It will tell you if the wood came from a well-managed forest. While no verification system is perfect, FSC-certified wood tends to come from lower-impact logging methods. The FSC also promotes systems to track wood from the forest to the consumer, helping to distinguish products that were legally harvested from those that were not.
Tropical Hardwoods: Proceed with Caution
Tropical hardwoods are difficult to manage sustainably because they typically grow at low densities in natural forests and regenerate poorly after logging. The forests where these valuable species grow -- mostly in South America, Southeast Asia and Africa -- have been subject to damaging illegal logging activities. Think twice before purchasing products made with wood from the following endangered trees. Ask the four questions above to try and ascertain if the wood was harvested legally and sustainably.
AKA: Honduran or American mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla
ORIGIN: Mexico, Central & South American tropical forests
|QUALITIES: Rich orange to reddishbrown colors, fine grains, dimensionally stable, highly workable, durable
USES: High-quality furniture, interior finishing, artisanry, boat building, veneer
STATUS: Like all timbers shown here, overexploited wherever it occurs & facing extensive habitat loss; on CITES Appendix II since 2002*; associated with forced labor and human rights violations in Latin America
NOTE: Most current old-growth supply is from Peru, where illegal & unsustainable logging continues; Fijian plantation supplies are also available
AKA: Central American cedar, cedro, Cedrela odorata, C. fissilis
ORIGIN: Mexico, Central & South American tropical forests
|QUALITIES: Pink to salmon-red, less dense than big-leaf mahogany, stable, strong, durable, aromatic
USES: Furniture, cabinetry, cigar boxes, musical instruments, construction
STATUS: Considered threatened by logging & habitat loss throughout its range; unsuccessfully proposed for CITES Appendix II in 2007*; often associated with destructive mahogany extraction
NOTE: All species in Cedrela look very similar and are considered threatened
AKA: Honduran pine, Nicaraguan pitch pine, ocote, Pinus oocarpa, P. caribea
ORIGIN: Central American highland forests, esp. Honduras
|QUALITIES: A light, long-fibered wood easily sawn & worked
USES: Lightweight construction, broom handles,crates, telephone poles & posts, paper
STATUS: Remaining natural stands are threatened by overexploitation & illegal logging in protected areas; in Honduras, conflict over illegal pine logging has led to ongoing human rights violations
NOTE: Wood difficult to distinguish from other commercial species in genus (e.g., Southern Yellow Pine)
AKA: Roble, pau d'arco, ironwood, Tabebuia rosea, T. impetiginosa, T. serratifolia
ORIGIN: Central & South American tropical forests
|QUALITIES: Dark green or brown wood is extremely dense, durable & weather resistant
USES: Residential decking, heavy construction, railroad ties, fence posts
STATUS: Heavily exploited in the Amazon to supply decking market as substitute for dwindling big-leaf mahogany supplies
NOTE: Ipê's life history -- slow-growing, with scarce regeneration -- makes it extremely vulnerable to logging
AKA: Cocobolo, palisandro, Dalbergia spp.
ORIGIN: American, African & Asian dry tropical forests
|QUALITIES: Highly patterned dark red heartwood, dense, strong & durable
USES: Artisanal carving, inlay work, musical instruments, tool & cutlery handles
STATUS: Considered threatened by logging wherever it occurs; unsuccessfully proposed for CITES Appendix II in 2007*
NOTE: Dalbergia is a large group of similar species occurring at extremely low densities in natural forests
AKA: Teca, Tectona grandis
ORIGIN: Southeast Asia esp. India, Myanmar & Thailand
|QUALITIES: Dense golden-brown wood, dimensionally stable, highly workable, durable, insect & weather resistant
USES: High-quality furniture, interior finishing, decking, ship building, veneer
STATUS: Centuries of commercial logging & land clearing have sharply reduced habitat; most natural forest teak traded internationally is from Myanmar, where its trade has helped to fund the military junta
NOTE: Extensive plantations in Indonesia and Central & South America provide FSC-certified supply
AKA: Gonystylus bancanus, Gonystylus spp.
ORIGIN: Southeast Asian peat swamps & lowland forests, esp. Indonesia & Malaysia
|QUALITIES: Pale blonde color, fine-grained, highly workable, tensile strength excellent for long narrow pieces, aromatic
USES: Baby cribs, picture frames, tool handles, pool cues, joinery, moldings, flooring
STATUS: Heavily logged in vulnerable peat swamps & protected areas, especially prime endangered orangutan habitat; on CITES Appendix II since 2002*
NOTE: Six of 30 Gonystylus species are widely traded & considered threatened, esp. G. bancanus
AKA: Kwila, Ipil, Intsia bijuga, I. palembanica
ORIGIN: Southeast Asian & Pacific Islands coastal & mangrove forests
|QUALITIES: Red-brown wood, gold-flecked grain, extremely durable & decayresistant
USES: Flooring, joinery, posts, beams, furniture, musical instruments
STATUS: Few natural stands survive, currently under review for CITES protection; in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, the object of largescale illegal logging and exploitation of communities
NOTE: Reports suggest that large volumes will be used in construction of 2008 Olympic facilities in Beijing
AKA: Sapele, sipo, utile, Entandrophragma spp., Khaya spp.
ORIGIN: African tropical forests from Guinea to Angola
|QUALITIES: Pink to reddish-brown, fine grains, durable, similar working qualities to big-leaf mahogany
USES: High-quality furniture, interior finishing, boat building, artisanry, veneer
STATUS: Heavily logged throughout their natural ranges, species in this group face widespread commercial depletion
NOTE: In the same botanical family (Meliaceae) as big-leaf mahogany, Spanish cedar & high-value Southeast Asian mahoganies
AKA: Gabon, Aucoumea klaineana
ORIGIN: African equatorial forests esp. Gabon & Guinea
|QUALITIES: Lightweight reddish wood easily impregnated, seasoned & worked
USES: Furniture, interior finishing, cabinetry, cigar boxes, veneer, plywood
STATUS: Limited range & heavy exploitation, esp. in Gabon, mean that supplies are considered under threat
NOTE: Extensive plantations have been established outside okoumé's range in Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, and Guyana
* The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was established to protect plant and animal species from overharvesting for trade. Species included in Appendix II are considered endangered, and their legal trade is supposed to be restricted to scientifically determined sustainable quotas in their native countries.
Now that you know the difference between good and bad wood, show others the way. Take a look at the procurement policies of your office, school, house of worship or community organization. Let others -- including policymakers -- know how sustainably procured wood benefits the world's forests and the people who live and work around them.
Policymakers at all levels of government have an important role to play in protecting tropical forests, starting with their own wood purchasing. Some cities already have purchasing policies that give preference to FSC-certified wood or recycled alternatives. Talk to your local leaders and convince your city to become one of the next with a sustainable wood-purchasing policy.
You can also show support for sustainable logging at the national level. Congress is considering legislation to prohibit the import of illegally harvested wood and has begun to require controls on the illegal timber trade as part of U.S. bilateral trade agreements. The next step is for the United States to lead efforts to establish an international agreement prohibiting the cross-border trade of illegally logged wood.
Wood certification: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
Alternatives to tropical woods, including building specifications and sources: The California Integrated Waste Management Board
Destructive illegal logging and what's being done to combat it: The Environmental Investigation Agency
last revised 04.22.08
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