How to Buy Good Wood

Your guide to purchasing sustainably sourced lumber and furniture.

Stacks of lumber

David Papazian/Media Bakery

Whether you're constructing a deck, building a fence, or buying a nightstand, the type of wood you choose matters. In the best case, your purchase could support a sustainable community rainforest initiative. In the worst, it could contribute to the impoverishment of families, the clear-cutting of forests, or the endangerment of wildlife.

So what is sustainable wood? First, it's sourced legally. (Although a 2008 law banned the import of illegally sourced timber into the United States, it still happens more than it should.) But, of course, sustainability involves a lot more than that: "It's also harvested using practices that protect the species that live in the forest, the local water quality, and the rights of indigenous people, all at a very high level," says Debbie Hammel, director of NRDC's Land Markets initiative.

As a consumer, you can hold retailers accountable—and help steer the market away from destructive logging and toward better business practices. But determining for sure whether a specific wood product is sustainable can be tricky: The same species may be responsibly sourced from one country but illegal and unsustainable from another. Here's what you need to know to ensure your dollars are being spent smartly.

No project too small

When is it important to buy sustainably? In short, any time you're in the market for something made with wood: beds and sofas, tables and chairs, even doors and windows for your home. Obviously, the bigger the purchase (or construction project), the more of an impact it can have—but remember that every conscious decision can make a difference. As Hammel says, "You're voting with your dollar."

Your best option: Buy recycled

Remember: You don't always have to cut down a tree. Buying reclaimed or salvaged woods prevents unnecessary logging and its associated greenhouse gas emissions; it also provides incentives for municipal recycling programs. If you're not sure whether the wood you're buying is really on its second life, ask the seller for proof; he or she should be able to provide documentation as to where it came from. If you can't find used wood, give recycled-plastic lumber or composites a try.

The next best thing: Look for the FSC logo

If you do decide to build with or buy products made from virgin wood, look for a Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, label. This will tell you that the wood came from a well-managed forest with lower-impact logging methods. "While no verification system is perfect, FSC is the gold standard," Hammel says. The FSC also promotes systems to track lumber from the forest to the consumer so you can ensure that your purchase was legally harvested.

No logo? Dig deeper

If the wood you're interested in isn't FSC-certified, it may be difficult to learn its history. (There are other international certifications, but none are as rigorous or independently evaluated as the FSC's.) Your best bet is to ask questions: What country and region is the wood from, and what lumber company harvested it? If retailers don't know, ask their suppliers to find out.

Make your priorities clear

Today, most large home improvement and furniture retailers sell at least some FSC-certified options. But you might walk into a store that offers none. (Overall, less than 20 percent of all wood products sold in the United States are certified.) "In those cases, it's always good to say, 'I really wish you would carry FSC-certified products,' " says Hammel. "The more people they hear that from, the more they'll pass the message up the chain to their suppliers."

Going tropical? Proceed with extra caution

Tropical hardwoods—those harvested in Central and South America and southeastern Asia and Africa—are difficult to manage sustainably because they typically grow at low densities in natural forests and regenerate poorly after logging. Many of these forests have been subject to damaging illegal logging activities. Looking for an FSC logo and asking the right questions is especially important if you're buying the following.

  • Big-leaf mahogany: used in furniture, interior finishing, artisanal goods, boatbuilding, and veneer
  • Spanish cedar: used in furniture, cabinetry, musical instruments, and construction
  • Caribbean pine: used in lightweight construction, broom handles, crates, and posts
  • Ipê: used in heavy construction, residential decking, and fence posts
  • Rosewood: used in artisanal carving, musical instruments, and tool and cutlery handles
  • Teak: used in furniture, interior finishing, decking, shipbuilding, and veneer
  • Ramin: used in baby cribs, picture frames, tool handles, pool cues, moldings, and flooring
  • Merbau: used in flooring, posts, beams, furniture, and musical instruments
  • African mahogany: used in furniture, interior finishing, boatbuilding, and artistry
  • Okoumé: used in furniture, interior finishing, cabinetry, cigar boxes, veneer, and plywood

Educate others

Now that you know the difference between good and bad wood, take a look at the procurement policies of your workplace, school, house of worship, or community organization. Let others—including policy makers—know how sustainably procured wood benefits the world's forests and the people who live and work around them. Some cities 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.

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