Demand sustainability when it comes to wood

Demand sustainability when it comes to wood

While many countries are making huge efforts to protect their woodlands, not all wood is from managed forests. So do due diligence and don't buy wooden products from makers or retailers who can't vouch for the wood's sustainability

By Kay Hill
Compact and versatile FSC birch ply Bookie bookshelf by Louise Christie

Not all wood is good so organisations such as the WWF and FSC want consumers to demand from retailers that products they sell are made using wood from sustainable forests. Or better still choose furniture made from reclaimed timber. Pictured above: compact and useful, the Bookie low freestanding bookcase designed by Louise Christie is made from FSC-certified birch ply or reclaimed tulipwood, from £495. For sustainable wood flooring, Kahrs has product that is Fairtrade as well as FSC-certified - it's rich and warm Rauli Roble Roja flooring, pictured below.

It’s easy to make the assumption that using wood in furniture, flooring and construction is the greenest option. It's a natural product that neutralises CO2 and absorbs pollution during its growth, then biodegrades harmlessly at the end of its life.
So far, so good – yet worldwide around 5,000 species of tree are threatened with extinction. That figure includes many traditionally been used in interiors, such as ebony, rosewood, mahogany, merbau, wenge and zebrawood.
And in the case of teak, the most used hardwood, the illegal or poorly managed harvesting of timber, especially in virgin forests, destroys animal habits and poses a serious threat to indigenous people. For example, the WWF charity  reports that legal logging of big-leaf mahogany in Peru is destroying the habitat of the rare giant otter, while felling of Korean Cedar Pine in far-eastern Russia is decimating the local wild boar population, the main source of food for the critically endangered Amur leopard.
'I think it is important to work with sustainably sourced timber,' says interior architect and designer Louise Christie, whose Bookie bookshelves are made from FSC birch ply or recycled tulipwood. 'Most of us take wood for granted and rarely think about where it's been taken from. Nor do we think of the conditions in which the population of that country live or the damage caused to their environment by the destruction of their forests.'
FSC-certified beech wood dog bed , £210, from
Raft furniture uses reclaimed teak wood and has FSC chain of custody certification.
Kahrs' FSC & Fairtrade cert Rauli Roble Roja flooring. Woods from South America.
Mobius Living's Monastery Dining Table in reclaimed oak, from £1,755.
Moss table from Modish Living is made from reclaimed wood sourced in the UK.
FSC-certified mango wood salt bowl, £15, from
Silver cabinet from Shimu is made from reclaimed elm, £1,855.
Eric Meier runs the Wood Database, a fantastic free resource for anyone interested in finding out more about timber. He's particularly vexed about designers who use rare woods on the grounds that just tiny bits are used here and there, such as ebony, which is criticially endangered.
'Maybe you’ve only used a little bit of ebony but remember, the world is filled with small bits and pieces of ebony. This is precisely what ebony is used for. No one's going to make an enormous table out of solid ebony, but that same table may very well feature a custom inlay made of ebony. More often than not, ebony is used bit by bit, and you might be the one using that next bit.'
So what can little ol' you do?
Well, do some research, ask questions and don't buy from retailers or manufacturers who shrug their shoulders and say 'well, it's wood innit'...
The first thing more of us are looking for is FSC certification – it may not be perfect, but, a bit like an MOT on a car, it does offer some reassurance to the buyer. The Forest Stewardship Council was set up 20 years ago with the aim of encouraging forestry that was 'environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable'. Its FSC certification can be applied to wood from natural forests or managed plantations, but in each case operations must comply with the FSC’s Ten Principles. These ethical and environmental criteria include:
  • Principle 3: Indigenous peoples’ rights – to identify and uphold indigenous peoples’ rights of ownership and use of land and resources.
  • Principle 6: Environmental impact – to maintain or restore the ecosystem, its biodiversity, resources and landscapes.
  • Principle 9: Maintenance of high conservation value forests – to maintain or enhance the attributes which define such forests.
The FSC also offers a Chain of Custody certification that can be applied for by manufacturers, processors and traders of FSC certified forest products, which aims to verify the whole production chain. Raft Furniture, which uses reclaimed teak, is one company that has FSC CCC.
Critics of FSC certification, such as campaigner Dr Glen Barry of pressure group Ecointernet claim that because it still allows large scale logging in old-growth forests (albeit with some environmental safeguards in place) some FSC-certified timber falls well short of being truly sustainable.
He says: 'For two decades FSC has greenwashed industrial scale old-growth forest logging across an area two times the size of Texas for throw-away consumer items such as toilet paper and lawn furniture as being environmentally sensitive. Best science indicates old-growth forest logging is never ecologically sustainable.'


TV unit in FSC-certified teak from £1,269
Merthen bookcase by Cornish maker Henry Swanzy uses local coppiced hazel wood.
Clementine bed from Loaf is made form reclaimed fir. From £775.
La Roque bookcase, FSC cert plantation grown mahogany
Jatoba wide board flooring from Junckers, which uses FSC and PEFC certified woods
Eat Sleep Live uses reclaimed timber sourced in Britain.
The major alternative organisation that certifies wood products is the Geneva-based Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)  which actually represents around two thirds of the accredited forest in the world, although it tends to be less well known.
It offers both certification for growers and chain of custody certifications. PEFC promises it 'sets the highest standards for forest certification aligned with the majority of the world’s governments, including maintaining or enhancing biodiversity, protecting ecologically important forest area, protecting workers’ rights and the rights of indigenous peoples and prohibition of the most hazardous chemicals and GMOs.'
PEFC has numerous critics, particularly over its recent decision to endorse China’s National Forest Certification System and to accredit plantations in Malaysia that have been planted in deforested areas.
A report in March by Greepeace asserts: 'PEFC fails to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible forest management. FSC has been setting the bar high for ecologically and socially responsible forest management ever since its establishment in 1994. A comparison of the two systems’ forest management standard requirements clearly shows that FSC’s minimum entry and certification requirements are more robust and its ecological and social conditions are also more robust.'
If it appears that on occasions, even certified wood may not be entirely sustainable, the reverse is also true – many small scale furniture makers in the UK, for instance, buy wood on a small scale directly from local farmers, or from very small managed woodlands which may not be certified but could be run in an optimal way for the environment, as well as having the benefit of cutting fuel use during transportation.
'Timber is the only mainstream 100 per cent renewable building material,' stresses Dave Hopkins of the UK’s wood promotion campaign Wood For Good. 'Far from depleting natural resources, increased demand for sustainable timber increases demand for sustainable managed forest to provide it. It is a win-win situation.'


Jeanne reversible table from Darwin's Home in FSC walnut, oak and birch, £984
Reclaimed oak wall cladding by Indigenous,
Illegal logging destroys habitats for many species of birds and animals and damages the environment
Ebony is a hardwood that has been logged so heavily it's now critically endangered
Use alternatives to rare hardwoods
As it's so difficult to prove the provenance of more exotic timbers there is a case for using look-alikes as it saves rarer woods from being used up. Alpi Wood for example, uses only FSC-certified common plantation-grown species such as Italian poplar, European lime and African ayou, then reconstitutes them so they look like those beautiful rare and endangered woods such as teak, wenge, rosewood, zebrano and ebony, with stunning results. 
Donna Grech at bespoke cabinetry company Grech&Grech finds Alpi a pleasure to work with, and recently completed a kitchen with a beautiful walnut burr finish: 'Most people honestly believe it’s real walnut burr, when in fact it’s a very sustainable material.'
Swedish wood floor brand Kahrs offers the world's first dual-certified flooring, Rauli Roble Roja, which has FSC and Fairtrade certification. The wood grows in Chile's Curacautin Valley and it's produced for flooring under an NGO project that ensures the forests are managed and workers receive a fair wage.
Reclaimed wood
Another excellent option is reclaimed wood – there's still plenty of usable hardwoods such as teak and mahogany in Asia and the Far East that can be used over and over again, not to mention fine old English oak and walnut. And a lot of reclaimed wood in the UK/EU comes from old buildings when they're demolished.
'Reclaimed wood is the most environmentally friendly option,' says Paul Walsh of Trunk Reclaimed, which makes high quality kitchens. 'It comes in many guises; what it has in common is strength, stability, density and patina which you simply won’t find in new speed grown timber, FSC or otherwise,' he says.
A host of other companies are making use of this fantastic resource, such as furniture companies Eat Sleep LIve, Modish Living, Mobius Living, Raft (reclaimed teak), Indigenous (reclaimed oak wall cladding), Reason Season Time (reclaimed teak blanket boxes) and online furniture retailer Loaf which has beds made from reclaimed fir at Loaf
Perhaps the greenest option is to look for products made from timber grown in your country, and ideally, the region you live in. 
In Britain we have a successful, sustainable forest industry, transportation mileage is low and local jobs are created. The Forestry Commission reported this year that Britain now has 7.5 million acres of woodland covering around 13 per cent of the country, up from around 4 per cent a century ago. Dougal Driver, chief executive of Grown in Britain, which promotes British timber and forest products, sees it as a sign of success: 'It’s fantastic to have confirmation that our woodland resource continues to expand, and we must now take up the challenge of maintaining this growth for future generations.
We can plan with confidence to grow the market for sustainably produced, renewable and environmentally friendly products from our woods and forests.'
A-Z of Commonly Used Woods
Grown in UK, Europe and North America, mainly on plantations, but watch out for ash from Romania and Bulgaria where illegal logging of ancient forests still takes place. Look for FSC ash, or reclaimed ash.
Grown in UK, Europe and North America. Much of the beech imported into Britain comes from France and carries the PEFC certification, widely thought to be less stringent than FSC. Beech from Romania and Poland may have come from ancient forests. Look for FSC or reclaimed beech.
Grown in Brazil and North America. Two species of Brazilian cedar are endangered and another is vulnerable, with most cedar coming from the region likely to be illegally logged. Logging in the US coastal rainforests is destroying the habitats of three kinds of bear. Some FSC-certified wood is available.
Almost all types of ebony are endangered, some critically so. Consider staining other woods to give an ebony effect or even using black plastic as an alternative for inlays.
Douglas fir comes from Europe and North America. European fir is from sustainable plantations, but timber from North America and Canada is linked to destructive logging in temperate rainforests. Look for FSC accreditation.
Grown in Europe and North America. There are sustainable plantations across Europe, but timber from Siberia and Canada will often have come from ancient forests. Bad logging practices in Russia have endangered the Eastern leopard and the Siberian tiger. Look for FSC accreditation.
Grown in Brazil, Asia and Africa. There are more than 70 species of Asian mahogany, more than half of which are endangered species. Some plantation grown mahogany, FSC-certified mahogany is available. Non-threatened andiroba and jatoba timbers may be suitable replacements
Grown in UK, Europe, US and Australia. Be cautious with oak as French supplies are not well regulated and timber from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine is often linked with the destruction of ancient forests and illegal logging. Oak from Estonia is often illegal and harvesting of cork oak from Spain and Portugal endangers the Iberian lynx. FSC and reclaimed oak is widely available.
Grown in New Guinea and China, almost extinct from south-east Asia, Oceania and east Africa. Demand for this beautiful golden wood has been so great that logging has caused great environmental damage in New Guinea and Greenpeace recommends against its use. Alternative woods include kwila and jatoba.
Grown in UK, Europe and North America. Most pine on sale in the UK is FSC certified and comes from sustainable plantations. Watch out for pine from Finland and parts of Norway that carries a PEFC certificate, as it may have come from ancient forests. Pine can be illegally logged from Latvia and Estonia, and Chinese pine products may be made from ancient Korean pines logged in Siberia. Look for FSC or reclaimed pine.
Grown in Burma and Africa. Burmese teak often comes from virgin forests and can be illegal, as well as supporting a brutal political regime. FSC teak is available from plantations in Africa, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Mexico, or alterative FSC-certified woods such as jatoba, favinha, guariuba and tatajuba might be suitable. Kebony is a treated softwood which has similar properties to teak   
Although walnut trees grow in the UK (Juglans regia), most commercial walnut wood comes from the black walnut (Juglans nigra) which is mainly plantation-grown in Eastern Europe and North America and is usually FSC-certified. African walnut is a completely different tree, Lovoa trichilioides, and is on the IUCN Red List of threatened and endangered species. In addition, much of the logging takes place in rainforest areas where it is endangering gorillas and other primates.
Grown in Africa, wenge is prized for its dark colour. But it is now on the IUCN Red List as “endangered” because the number of trees has fallen by half in recent years. FSC wenge is available that comes from sustainable sources
Read more about reclaimed wood
See our piece on reclaimed wood furniture company Eat Sleep Live