5 Tips on Buying Earth-Friendly Wood Furniture and Lumber

What to look for in eco-friendly alternatives to virgin wood products, from FSC certified wood to reclaimed or recycled wood, composites and more.

Of all the materials used by human beings, there is perhaps none greater, nor more versatile than wood. Offering both beauty and strength while remaining easy to manipulate, there are few purposes for which wood is unsuited. Better still, to add a new twist to an old saying, it even grows on trees making it a resource that's at least theoretically renewable.

It's impossible to imagine a world without wood. Yet today's wood products, though useful and attractive, are largely obtained via unsustainable logging practices. If current trends continue, these harvesting methods could one day leave our world largely stripped of the forests we depend on for lumber and more.

A Clear-Cut Answer

Most of our wood products come from forests harvested by a method called clearcutting. When a forest is clearcut, it's essentially leveled-all trees and vegetation are removed by giant machines, some of which literally snip trees like a huge pair of scissors. 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 regenerating. 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.

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 these. Every year, at least 40 million additional acres disappear, and 10 percent of the world's tree species are now endangered.

The answer to this dilemma lies in sustainable wood products obtained from thoughtfully managed forests. Such 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 in perpetuity. With sustainable wood, one thing is clear: Everyone, including the environment, wins.

5 Tips on Buying Earth-Friendly Wood Furnishings & Products

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, always insist on sustainable wood. Given the clear benefits to the environment and our future, it's the one kind of wood you can feel good about using. And it's wood that's getting easier to find. As people have come to understand the difference sustainably certified woods can make in global environmental health, everyone from local hardware stores to big chains like Home Depot and Lowes have begun to offer it. Here are some tips to help you find good wood when you shop:

  1. 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. FSC is an international organization established to promote responsible stewardship of the world’s forests through every processing stage — from the forest to each manufacturing point to the marketplace. The FSC certifies forest managers and product manufacturers around the world who meet stringent social and environmental standards. When you buy FSC certified wood furniture or other FSC wood products, you can be certain that it supports responsible forestry.

    While there are a number of forest certification programs in the marketplace, the FSC is the only global standard-setting organization in forest management, and is widely considered the most coveted certification an eco-friendly wood product can receive. FSC is the only forest management standard that ...

    • Prohibits the conversion of forests and other natural habitat.
    • Prohibits the use of highly hazardous pesticides.
    • Prohibits the cultivation of genetically modified trees (GMOs).
    • Presents no barrier to trade, allowing participants to abide by World Trade Organization rules.
    • Balances social, environmental and industry interests.
    • Respects the rights of indigenous peoples.
  2. Favor woods certified as earth-friendly through other organizations. One of the leading certification labels is from the Other reliable labels include the "SmartWood" label from the Rainforest Alliance; the SCS label from Scientific Certification Systems; and the "Green Seal" from the organization of the same name. Beware of certification labels that are more hype than help! Visit www.eco-label.org/ and www.forestworld.com to find out which ones you can trust.

  3. 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 through one of the above organizations.

  4. Look for products made with reclaimed or "rediscovered" wood. Wood recycled from old buildings and structures saves trees and often comes in fantastic widths today's younger forests can't provide. Other reclaimed woods include remnant logs from colonial and expansionist era logging drives rescued from icy lake bottoms, woods recovered from landfills, and even wood from retired orchard trees.

  5. Go wood-free with the new breed of recycled plastic wood substitutes. Some, like Trex and SmartDeck, are composites of recycled plastic and reclaimed salvage woods. Others, like Plastic Lumber and Polywood are made from 100% recycled plastic. Such substitutes last a lifetime, need little care and are even more sustainable than lumber from certified forests.

Choices like these will help make sure that your wood use prevents environmental harm and contributes to a healthy and sustainable future. They'll make sure that when it comes to lumber we can both see and save the forest for the trees.

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