Shopping for Sustainable Timber Products

wood products

How to avoid supporting unsustainable forestry practices when you purchase wood and wood products

Wood is our oldest and best building material, and lately, its popularity is skyrocketing. Whether we’re buying wood appliances, wood furniture, or wood for home construction and renovation, we’re buying it because it lends a natural warmth to our surroundings that synthetic materials like concrete, plastic, and steel can’t provide. Wood ages better than other materials will maintain its value, and instantly elevates the look of a space or a structure. But in today’s environmentally conscious world, where it’s no longer excusable for us to ignore the consequences of our consumption on global forests, how can we make sure our money isn’t supporting the unsustainable harvesting of wood?

Buy Recycled Wood

Whenever possible, we should be using recycled materials for fabrication projects, and that rule of thumb extends to wood. Yes, wood can be recycled — though, a better word might be reclaimed. If you’re getting ready for a project and you’ll be needing some wood, look around for salvage yards or salvage shops in your area. These are businesses specializing in collecting, consolidating, and selling large pieces of interior decor, furniture, or architectural features, as well as mechanical salvage and various odds and ends, almost always on the antique side of things. These are great places to find old wood products in good enough condition that they can be broken down and repurposed.

Of course, you’ll also find that plenty of run-of-the-mill retail outlets, like The Home Depot, and online marketplaces, like Etsy, will sell reclaimed timber. In addition, it never hurts to check out Craigslist; you may very well stumble upon someone with a pile of unused timber, either surplus from a construction project or leftover from a broken-down structure, and they may even give it up free of charge in exchange for its removal from their property. And as always, if you’re driving around town, keep your eyes peeled for piles of timber, and even wood furniture, that your neighbors have discarded for trash pickup.

Reclaimed wood, aside from being an ethical form of consumption, looks pretty cool. Whether used for furniture, art, or interior renovation, reclaimed wood — and especially aged, antique wood — has its own particular charm. A kitchen or bedroom renovated with reclaimed wood will instantly appear lived in, making you feel like you’re in an old cabin or cottage. For those of us for whom “new” doesn’t always mean “better,” reclaimed timber is the perfect solution.

Look for a Forest Stewardship Council Label

If recycled wood just isn’t available to you, or if it doesn’t meet your needs, don’t feel bad. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing virgin wood or purchasing items from a vendor that works with virgin wood. Not everyone wants a reclaimed wood kitchen or a “rustic” rocking chair. Sometimes you just need something shiny and new, like a gorgeous solid core mahogany entryway door, and the good news is that you don’t have to compromise your environmental ethics to have it.

Manufacturers and vendors of wood and wood products will often work with the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, to ensure transparency regarding the origin and history of pieces of timber sold by them or used in the fabrication of their merchandise. If you’re shopping for new wood, look for an FSC certification stamp, or ask your vendor about products bearing an FSC certification. The FSC, while not perfect or all-encompassing, provides the best system of timber origin certification available today.

Purchasing FSC certified timber guarantees the product satisfies the following conditions:

  • The timber has not been harvested illegally
  • The timber has not been harvested in such a way that human rights are infringed upon
  • The timber is not sourced from endangered forests under threat by commercial interests
  • The timber is not harvested as a byproduct of agricultural clearing of forests
  • The timber is not sourced from forests where GMO trees are planted

FSC certifications are particularly helpful when it comes to tropical timber species. These trees, like Brazilian and African mahogany, teak, rosewood, and merbau, to name a few, are so vitally threatened by irresponsible harvesting that many countries have outright banned their import and sale. This has led to uncomfortable situations similar to those arising from ivory bans, wherein musical instruments, furniture, and accessories made from banned woods are seized at customs and never seen again. Not only should you pay special attention to FSC certifications when shopping for endangered tropical timber, but you should be wary of the local laws regarding exotic woods.

While the FSC is extremely helpful, it doesn’t cover all bases. Many responsible, ethical vendors will still carry non-FSC approved timber, but offer their own guarantee that none of their inventory is sourced from endangered trees. As always, use your best judgment, and only deal with vendors who are trustworthy and have a good reputation.