The Ecological Impact of Wood in the Home

Green Homes Dated:  Feb. 21, 2015
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Interior Designer: Mudit Surana

For as long as our species has existed, we have used wood. We have used forests as shelter and the wood they provide to make heat and build our homes. In every country, from the Serengeti to New York, you will find wood used somewhere in the home. And it’s easy to see why. For many purposes, wood is the perfect material. It is strong, easy to manipulate into various shapes and is aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

But our reliance on forests goes far beyond the supply of wood for our homes. Forests cover huge tracts of the earth’s surface and are vital for a whole raft of environmental reasons, most importantly amongst them for us humans, the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen through photo-synthesis.

Sadly the demand for wood has become rampant and is far outstripping our capacity, or even willingness, to grow new forests in place of those we are cutting down. Despite our growing knowledge of the dire consequences of deforestation, and large international efforts aimed at slowing it down, the human destruction of forests in places like South America continues unabated.

Our dependence on trees has never meant we cannot use the wood they provide, of course. Quite the opposite, in fact. The incredible ecosystem we inhabit can provide us with more than enough wood for our needs. However, those needs must be met from wood of specific timbers and specific forests to ensure the system is sustainable.

Forest Management:
A large part of the whole sustainability picture is how forests are managed before the wood is even felled. A badly managed forest, of any type, will yield less wood, of lower quality, and may cease being a viable forest at all. Where forests are managed in a sustainable way the following things are normally considered:

  • What resources does the forest have?
  • What is the biological diversity of the area to be considered?
  • Is the forest in good health generally?
  • Who is currently using the resources of the forest?
  • How can the forest be best protected?
  • What groups of people are socially or economically reliant on the forest area?
  • Creation of a legal, policy and institutional framework.

One issue in forest management is the sheer number of certifications for management, with over 50 standards worldwide. The two biggest umbrella programmes, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), cover over two-thirds of the globally certified areas.

Logging and Deforestation:
If a forest is not sustainably managed, the risk of illegal logging exists. The removal or destruction of trees from forests is, globally, a massive problem. Between 1990 and 2010 the world lost nearly 0.5% of its trees. As an annual change, Over 46,000 square miles of forest are lost each year.

Some of this deforestation is legal and well managed but far too much is not.

In Brazil the problem is endemic. Home to a third of the planet’s remaining rainforest, Brazil sees nearly 80% of its logging violate government control.  In Brazil total deforestation rose 28% in a year in 2013. The issue of illegal logging is one of the hardest to tackle in the supply chain of wood. This has much to do with the fact that the operations are in the hands of Criminal gangs. Up to 90% of tropical deforestation in Africa is controlled by such outfits.

This illegal logging has the most frightening of consequences. The Sumatran rainforest may be gone by 2020 and the rest of the rainforest will not be far behind if current trends continue. A US Forest Study found that forests absorb as much as one-third of all carbon emissions annually. “Forests provide us with abundant clean air,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “This study shows the important role global forests play in keeping the air clean and it also broadens our understanding of how climate change relates to forest management in today’s world.” If the idea of the “lungs” of planet disappearing does not terrify you, then you have a stronger constitution than me.

The import and export of timber has a great deal of impact on the markets for wood, be that legally or illegally sourced. While sensible import laws are to be applauded, sadly the existence and effectiveness of such laws cannot be taken for granted. Even the EU timber import laws offer loopholes that can be exploited to import timber that has been obtained illegally. By value, only half of all imported timber is covered under import laws designed to stop illegally felled timber entering the supply chain.

Those that use wood in their products much be vigilant in their methods to source timber. Buying from non-sustainable sources or worse, illegally obtained wood, will only serve to fuel the problem. Responsible manufacturers should start by sourcing wood that complies with the following bodies:

FSC - Forest Stewardship Council
CSA - Canadian Standards Association
PEFC - Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes
SFI - North American Sustainable Forest Initiative

Timber sources from managed forests will see better quality and long term supply. Manufacturers must also take charge of offering the right type of timbers. Rosewood, Mahogany, Teak and Wenge used responsibly if at all. They must find ways of producing from common wood stocks such as Oak, Maple, Iroko and Ash.

Sustainability is Key:
It is not all doom and gloom. A sustainable model that allows for all timbers, even Mahogany and other rare woods, to enter the supply chain does exist. Buying wood that comes with labels for the certification systems already mentioned means that the forest has other adult trees that can restock the one felled. It means that those that cut down the tree understood their place in the supply chain and that they are stewards of our forests, not thieves. It means that in fifty years time, we will still have beautiful wooden products being made for our homes and our planet will still have its lungs.

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