I’m often asked if wood is a sustainable product. People are naturally concerned about deforestation, particularly in the rainforest. So here’s a short primer on the subject. Periodically I’ll revisit this topic with additional comments.

So, is wood a sustainable product? The really short answer is, “it depends”. When it comes to commercial logging, most North American forests are pretty well managed. The landowners here realize that their land has the highest value when there is a long-term plan to manage the forest to allow ongoing harvesting of trees. If you are buying hardwoods from North American forests, you can be reasonably certain that the forest remained viable even after your particular tree was harvested.

Unfortunately, there is a very different situation in many “rainforest” countries. There, forests are often clear-cut without regard to any long-term forest management. The result is that the ecosystem is seriously disrupted. After the forest is cleared, a very different – and less sustainable – mix of plants & animals comes in to fill the void. The result is an unhealthy forest in decline.

Not that all wood coming from the rainforest is harvested that way. Some countries have signed binding treaties that require forests to be better managed. Some forests are certified by various independent third parties as to practicing good forestry management techniques (e.g. “FSC” and “SFI” wood). I’ve run across small operations that locate “blowdown” trees in the Amazon (trees toppled by storms), which are removed while leaving other trees intact. There certainly are some well-managed forests in these areas, but it’s not always easy for buyers to know good from bad.

There is a growing trend now to use wood that comes from alternative sources. There are a lot of alternative sources. Blowdown trees, “urban forest” trees, and reclaimed or repurposed wood are examples.

These alternative sources are clearly sustainable, and they often yield wood that is incredibly beautiful and very different from typical commercial lumber yards. Uncommonly beautiful wood, and no net loss of tree canopy. As a bonus, this wood is diverted from the waste stream which often means less waste is sent to landfills.

You don’t need to worry about being an expert yourself when looking for sustainable products. Simply ask the salesperson or business owner about the origin of the wood. A few simple questions can help you understand a lot about the sustainability of the materials in your purchase.

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