Sustainable Wood

The term “sustainable” is now widely applied to a host of materials – steel, plastics, concrete and aluminium for example – that are not inherently sustainable. Sustainable wood is different.

In its purest, theoretical form, sustainable wood is a renewable material that has a net zero or even a positive impact on the environment. However, the reality of achieving this is remarkably complex and tricky to ensure.

There is a common misconception that sustainable wood is only the consequence of sustainable forest management. In fact sustainable wood is a much broader concept, encompassing not only the ‘cradle’ of the material, but also its life, death and rebirth.

Cradle

“Sustainable wood” and “sustainable forest management” are often confused, which is not surprising because you cannot have one without the other. To be sustainable, wood must originate from a forest that is sustainably managed. Equally, sustainably managed forests produce wood with potential to be used sustainably.

But how to ensure a forest is managed sustainably? There is no single answer. While the technical knowledge is well known and implemented in many forests, it can be challenging to differentiate these places from those which not managing sustainably.

Sustainable forest management is the first step towards wood being a sustainable material.

Certification by organisations like FSC and PEFC does help here, but all certification frameworks have limitations. Certification can be unreliable in regions where corruption is endemic and there is widespread illegal logging. Certification is also expensive and often inaccessible to forests managed by smaller non-industrial owners, communities, and indigenous groups, despite these being inherently more sustainable than the large state and industrial operations that dominate certified forest area in most parts of the world.

Other measures must be used alongside certification, such as the Timber Legality Assurance Systems now being developed in a wide range of tropical countries, national and regional risk assessments, and the due diligence procedures required for compliance to laws like the EUTR and US Lacey Act.

For a more in depth analysis as to what makes sustainable forest management, read our introductory article on the topic here. But in short, sustainable forest management is the first step towards wood being a sustainable material.

Life

The ‘life’ of sustainable wood should arguably be the longest stage of its life cycle. This is when it becomes a material that can be used to create products, locking up carbon for tens, if not hundreds, of years, all whilst freeing up space for more trees, and thus more carbon sinks, to grow in its place.

For this to happen effectively, products should be designed to have as long a life as possible. Designers, manufacturers and retailers need to move away from pushing a ‘fast fashion’ or ‘fast furniture’ model of consumption. Although, this would also require a societal shift in the way we consume wood products, it could become reality if enough people reject this wasteful lifestyle.

The fault does not only lie with the consumer, however. Often, designers or manufacturers request only specific species and the highest grade timber, without knots or blemishes, with no thought as to how little of this forests actually produce. This results in a large amount of waste and encourages “high grading” of forests, which destroys their ecological and economic prospects 1.

To combat this, designers must diversify the species they use and adapt their designs to incorporate all parts of the tree. Another strategy to ensure sustainability in design is to conduct a Life Cycle Assessment compliant with ISO standards, this allows designers to see the environmental impact of the whole life cycle of their product, enabling the impact of different materials and designs to be compared. You can read more about LCAs in our article on Sustainable Design here.

Death

Ideally, when working towards a circular economy, the ‘death’ of a product is something to be avoided. Products should be built to last, with repairability built into the design, at the least recyclability. If either of these options are used then they must be made easy, otherwise many people will still throw the product away if it breaks.

However, it is prudent in any case, but especially where disposal is unavoidable, to consider what the impact would be if the product was thrown away and to devise a strategy if that happens. When it comes to wood, a biodegradable material, this can be done by ensuring any glue, treatments or other materials used are also biodegradable or at least non-toxic. This approach creates more producer responsibility, and since there are far less producers than consumers, it means that it is far easier to control the end of life environmental impact of products.

Re-Birth

If wood is to be truly sustainable the product must either last forever in its first form or be transformed, when broken or obsolete, into a new product. This ‘rebirth’ into a new product is also integral to attaining a circular economy, something we must achieve if we do not want to completely deplete our natural resources.

However, this rebirth can only occur if there are policies in place to collect, transform and utilise products which have reached their point of obsolescence. These policies could be governmental, organisational or even community based. But they all require a concerted effort to expand our time horizons and see the consequences far in the future, in a move away from the current throwaway culture of ‘out of sight out of mind’.

  1. Raymond, P., Prévost, M., & Roy, V., 2020, ‘Silvicultural options for rehabilitating high-graded mixedwood stands in northeastern North America’, Forest Ecology and Management466, 118137.[]