December 2007


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This 'n That

Just what, exactly, is sustainable wood?

Some wood, of course, is more sustainable than others. Here's what you need to know. Generally, "sustainable wood" means wood harvested from carefully managed forests or reclaimed from old buildings or furniture.

"There are a number of programs that certify the way timber is cut down and used," said Deb Snoonian, executive editor of Plenty magazine, which covers green topics. "They have guidelines on how forests should be managed, and the idea is that you never want to clear-cut a forest."

Look for proper certification, often in the form of a label. The most stringent of these programs, Snoonian said, is run by the Forest Stewardship Council. "The FSC guidelines are the ones most environmental groups trust," she said. The FSC offers a searchable database of certified vendors, said Katie J. Miller, the organization's U.S. communications director.

Ask where the wood comes from. Even without certification, customers can assume that most wood grown in North America was harvested in an environmentally safe way, said Ron Jarvis, vice president of environmental innovation at Home Depot, which sells some wood certified by the FSC. "If you're buying Southern yellow pine or redwood or cedar, probably it's okay without certification," he said.

Be careful with wood that might have been harvested in countries lacking stringent environmental rules, Jarvis added. "If you're going in to buy a wood product and you're not familiar with the name or it's a name that usually means rain forest, like teak, ask for an FSC-certified product," he said.

Check out products made from bamboo. It's a fast-growing wood, so bamboo forests replenish quickly. And it requires little pesticide or fertilizer. It works well for lightweight items such as decorative tables but may not be a great choice for something heavier: "When it's used in things that need a lot of strength, you need lots of resins and fillers to make it strong enough," Snoonian said. Those resins and fillers, she said, may not be environmentally friendly.

Another explanation

Forest depletion, soil loss, fishery and habitat damage caused by poor logging practice affects forested areas around the globe. Sustainably managed forests use better practices such as selective logging, watershed protection, replanting and thinning. Independent, third-party agents are now operating certification programs for sustainably harvested wood products.

Certified framing lumber, timbers, exterior decking, exterior-grade plywood and structural strand board (OSB) are all available, though some typical framing products used in California, such as #2 Douglas fir, are not. The price premium for certified Douglas fir framing lumber was about 40% in 1998, because only the higher grade #1 was available. Other certified products have little or no premium because the quality is similar. Certified #2 hemlock/fir framing lumber is available for about the same price as the typical #2 Douglas fir.

Resawn and regraded wood from timbers salvaged from demolition is another environmentally preferable option to virgin timber. In some cases reclaimed wood costs less than virgin timber, and salvaged wood quality is typically superior.


Do not specify any tropical woods unless they are from a reputable, certified sustainable supplier. Some woods, such as ebony, rosewood and Honduras mahogany, should be avoided altogether.

More certified products are becoming available continually, so check suppliers and information sources regularly.

Mark Rand