People often ask me to recommend the ‘greenest’ hardwood flooring option, expecting me to tell them to use reclaimed wood or Bamboo, and they’re shocked to hear my answer. After years of witnessing the impacts of our purchasing decisions on forests worldwide, I tell them to use FSC-certified tropical hardwood. Reclaimed wood and Bamboo are great environmental options – they both help reduce demand for wood harvested from forest ecosystems. But in my view the most significant positive environmental impact we can make is to support sustainable forestry in tropical countries.
The world’s tropical forests are rapidly disappearing – we lose an area roughly the size of Washington State every year. Logging certainly plays a role in some of that deforestation, especially when loggers cut roads into previously inaccessible areas, but the majority of the habitat destruction is for agriculture and cattle. The developing world often faces a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition – if we don’t create an economic value for the forest, it will be cleared for other purposes. So, whether it’s nuts, medicinal plants, or selectively felled timber, products that can be taken from the rainforest without destroying it are one of the best ways to breathe life into the lungs of the planet.
The Peten, a jungle region in Guatemala, serves as a perfect example. The portion that was set aside for sustainable forestry under FSC guidelines enjoys a healthy in tact canopy, whereas the portion that was established as an ecological reserve is now a patchwork of slash and burn agriculture. The Guatemalan government doesn’t have the enforcement capacity to keep poor farmers out of the reserve, but where the forest is creating an income for local communities, they are out protecting the trees themselves. By buying FSC-certified wood from these communities, we create the economic incentive for them to keep the forest alive.
Of course, buying wood from half way around the world may seem like a poor environmental choice because of the transportation impacts, but taking a closer look at the carbon footprints of wood products reveals that things are much more complicated than many people assume. For example, a wood floor that is cut from a log harvested near a river in Brazil will travel primarily over water on its way to foreign markets. Because ocean freight is dramatically more efficient than trucking, it may actually take less diesel to get that Brazilian floor to its final destination in Seattle or New York than to truck an Oak floor to those locations from Wisconsin or Tennessee. Similarly, a Bamboo floor that is grown and manufactured close to the coast in China will have a substantially smaller carbon footprint when installed in L.A. or Miami than a Maple floor coming from Minnesota or Canada. And then there’s the fact that in today’s global market, Chinese factories are importing huge volumes of North American species, turning them into furniture, flooring and other products, and shipping them right back to towns not far from where the trees were harvested. Nowadays, to make an informed judgment about the real transportation impacts of a wood product, we may have to trace back through many legs of the journey.
To complicate things further, we can’t make the assumption that certain species are good and certain species are bad. Brazilian Cherry is a species that is biologically abundant throughout the Central and South America, so an argument could be made that using FSC-certified Brazilian Cherry might be better than using uncertified North American Walnut, which is in increasingly limited supply. Much of the White Oak that is currently being sold in the U.S. is coming from Chinese factories that buy illegally-logged material out of Siberia, from what is shaping up to be one of the greatest ecological catastrophes the world has ever seen. One would think that good old-fashioned White Oak wouldn’t be so risky.
So as with many questions in green building, the answers are fairly complicated. But one simple truth will always hold true – we are better off specifying a wood product that is certified under a credible forest certification system like FSC than simply winging it on our own, believing what our suppliers are telling us or relying on assumptions that in many cases don’t hold true. The more we can learn about where the product was harvested, how it was harvested, and the journey it took to the jobsite, the better, but often credible information is hard to come by. If you can take old wood from a building and re-use it in a project just up the street, I may have to re-visit my recommendation about the ‘greenest’ product available, but those opportunities are unfortunately rare. In the meantime, spec FSC, and take the bus if you can.
Dan Harrington, former VP of Product Development at EcoTimber, has spent many years traveling the globe visiting factories and sustainable forestry operations. Dan serves on the Sierra Club’s Forest Certification Committee and formerly served on the USGBC’s Technical Advisory Group for Certified Wood. He is currently the Commercial Sales Manager for Golden State Flooring, an FSC-certified hardwood distributor based in San Francisco.