Like birds and mice, we humans gather fibers from the wider environment to construct, line, and decorate our nests. Since we are a globally dominant species, our nest-building habits have a big impact on the environment, one that’s not always easy to see. It’s just a chair, it’s just a table. We don’t see the illegal logging road built out into a rain forest so poachers can cut this exotic tree. We don’t see the collateral damage to tropical soils, endangered species, or indigenous peoples. We feel the climate effects of rainforest destruction in hotter days and stronger storms, but we don’t connect them to the furniture in our homes.
Organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Furnishing Council (SFC) work to raise awareness and to certify sustainably harvested wood fiber products, as well as to police the industry, which has a large environmental footprint. Healthy forests are one of our most powerful tools to fight climate change, so forest-based industries have a special responsibility to use responsibly harvested wood.
Unfortunately, illegal logging is a $30-100 billion business, and represents between ten and thirty percent of global wood trade. This degrades forests, damages biodiversity, and deprives legitimate companies of profits. David Gehl, manager of Traceability and Technologies for the Environmental Investigations Agency, Inc, (EIA) likens this to forest mining, and those engaged in it to a forest mafia, whose crimes include overharvesting protected species and areas, bribing public officials, and offshoring illegal profits. GreenPeace estimates that seventy percent of some tropical hardwoods that end up in U.S. and EU markets are stolen, even though importers are required to use ‘due care’ not to use illegally harvested wood products.
Many organizations have banded together to combat the trade in illegal wood. FSC offers certification. EIA investigates and exposes transnational wildlife and wildlands crimes (as well as campaigning to eliminate powerful refrigerant greenhouse gases.) New technology, including DNA analysis and mass spectrometry, help regulators identify illegal wood. Public maps make it easier for citizens to identify illegal logging operations. In Romania, log truck drivers need to fill out a form on a smart phone app. Anyone who sees a log truck can go on the app, find out if the load is illegal, and report it to the police. Following the app’s release, Romania saw a 60% increase in log transport permit applications.
Many protections are built into the manufacturing and importation end of the supply chain, but consumers are still in the driver’s seat. Actions you can take include prioritizing recycled, reclaimed, or salvaged wood. Secondhand furniture is a win for the environment. Not only do you cut fewer trees, but the wood in that table or chair is carbon-sequestered for as long as the furniture is in use. Landfills are clogged with discarded furniture, so repurposing it also helps with the disposal problem.
If buying new, look for sustainably harvested wood with a certification from FSC. Check out the Wood Furniture Scorecard on the FSC website. They list and score 18 companies and note if they are making positive progress.
Go on the manufacturer’s website to see what their environmental standards are. Many companies state the percentage of wood that is certified and are trying to move that percentage upward. Companies with good records include Etsy Reclaimed Furniture, Vermont Wood Studios, and Copeland Furniture, the last two based in Vermont.
EIA has recently launched a new mobile application, called the Origin app, to help consumers discover the species and geographical origins of the wood in products they buy. If no information is available, users can ping the company to ask them to provide this information to the app.
Local manufacturers are a better bet for several reasons. North American forests are more likely to be well managed, with old-growth forests protected. Also, the carbon emissions from transportation are far less.
Sustainably harvested bamboo is also a good choice. Timber bamboo grows an inch an hour in the spring, reaching its full height in one growing season, taking carbon out of the air at a faster rate than most other plants, and rapidly sequestering it in biomass and soil. After harvest it re-sprouts and grows again. Because it’s a grass, it contains minute silica structures called phytoliths which resist degradation. According to Project Drawdown, “The combination of phytoliths and bamboo’s rapid growth rate make it a prolific means to sequester carbon.” Bamboo can replace many field, forest, and industrial products, including cotton, plastics, steel, aluminum, concrete, wood pulp (for paper) and tropical timbers. While industrial bamboo plantations have the same problems as any other monoculture, bamboo grows readily on degraded lands and can be a way to restore soil, minimize erosion, sequester carbon, and avoid emissions.
Companies specializing in sustainable furnishings are listed in the links, available in the posting of this article on the GET website — and there are many more, helping us line our nests with materials that actually improve forest health.
Jessie Haas has written over 40 books. She has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster VT for 36 years.
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