In search of good wood: building with sustainably sourced timber

Tall trees with long trunks and sky peeking through green canopy.
Using good wood in your new build, renovation or for that lovely piece of furniture is an important part of any environmentally and socially responsible project. But how do you go about finding sustainably sourced timber?

It goes without saying that when choosing a building material, it’s vital to consider the social and ecological impacts of its production. Timber is no exception.

Just what sustainably sourced timber is remains a topic of debate – practically, scientifically, ethically and politically. Yet there are timbers and timber products available that are from well-managed forests where the impacts of commercial growing and harvesting are minimised and their management verified.

There are many benefits to using timber as a building material; it captures and stores carbon without the embodied energy of other materials. It’s lovely to look at and can add warmth and texture to a building, room or piece of furniture. It is a naturally insulating material, offering strength and flexibility (depending on the species) and it is fairly easily recycled. A well-managed forest can also provide habitat for animals and livelihoods for local communities.

Still, logging in Australia and overseas has had significant adverse impacts on people and the environment.

The impacts of logging on our climate, biodiversity, soil erosion and water quality are well documented. Deforestation of Asia’s tropical rainforests represents around 15–18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global, regional and local changes in climate.

The biggest contribution to habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity in forests occurs when vegetation is removed, sediment is washed into waterways and roads are built. Other factors like pesticides and changed fire regimes also affect local biodiversity. These changes can disrupt the lives of flora, fauna and people who depend on the forests for survival.

Start with recycled timber

The sustainable design guide Your Home suggests sourcing building materials that have a net contribution to biodiversity. It recommends using recycled materials that can be recycled themselves at the end of their life.

Recycled timber is a good first port of call in your search for sustainable timber. However, sourcing the appropriate and right amount can be more difficult than opting for new wood.

Certified timber and timber products

Timber certification allows consumers to pay for timber that has been grown and harvested under a set of environmental and social principles. For such schemes to work, certifying bodies need to maintain their credibility through consistent, quality auditing and appropriate awarding of certification. They also need to develop consumer trust, a task that has proved challenging in the commercial landscape of forest management.

Forest and timber certification schemes, such as the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification label, are the easiest way to purchase timber products that have a better chance of being sustainably and ethically grown and harvested.

FSC

FSC certification is considered by many observers and guides, including Greenpeace’s Good Wood Guide, to be the most robust forest certification scheme. FSC sets out detailed requirements for chain of custody certified timber from the felling of a tree to the end product, whatever it might be. The scheme is based on 10 principles, including upholding Indigenous peoples’ rights; upholding community relations and workers’ rights; enhancing benefits from the forest; maintaining or restoring ecosystems; ensuring management plans, monitoring and assessments are undertaken; ensuring the maintenance of high-conservation value forests; and, managing plantations.

FSC-certified timber and timber products are becoming more common and more readily available in Australia. However, an Australian forestry operation was not certified by the scheme until 2004 and the country’s certified forests represent less than two per cent of FSC’s global certified forest area. Australian-grown FSC-certified hardwoods can be more difficult to find, but these products are available.

Other certifications

There is a range of other certifying bodies worldwide. The PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) is a large global forest certification umbrella organisation. The PEFC has a set of sustainability benchmarks that are used to endorse national forest certification schemes, such as the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS). The PEFC’s forest management principles are generally considered to be less prescriptive and stringent than the FSC’s requirements. In Australia, the AFS does not have the support of environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth.

Around the world there are many accredited certifying bodies, each vying for market share and each with their own standards and indicators measuring and monitoring ‘sustainable’ forest management. These range from industry-developed/backed certification schemes, such as PEFC, to those developed by (or with significant input from) environmental NGOs, such as FSC.

Keeping certification on track

Given this complex forest management environment in which it can be difficult to compare schemes and discern the details of their certification, research and environmental NGOs play an important role in ensuring sustainable forestry meets consumer expectations about ‘good’ wood.

A 2013 paper reviewing current knowledge about the impacts of forest certification by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) argues that there needs to be more critical evaluation of the impacts of forest certification.1 As each forest is managed within a complex array of ecological, socioeconomic and political parameters, it points out that it is difficult to compare forests and to assess how certification has changed their management over time. Evaluation is therefore important to ensure consumers get the social and environmental sustainability they expect of an eco label and pay for.

Environmental NGOs also play a key role in setting benchmarks for good forestry practice and as watchdogs ensuring that different certifying schemes’ maintain their standards. A quick web search will reveal that many environment groups monitor AFS and FSC logging operations around Australia and throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Greenpeace Australia campaigner Reece Turner says FSC certification is the most superior standard recognised by environmental and other civil society organisations around the world. Keeping FSC’s validity on track is important to the organisation and in recent years, the NGO and another organisation, FSC-Watch, have raised questions about the strength of the scheme’s definitions, principles and practices. “We have seen, not a relaxation of the standards so much, but we’ve certainly seen a failure at times to enforce standards and ensure that proper auditing occurs,” explains Turner. “Sometimes [FSC] really leads to fantastic outcomes for people and the environment and sometimes, unfortunately, it is not living up to expectations.” [Ed note: Visit Greenpeace International’s website to read case studies highlighting best practice forest management and exposing more controversial operations].

Where to source good wood

In this complex environment, how can you make better choices? Use recycled timbers first and foremost.If you’re using new wood, try to stick to FSC-certified where possible. Despite some controversial examples, Greenpeace and other environmental groups and observers largely agree that FSC is the most robust and reliable certification scheme – provided FSC-certified forests are continually evaluated and monitored to ensure FSC’s principles are being put into practice.

In line with this, when you choose wood products try to do some additional research. Speak to your architect or designer, research the timbers specified by your builder and try to speak directly with timber suppliers and building product producers to assess the environmental impacts of their practice. If you can, visit the forests the timber is coming from to see first-hand the impacts of forest harvesting

If you’re buying or using timber in a home renovation or new build project (even recycled), then you need to be savvy about your sources and your suppliers’ sources to ensure you make an informed choice about which timber products you use

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