What is Tropical Hardwood?
Tropical hardwood refers to a category of hardwood timber species that thrive in regions near the Equator. These areas are known for their lush green rainforests and exceptional biodiversity, housing approximately 50% of the Earth’s plant and animal species.
When discussing external furniture, tropical hardwood primarily originates from forests in South America, West/Central Africa, and Southeast Asia. Several timber species fall under this category, with some common examples including Iroko, Ekki, Cumaru, and Opepe.
However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that obtaining truly sustainable hardwood is a challenging endeavour. Let’s delve into why this is the case.
Tropical hardwood possesses remarkable strength, durability, and cost-efficiency, making it an attractive choice. Over the years, its popularity has experienced fluctuations in Western markets. Initially, it was in high demand, but as awareness about deforestation grew, it faced ethical scrutiny. Recent years have seen a resurgence in its popularity due to the emergence of sustainable forestry initiatives like FSC® (Forest Stewardship Council) and the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
These certification schemes appear to provide a green light to the use of the timber we’re considering. However, it’s essential to look beyond the surface.
As the saying goes, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” In the case of tropical hardwood, its exceptional attributes come at a significant environmental and sustainability cost.
Two fundamental reasons make tropical hardwood inherently unsustainable, and no amount of certification can fully address these issues.
1. Long-Distance Shipping
For this discussion, let’s focus on timber sourced from the Congo basin and transported to the UK. However, this issue is prevalent globally. Shipping products over long distances significantly contributes to global CO2 emissions, with shipping alone responsible for 17% of such emissions. Tropical hardwood, being dense and heavy, necessitates long journeys on diesel-powered container ships, exacerbating carbon emissions.
2. Slow Growth of Tropical Hardwood
Tropical hardwood primarily originates from colossal trees that have been growing for centuries in old-growth or virgin rainforests. These rainforests are unique due to their age and house biodiversity found nowhere else. While some areas undergo replanting efforts, it will take hundreds of years for these forests to fully regenerate. Therefore, logging old-growth rainforests is among the most unsustainable forms of logging. Surprisingly, even FSC® and PEFC-certified tropical hardwood can originate from such forests.
Considering the centuries-old growth of these trees, it’s challenging to label their felling as “sustainable” when the end product’s lifespan, such as seating, typically lasts only around 50 years.
Are Certification Schemes Like FSC®, PEFC, and UKTR Sufficient?
Certification schemes like FSC® and PEFC play a vital role in safeguarding forests and the communities dependent on them. However, it’s crucial to understand that certification alone cannot make tropical hardwood truly sustainable. Other factors contribute to its unsustainability, regardless of how well-managed the forests are.
Moreover, tropical hardwood predominantly comes from less-developed countries, where environmental regulations may not be rigorously enforced. While we assume that certified timber adheres to environmental standards, documented instances of non-compliance exist.
Despite criticisms and debates about their effectiveness, these certification schemes are still more effective at protecting forests than illegal logging.
To make an informed choice, it’s essential to research and select the most suitable certification scheme for your specific needs.
What Are the Alternatives to Tropical Hardwood?
While no direct replacements for this material exist in terms of characteristics, several alternatives are equally suitable, if not better, when used thoughtfully and with an awareness of potential pitfalls.
Opting for locally grown timber or species with shorter growth periods is a more sustainable choice. Oak, for instance, is a viable alternative, grown in the UK and increasingly cost-effective. Douglas fir, though a softwood, boasts a Class 3 durability rating, making it a preferable option in terms of sustainability compared to hardwoods from so far away.
When selecting timber for your projects, consider the sustainability challenges associated with tropical hardwood. While it may be the only acceptable choice for some projects, opting for uncertified tropical hardwood carries a higher risk of being sourced illegally. An FSC® certification is preferable, given its rigorous standards, but it cannot negate the carbon emissions from long-distance transport or the impact on valuable old-growth forests. Making an informed choice is key to balancing your needs with environmental responsibility.