What is meant by sustainability?
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is meant by sustainability. A definition we liked describes sustainability as satisfying the needs of the present generation without negatively affecting conditions for future generations.
Although sustainability first encompassed natural and social factors, it has increasingly become associated with the environment and for humankind to reduce our impact on the natural world. There are three pillars of sustainability – economic viability, environmental protection and social equality. Organisations should place equal emphasis on each of these pillars when decision making.
Obviously, timber is a key part of sustainability. If anything springs to mind when ‘sustainability’ is mentioned, it is usually either electric cars, windfarms and deforestation! Forests act as giant lungs for the earth, essentially acting as our air conditioning system.
On average per person, we account for the consumption of one tree per year. If there were not any forest management schemes in place, we would have no forest left by this point. Although this is good, we have a long way to go before our timber consumption can ever be called sustainable.
This problem is widely acknowledged, and there are numerous independent and governmental protection schemes to reduce deforestation. In the UK and EU there is timber regulation known as UKTR and EUTR respectively which makes it a criminal offence for a timber merchant not to have a full chain of custody showing the origin of the timber. FSC and PEFC are well known independent timber certification schemes which promote sustainable forest management.
However, deforestation and forest management are not the only problems to consider when trying to specify sustainable timber. Forest Management is one, but Transport is another.
1, The Forest
Undoubtedly, sustainable forestry schemes like FSC, PEFC and UKTR have been partially successful in protecting forests for future generations. However, how can forestry ever be truly sustainable? Surely cutting down a tree is not sustainable, no matter how or when it is done? The answer is that it is a difficult balancing act. If you cut down one tree in a forest, the forest has an ability to regenerate itself. If a large tract of trees is cut down however, the forest covering that tract will never recover. That is known as slash-and-burn logging, which is what the forestry schemes aim to prevent.
Also, there is always a community which relies on the forest for income and sustenance. Logging companies which use slash-and-burn techniques usually ignore these communities caused irreversible harm. However, the forest schemes try to make these communities a key part of any forest management.
Shipping creates 17% of global C02 emissions. Most timber needs to be transported thousands of miles just to reach its destination, caused carbon emissions from the diesel-powered container ships. Although this does not directly affect deforestation, it does increase C02 emissions which is not sustainable.
Take for example Accoya. Accoya is a fantastic innovation. It offers the environmental credentials of softwood (very fast growth) and the properties of Class 1 durable hardwoods. However, Accoya is made from Radiata Pine which is grown in New Zealand. Therefore, Accoya must be transported all the way from New Zealand to the UK. This makes Accoya perfect for use in Australasia and Asia, but not so much for Europe or America. Although Accoya used in Europe is still carbon negative even accounting for the transportation, it highlights the importance of choosing a timber which is locally sourced to be truly sustainable.
In conclusion, it is important to realise that timber sustainability must include the communities that rely on and the forest and transportation distances. Preventing illegal logging is the image which first comes to mind and is the most important, but when choosing a timber try to take a holistic sustainability standpoint rather than just presuming that because it has the FSC stamp it is sustainable.