Part II: Is your coffee table worth it?

by Bhavani Prakash

Sleuthing around for good wood

In Part I : How much is a tree worth? I suggested briefly that trees have a greater value when you consider them as part of a vibrant ecosystem.

As much as I love trees, practically speaking, wood is a very important material for a wide range of residential and industrial uses. It’s durable, reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable.

But because wood is so versatile, widely used, and so commonly available without much labelling, we may unwittingly be a party to much of the destructive and illegal logging that takes place especially in tropical countries.

According to Greenpeace, more than half of all logging activities in particularly vulnerable regions – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, the Russian Federation – is illegal.
- 88 percent of logging in Indonesia is against the law
- 80 percent of logging in the Brazilian Amazon violates government controls
- 80 percent of logging operations are illegal in Bolivia and 42 percent in Colombia, while in Peru, illegal logging equals 80 percent of all activities.
- in Africa, rates of illegal logging vary from 50 percent for Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea to 70 percent in Gabon and 80 percent in Liberia – where revenues from the timber industry also fueled the civil war.

Hardwood tree from rainforest

Hardwood tree from rainforest

Tropical rainforests are one of the most vulnerable of ecosystems, being cleared at the rate of 26 hectares every minute (according to Oxfam), much of it for timber and now increasingly palm oil plantations. At this rate, we may not have any large swathes of tropical forest left in 30 years time. That’s within our lifetime! Rainforests are home to half of the planet’s plants and animals. It’s no wonder that we are witnessing the largest rate of extinction of species since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

What does rainforest destruction have to do with me? “Big” environmental problems like deforestation and global warming often seem so remote and overwhelming, that individual actions may seem like a drop in the ocean. However, as part of a burgeoning humanity of 6.5 billion people, we are through our “small” everyday actions, creating these very large scale problems through all the things we buy, eat, wear and yes, deck our homes and buildings with. By the same reasoning, if each of us change what we consume to something that’s less damaging for the environment, we can make a “big” difference and make up that mighty ocean.

So we as consumers are key to discouraging illegal logging of wood or even legal logging with suspect environmental standards.

How can I help to save rainforests?

First, here’s a short one minute video worth watching about “How Rainforest Timber is Used“.

Isn’t it amazing to see how stealthily rainforest wood enters our homes? And it is not only through furniture, but also via picture frames, parquet floorings, musical instruments, toys, wall hangings, statures, salad bowls, spoons, curios – the list is endless.

What if that very chic and expensive “Indonesian teak” coffee table or the “mahogany” wardrobe may indirectly be leading to the plundering of tropical rainforests?

Buying the right kind of wood from sustainable plantations or managed forests, rather than from threatened ecosystems, is therefore critical.

The challenge is great, because unlike the various requirements for labelling of food items, for example, there is very little labelling done on wood. And there’s not a whole lot of information out there.

So we have little choice but to become “Wood Detectives” in our search for “Good Wood” :

CLUE 1 Where does my coffee table come from?

Enquire about the origin of your wood. Your antennae should stretch up if your wood comes from Brazil, Congo region of Africa, Madagascar, Phillipines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar(Burma) or any other country where tropical rainforests are located. Buying wood that comes from Myanmar means you are supporting a military with human right issues as well as a record of blatant environmental damage. Look where the wood for the finished products from China have come from. Without labelling, it may well have come illegally from Eastern Europe or Russia or tropical countries.

CLUE 2 What wood is my coffee table made from?

Know and recognise your wood, just as well as you can recognise the finished products. Friends of the Earth (FOE) have a guide to different woods, with a ranking as to whether they are critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or near threatened, which may help you choose the better wood to buy.

CLUE 3 What names should I memorise?

It’s easy to remember country names (Clue 1). If your wood doesn’t reveal the countries, and you don’t happen to carry the FOE guide (Clue 2) in your pocket, it’s a good idea to memorise a few common tropical rainforest wood names to avoid. These are:

TEAK (and Teak substitutes such SHOREA called Red, White or Yellow Meranti, Balau, Almon ), MAHOGANY, ROSEWOOD, EBONY, BRAZILWOOD, MERBAU, RAMIN, WALNUT

CLUE 4: Is the wood certified?

There are a few labelling standards, but the one that is most reputed is the Forest Stewardship Council’s standard for wood from managed forests.

When wood is illegally logged, on an average 30 trees which are not needed are also decimated in the process of harvesting that one hardwood tree. Managed forests are those that do not plunder the forest, but allow it to regenerate.

However, the fact that only 4% of all wood is FSC certified, makes it a daunting task as a consumer to find FSC certified wood. WWF has a list of tropical wood which are FSC certified with pictures of the wood to recognise at http://assets.panda.org/downloads/tropical_wood_images.pdf

Here’s a guide at  http://www.ecotimber.com/ which throws more light on sustainable wood, which certifications are suspect, and how FSC is more reliable. If you’re in the US or Canada, this is also a good place to source eco-friendly timber.

CLUE 5: How conscientious is my retailer?

Buy from suppliers who are environmentally conscious. If you know of any retailer making “green” claims, don’t take it for granted. Ask your own questions, and do your own research.

CLUE 6: What if my retailer doesn’t know?

ASK your retailer where the wood is sourced from and whether it comes from managed forests. Usually this may mean talking to the purchasing manager. If the information is not forthcoming, write to the CEO of the retail store, seeking information.

CLUE 7: What if I can’t find out?

When in doubt, don’t buy. Because of the sheer extent of illegal logging, in case of wood you can follow the rule: guilty unless proven innocent. Unless you are absolutely sure about where the wood has come from, and whether it has been certifiably obtained, abstain from your purchase. Look for other sources to buy from, or for alternatives to wood. (And yes, it would help if you wrote again to the retail store why you refuse to buy their product).

CLUE 8: Is there a better way to buy hardwood?

Buy second hand, from garage sales, classified ads, friends and neighbours disposing off their furniture, supermarket noticeboards, ebay and the like. Keep an eye out for reclaimed wood too, which is wood from old houses, torn down buildings and houses and scrap from factories. Recycling is a good idea to prevent new demand for timber. You can learn more about reclaimed wood from one company’s mission of reclaiming woods from around the world at Terramai.com 

CLUE 9: What are the “wood” alternatives to tropical rainforest wood?

Look for alternatives to tropical rainforest furniture from temperate climes, such as FSC Certified Ash, Beech, Pine, Douglas Fir, Larch from N.America, UK and Europe, and FSC Oak which also comes from Australia. They may pose a lower environmental risk.

Without the FSC certification, please be on your guard for these wood:

- Ash wood from Romania, Bulgaria, Russia are illegally logged to be sent to mainly Chinese markets

- Beech from Romania, Poland and Armenia are being decimated for markets in UAE and Italy. PEFC certification of Beech from France is not very robust

- Canadian Douglas fir which may be destructively logged if not certified and threaten the bears www.savethebear.org

-Canadian or Siberian larch(used for timber fencing) as illegal logging in Russia threatens habitats of the Siberian Tiger and the Far eastern leopard.

(Facts from www.independent.co.uk)

CLUE 10: What are the “non-wood” alternatives to wood?


Rattan, a climber palm

Rattan, a climber palm


is a climbing palm (of about 600 species) which can be harvested in 7-10 years and best of all, it requires the original forest to climb on, and actually increases the economic value of retaining forest cover. It is labour intensive and good for local employment opportunities. Hardwood species taken from the rainforest can take 60 years and permanently destroy forest cover. Wild rattan have been widely overharvested, but sustainable rattan plantations can be critical in preserving the remaining rainforests.




Bamboo, a type of grass

Bamboo, a type of grass


is a grass, harvested in 3 to 5 years. It is a tough and versatile building material and can be used for furniture, flooring, scaffolding, bridges, fences and bridges. It is a very environmentally friendly alternative to wood, provided it has not been harvested in the wrong time and place, such as where the giant pandas or West African mountain gorillas depend on it for sustenance.

Star Bamboo is a company which supplies bamboo flooring, and a wide range of products including chopping boards.



WICKER Wicker refers to the process rather than the material (which can be straw, rattan or bamboo) using either of these or a combination of these.

HEMP is often confused for the plant from which the drug, marijuana is extracted and is discouraged for large scale growing. Industrial hemp is particularly useful as a wood and paper alternative, as well as for making cloth. Read more here: www.woodconsumption.org/alts/hempfs.pdf

COCONUT timber, curios, spoons and other items made from old coconut trees. Super Timber is a company which does furniture from coconut.

BANANA FIBRE makes for lovely artefacts, lamp shades, stools and chairs.

FIBRE REINFORCED COMPOSITE is material made from discarded agricultural wastes (which either go to landfills or burnt) such as rice husks. There’s an interesting video on this again by Super Timber.

RECYCLED METALS, PLASTIC or other innovative, eco-friendly materials that are being created all the time. Some of these are designer quality and pricey, but worth checking out the concepts.

Recycled Aluminium
Emeco uses 80% recycled aluminum content to make chairs. Of the recycled aluminum, half is post consumer (soft drink cans) and half is postindustrial (manufacturing scrap). Recycled materials use less resources than from scratch.

Recycled domestic plastic waste is used to make some funky designs by COHDA

Cork Have you seen ever stools made from cork? Check out these VITRA stools.

Is your coffee table worth destroying a precious ecosystem such as the rainforest? Is your coffee table worth all this detective work? If this added effort on your part saves even a single standing tree in the rainforest, the thousands of vanishing species and life forms that thrive on it and surrounding trees, they will thank you for it.

I leave you to watch this video till the next EcoWALKing day.


Short URL: http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/?p=379

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Posted by on Feb 25 2009. Filed under Biodiversity, Consumerism, Furniture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

4 Comments for “Part II: Is your coffee table worth it?”

  1. Hi Bhavani as always… i like how detailed ur work is.. keep it up…

  2. Hi Bhavani

    Congratulations on putting up the detailed write-up. I read part of the write-up and had to stop as I was out of town. Tonight I continue with the reading. I think I will read it again. I am so happy for you that having to look after your daughter with so much care during the tip, and you did not miss the important details. Keep up the good work. I will be sending your write-up to my horti-culture volunteers who have missed this trip. Colleen.

  3. nice article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did any one know that some chinese hacker had hacked twitter yesterday again.

  4. [...] Amongst all species, this species can grow up to 85 metres, making them the tallest in S.E.Asia. You could find upto a hundred bee hives perched on the top. However, as Angie pointed out, bee hives have dramatically reduced in Malaysia. Much of that is due to illegal logging, as well as the regional haze caused by burning down rainforests. I also came across some Shorea species of trees, as I do like to see and touch the trees whose cause I like to champion http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2009/02/25/part-ii-is-your-coffee-table-worth-it/ [...]

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