With construction applications dating back to more than 10,000 years ago, wood has proven itself an integral part of society’s development. The seemingly infinite prevalence of timber across the globe made it an affordable and accessible option for everyone. As clear-cutting techniques, illegal logging, and consumer demand for exotic tree types increased, however, the resilience of lumber as a renewable resource was challenged. Tearing down trees to meet consumer demand is never good for the planet, but as environmental awareness grows—so does the range of sustainable wood options and alternatives.
The first line of defense against unnecessary wood waste is searching for pre-used objects to reclaim and recycle. It’s like adopting an older dog from the shelter — and it usually can learn new tricks! This option is often cheaper upfront than buying fresh-cut wood and a bit more expensive or time-consuming down the road, because reclaimed wood needs extra TLC before it's ready for your home. Still, you can find amazing one-of-a-kind pieces from demolished houses, old train cars, and abandoned mills — not to mention thrift stores and online — if you’re willing to look.
The closer to your doorstep, the less carbon footprint your wood has. Yet, finding locally sourced products takes more effort than locating the nearest Home Depot. Before you purchase any lumber, make sure it has traceable origins. If not, it’s likely been cut illegally (this is more common than you’d expect). In addition to shopping locally, look for an FSC certification stamp. The Forest Stewardship Council holds businesses accountable for harvesting responsibly and preserving biodiversity by re-planting habitat-appropriate trees. Be wary of retailers who slap the word "sustainable" on lumber without the certification to back it up.
The most promising and widely applicable wood-alternative is bamboo. It grows unbelievably quickly in a range of tropical and sub-tropical climates, re-generates from its roots, and makes amazing flooring, furniture, and décor. A relatively new option for building suppliers, bamboo is gaining popularity for its sleek aesthetic, moisture-resistant characteristics, and durability.
You’ve probably pushed a pin into a cork bulletin board and unplugged a cork wine stopper, but have you ever seen a dining room table made entirely of cork? Due to its insulating, cushion-like, and fire-resistant properties, cork is quickly becoming a popular furniture and flooring alternative. Harvesting cork doesn't require cutting down the trees, which makes it more eco-friendly than traditional lumber. Note, however, that it does not perform as well in tropical climates.
If wood alternatives aren't for you, soft pinewood is an excellent option (when FSC-certified). Pine is a fast-growing tree prevalent in North America. Unlike oak, its short life span means forests can be replenished quickly and managed more responsibly. It makes for beautiful floors with lots of warmth and natural character. If you like to see the winding wood grain and imperfections, this is the material for you.
You’re familiar with the course, straight grain of ashwood if you’ve ever gripped a hockey stick or rowed a wooden boat. Because of its durability and easy-to-stain color, it is widely used in tools and furniture. Self-seeding and quick-growing, sustainable ash is a great option for your next project. Though there are some certified distributors in the U.S., Europe is the best place to source ethically harvested ashwood, which means the carbon footprint won't be as low, but you should come out with a piece that will last.
You shouldn’t ignore durability when determining the most sustainable wood for big construction projects. The same way a fast-fashion dress falls apart after a few machine washes, some softwoods won’t last as long if tasked with bearing heavy loads or not finished properly. Between the two most popular hardwood choices, maple and oak, maple reaches maturity faster and is more resistant to rot. Sustainably-harvested maple does exist, but it requires extra research.
When it comes to environmental impact, how you finish and seal your wood is a worthwhile consideration. Industry-standard finishes contain toxic chemicals and aren’t biodegradable. Both the production process and consumer application are rife with health hazards. Fortunately, eco-friendly options are readily available and include beeswax, carnauba wax, tung oil, and mineral oil. Many of these give the wood a natural finish and contain low to no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). They require more cure time than standard finishes but are worth the wait.
There is much room for improvement in the world of wood adhesives. Fossil-based glues and binders contain chemicals like formaldehyde but are hard to escape. Before these products existed, people relied on natural biopolymers made from proteins and starches. Because they don’t provide the same fortitude and water-resistance, it isn’t yet possible to abandon rough chemicals entirely. When possible, opt for wood bound with a hybrid, formaldehyde-free adhesive like DuraBind. While shopping for glue, choose a water-based, biodegradable option like PVA.
Just because a wood or wood alternative can be sustainable doesn’t mean it always is. Always check for certification and ask about the origin of your lumber before beginning your project. That said, there are a couple of tree types to always steer clear of: new mahogany and teak. Not only are these species unsustainable, harvesting them is often damaging to Latin American and Asian indigenous populations and habitat health. If you must have one of these admittedly beautiful woods, there are tons of vintage pieces out there ready for repurposing.