Why you shouldn’t be put off buying tropical hardwoods

Go back thirty or forty years and most people in the UK would not have cared about where the wood they were buying came from; they would have simply gone out and bought the wood they needed at the nearest merchant.

That, thankfully, is no longer the case, and a lot of people now genuinely have concerns about where the timber they are buying originates from, as people have become more informed and educated about their impact on the planet.

We now realise that trees and forests are essential for humans to survive and that we must take steps to preserve our forests and protect our planet. That change in attitude is in no small part due to the efforts of non-governmental environmental organisations, the most well known of which is Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has been campaigning on environmental issues since the late 1960s and now has offices in over 39 countries around the world. Although Greenpeace has done an incredible job raising awareness about climate change, deforestation, nuclear power, overfishing, commercial whaling and other worldwide environmental issues over the last five decades, one of the unintentional side effects of their deforestation campaigns has been to scare people away from using all tropical hardwoods. People don’t have to stop buying tropical hardwoods, they just need to buy it from independently certified sustainable sources instead. By buying sustainable tropical hardwoods, people don’t just do less damage to the rainforest, they in fact help the rainforest. We explain why that is the case, and how to buy sustainable hardwoods, below.

What are hardwoods?
There are two main types of timber – hardwoods and softwoods. The naming unsurprisingly tends to cause much confusion, because hardwoods are not necessarily hard, and softwoods are not necessarily soft. So, Balsa wood, for example, which is well known for being used to make model airplanes and is very light and soft, is in fact a hardwood, whereas Yew, the large trees that grow in churchyards and are very dense, heavy and durable, is in fact a softwood. Some people might think that softwoods are evergreen trees, but that is not always true either. The real difference is that softwoods are generally conifers (in the shape of a cone), and that their seeds are generally not covered, such as with a pine cone. With hardwoods on the other hand, the seeds are generally covered and therefore are protected, such as apples or acorns.

Softwoods are the oldest type of trees, but they were superseded by hardwoods. It is easier for hardwoods to multiply than it is for softwoods as they pollinate via wind, insects and animals so their seeds spread more quickly and easily. As a consequence of their biological success, hardwoods pushed softwoods out from the tropics, and therefore most trees in the tropics are now hardwoods.  

Where are the tropics?
The tropics sounds like they are one of those vaguely defined areas, and in fact they often are, with many people meaning a place with a tropical climate that ranges from warm to hot all year round and is generally moist and with lots of lush vegetation when they mention the tropics. However, the topics are a precisely defined geographical area that surround the equator, going from the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere to the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere. This makes up 40% of the Earth’s surface, 36% of the Earth’s landmass and 40% of the world’s population. This includes much of Mexico, all Central America and the Caribbean, a large part of South America (most notably Brazil), Central, East and West Africa, South East Asia, northern Australia and much of India.

Is hardwood from the tropics unsustainable?
Because the countries in the tropics tend to be developing rather than developed countries, it is easy to associate tropical hardwoods with corruption and deforestation. There is good reason for this, as a lot of illegal logging and deforestation does occur in the tropics. People know this, and therefore many people feel that they cannot and should not buy tropical hardwoods, as they think that by doing so they are, in effect, plundering the Amazon rainforest. However, that does not mean that ALL hardwood timber from the tropics is unsustainable. You can find tropical hardwood that is sustainable, and the easy way to know if it is sustainable is to find out whether it is FSC certified. If the timber is coming from an FSC source (such as an FSC forest in the Amazon), then you are in fact helping to protect that forest.

What is the FSC?
FSC stands for the Forest Stewardship Council. They are an independent, non-profit organisation that exists to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. They ensure that the wood that they certify comes from a forest that is sustainably managed, i.e. that the process of harvesting the timber does not damage its environment. Their independent certification system is recognised and used around the world.

How does the FSC make forestry sustainable?
An FSC forest has found a way of selecting and cutting trees that respects the forest and makes sure it continues to thrive; in other words, the forest is sustainably managed. Forest stewards manage the forest and the cutting down of the trees to make sure that there is no damage to the environment (including the wildlife), and that a long-term approach is taken to logging, ensuring that the forest is there for future generations of humans and animals.

When you buy timber products with the FSC logo, you are helping those few sustainable forests to be economically viable. If they continue to make money from sustainable forestry, those forest areas continue to be protected by the FSC.

What is the alternative to sustainable timber?
Sadly, the vast amount of timber that is harvested from the tropics is not sustainable. The alternative to harvesting timber sustainably is to not follow that respectful rhythm and instead to cut (or burn) as much as you can, leaving large areas of forest bare and unable to grow again in the future. With illegal and unsustainable deforestation tends to come other issues such as human rights abuses, the hunting of endangered animals, and the risk to the habitats of both indigenous peoples and wild animals.

Who are EcoChoice?
EcoChoice are specialist suppliers of certified timber products. We were formed in 2005 with the aim of promoting FSC certified hardwoods to the UK construction industry, helping customers to engage in a sustainable way with tropical forests instead of turning away from the deforestation problem. We offer products from a wide range of different timber species, including Ekki, Ipe, Cumaru and Iroko. We are passionate about supplying our clients with independently certified timber products while encouraging responsible and sustainable practices at the source level. To find out how we can help you, please call us on 0345 638 1340, email us on info@ecochoice.co.uk or for more information about our sustainable timber products, please visit our website https://ecochoice.co.uk/

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