Finding the Right Wood for Floors and Furniture

Written by NRDC Simple Steps .
There's nothing quite like having hardwood floors in your home, but which woods are best for you — and which do the least amount of damage to the planet? Read NRDC Simple Steps guide to find out.
Originally Published: 01/12/10



No material is more beloved for home decor than wood. But our love for the natural elegance of hardwood floors, furniture and fixtures has contributed to a loss of almost half of the world's original forest. Deforestation not only releases tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas and culprit behind global climate change, into the atmosphere, but less forest cover means less C02 is pulled from the atmosphere. Deforestation also destroys habitats, leading to a reduction in biodiversity.

The world's wood needs could be met by one fifth of the earth's forests—if these forests are managed correctly.



Nearby communities are also impacted when forestry is poorly managed. Rampant chemical use, erosion and soil runoff, and the pollution of vital watersheds can be detrimental to workers and community livelihood and health. Additionally, the land-use and tenure rights of indigenous communities are often ignored by timber companies.

Fortunately, wood doesn't have to be off limits to preserve the world's forest. According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, the world's wood needs could be met by one fifth of the earth's forests—if these forests are managed correctly. Read on to learn how to furnish your dwelling with responsibly harvested wood products.

Reclaimed Wood
The greenest way to bring the beauty of wood indoors is to choose products and lumber that are made from reclaimed wood. Recycled or reclaimed wood products are made with wood that has been recovered from demolition landfills, deconstruction projects, or even underwater. This way, pressure is taken off of standing forests while freeing up landfill space. Not all reclaimed wood, however, is a greener option. While many companies inflict minimal negative environmental effects during wood recovery, there are some who retrieve logs from lakes and rivers, which can harm freshwater ecosystems if done incorrectly. Before you purchase reclaimed wood, ask the manufacturer for specifics on where and how the wood was obtained. Products that bear a "SmartWood Rediscovered" label have been certified by the "Rediscovered Wood" initiative of the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program, which means that the wood has been recovered in a manner that is environmentally and socially sound.

Forest Stewardship Council Certified
When recycled wood isn't an option, look for products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which means the wood has come from well-managed forests. The FSC certification principles cover environmental, social and economic criteria, with certain requirements tailored to the specific needs of each regional ecosystem. The FSC is governed by representatives of environmental organizations, the forest industry and social groups, from over 60 countries around the world. Widely viewed as the most independent and credible global forest certification system, the FSC is backed by groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Rainforest Action Network. When you buy an FSC-certified product, you can find out exactly where the wood was harvested, and a report for each certified logging operation is available to the public. Try altruwood.com and columbiaforestproducts.com for FSC-certified lumber, flooring and siding.

Secondary Species
Look for products made with some lesser-known species of wood such as sweetgum, madrone, and California oak, which are readily available and, in many cases, are of equal or better quality than more popular hardwoods. Under the heading of "secondary species," these woods are often harvested so that other species, such as mahogany, can regenerate naturally. By purchasing products made with secondary species, you take pressure off of overused species, and help encourage more complex, diverse forest ecosystems instead of monoculture timber plantations. Keep in mind that not all wood on the market is from legal and non-endangered trees. Consult the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species at cites.org to confirm that you're not buying an illegally traded species and inadvertently contributing to the destruction of a dwindling resource.

Lower Wood Grades
High-grade lumber gets its rating because of it's homogenous complexion free of knots or mineral streaks long considered "defects." For many projects, these knots and marks can be preferable, adding character to a finished wood product. By choosing lower grades, you take pressure off of trees that contain a high percentage of straight-grain, knot-free wood (usually those found in old-growth forests). You also help decrease overall harvest levels, because much more timber is required to produce high-grade lumber than is needed for the same amount of low-grade end product.

Solid Woods
Pressed woods such as plywood and particleboard consist of wood strips or particles that are bonded together with formaldehyde-based glues. At room temperature, formaldehyde becomes a gas that can pollute your home's indoor air for years after purchase. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies formaldehyde gas as a probable human carcinogen, and inhaling it for long periods of time can cause flu-like symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, throat irritation, headache, fatigue, and respiratory problems. Inspect wood products carefully to be sure they're not using a deceptive wood-veneer to mask plywood or particleboard.

What do you look in your wood flooring or furniture? Share your thoughts below!


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Article reprinted with permission from NRDC Simple Steps. Be a smart shopper, have a healthy home, make your community safe with NRDC Simple Steps, the go-to source for health information you can trust, environmental news you can use.


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