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Is felling trees really sustainable?

I make things from wood. I need trees to be felled. Is felling trees really sustainable? Am I harming the planet?

The Government’s Forestry Commission Website states, “Forest loss (deforestation) is the world’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. These gases contribute significantly to climate change but by choosing wood products from sustainably managed forests, where trees are replanted as they are felled, we can help to tackle this problem. The best way to ensure that timber comes from a sustainable source is to use an independently certified supplier, or to ask suppliers whether they use certified timber.”

I buy wood, from all over the world, through a reputable supplier, who assures me that it is certified as coming from well managed forests and is therefore legally harvested and fully sustainable.

Logging Lorry

However my research shows that there are more than 50 certification standards worldwide, addressing the diversity of forest types and tenures. Globally, the two largest umbrella certification programs are:

  • PEFC TimberProgramme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

The area of forest certified worldwide is growing slowly. PEFC is the world’s largest forest certification system, with more than two-thirds of the total global certified area certified to its Sustainability Benchmarks.

But what is sustainable forest management (SFM)? A definition was developed by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE), and has since been adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It defines sustainable forest management as:

“The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems”.

In simpler terms, the concept can be described as the attainment of balance – balance between society’s increasing demands for forest products and benefits, and the preservation of forest health and diversity. This balance is critical to the survival of forests, and to the prosperity of forest-dependent communities.

Log YardFor forest managers, sustainably managing a particular forest tract means determining, in a tangible way, how to use it today to ensure similar benefits, health and productivity in the future. Forest managers must assess and integrate a wide array of sometimes conflicting factors – commercial and non-commercial values, environmental considerations, community needs, even global impact – to produce sound forest plans. In most cases, forest managers develop their forest plans in consultation with citizens, businesses, organizations and other interested parties in and around the forest tract being managed. 

Because forests and societies are in constant flux, the desired outcome of sustainable forest management is not a fixed one. What constitutes a sustainably managed forest will change over time as values held by the public change.

Although concerned mainly with large building projects, on the Wood for Good website they assert that, “The timber supply chain has some of the most impressive sustainability credentials of any product available. Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow while simultaneously providing biodiversity rich habitats for wildlife, a variety of ecosystem services and leisure spaces for local communities.”

Also that, “Timber is the only mainstream 100% renewable building material. Far from depleting natural resources, increased demand for sustainable timber increases demand for sustainable managed forest to provide it. It is a win-win situation.”

  • Over 90 per cent of the wood used in Europe comes from other European countries.
  • Only 2 per cent of the softwood used in Europe is imported from outside Europe.
  • 40 per cent of the sawn hardwood used in Europe comes from outside Europe. Some of this comes from certified sources but the rest is questionable.

So what should you do?

  1. FSC TimberFirst choice should always be reclaimed or recycled wood, especially if you’re looking for larger or older pieces.
  2. Second choice should be wood from suppliers certified by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) or the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)
  • Certified woods which are okay to use include; Alder, Ash, Beech, Birch, Cedar, Douglas Fir, Larch, Hard Maple, Oak, Pine and Walnut. (See “wood samples” in the gallery).
  • Woods to avoid are anything uncertified and particularly anything either endangered in its own right or from an endangered environment such as tropical rain forests in Central and South America  or cold Boreal forests in Canada or Russia.
  • Woods to avoid include; Teak from Borneo, Burma, Thailand and Central America, Iroko (African Teak), Brazilian woods such as Rosewood and Mahogany, Mahogany from Central and South America and Africa.


This can be a complex and difficult area, for example it should be noted that there are certified plantations in endangered tropical rainforest regions of the world. More detailed information can be found on the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) website and the Rainforest Relief website.

My advice is to stick to options 1. and 2. above and always ask where the wood comes from. If your supplier doesn’t know, walk away.

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