Ask Umbra: What kind of wood floors should I buy?
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Q. From an environmental point of view, is installing an acacia wood floor a good or bad idea? It’s from the tropics — that’s a long way for wood to travel, hence a bigger carbon footprint. It’s also hard to find from a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) source.
On the other hand, from what I read, this is a fast-growing plantation tree that improves the soil because it fixes nitrogen. It’s also more durable than many local species, so the chances my acacia floor would be replaced within the next 100 years is lower than if I go with softer local species.
So, should I get over the fact that it’s exotic and not FSC?
A. Dearest Rich,
After spending the last few hours looking at photos of rich, lustrous acacia flooring, I must say that style-wise, you’ve made a lovely choice. And as one of the hardest woods in the world, acacia also passes muster on the durability front. But there’s certainly more to consider when it comes to filling your home with this tropical timber.
The last part of your question is also the easiest, so let’s start with that. No, you should not gloss over acacia wood from a non-FSC source. The Forest Stewardship Council is a trusted, independent certification program that lends its label to products that manage forestry sustainably and protect locals’ rights. FSC isn’t perfect, but it’s our best bet for ensuring our wood floors aren’t walking all over the environment.
This is especially true for tropical hardwoods like acacia. Deforestation of the tropical rainforests remains a major issue in southeast Asia and South America, so much so that any tropical hardwood without FSC certification probably contributed to rainforest destruction, whether through straight-up logging or the razing of virgin forest to plant tree plantations (more on those in a bit). The good news is that a quick search of the FSC database confirms there is some sustainable acacia flooring to be had. The bad news is that, as you note, it’s not always easy to find.
Now Rich, say you’re able to track down certified acacia — should you then get over the fact that it’s traveling from exotic southeast Asia and Australia to your living room? This one isn’t so (forgive me) clear-cut. This report from the Union of Concerned Scientists goes into the issue of tropical hardwoods in depth, but I’ll sum up its takeaway points.
Tree plantations like the ones that produce much of our acacia are a bit of a mixed bag. In the plus column, they reduce logging pressure on pristine forests, and they’re very high yield (producing three to 10 times more wood than their natural counterparts). But these plantations are usually monocultures, with all of their attendant ills: reduced biodiversity of the forest, depleted soil quality, and vulnerability to pests. And tree plantations are particularly harmful when growers raze untouched rainforest to make way for them; the replacement tree farms do still help sequester carbon, but to a lesser degree, and the species diversity of the area plummets. One reason FSC certification is so important is that it ensures the wood product didn’t come from a clear-cut native forest (it’s much better to farm on previously disturbed lands, as some producers do).
On the other hand, there’s the argument that we should support sustainable tropic hardwood outfits because, if we don’t, that forest land will be converted to something perceived as more profitable — such as treeless agricultural fields.
Flipping back over to the con side, there’s also the carbon tax you pay on far-flung lumber in the form of carbon emissions from shipping long distances. But this isn’t crystal-clear, either, as ocean shipping is far more efficient than truck shipping — with your oceanfront location, a cargo ship from Vietnam could be competitive with lumber trucked in from New England.
You know what I’d do, Rich? Before you get too dizzy with all these variables, look into reclaimed lumber. It might not have the “positive energy and exuberant flow” of acacia, but salvaged wood from old buildings and bridges will have its own unique, historic charm — and it’ll divert materials from the landfill while reducing the need to log a living tree. And if you can reclaim said wood locally, you can kiss all those transport issues goodbye. You never know just what you’ll find on the salvage front, but I’ll bet you can ferret out some nice, durable hardwoods, too. Any decision that results in beautiful floors and happy orangutans is a good one in my book.