We investigate how to make timber more sustainable.
Isn’t wood the quintessential sustainable material? As the Grown In Britain campaign is keen to point out, in today’s modern global economy, that entirely depends on where it is grown and where it ends up being used.
It appears absurd to suggest that timber is not a sustainable material in any way. After all, isn’t it one of the most environmentally friendly materials available? Since the dawn of time, wood has served humanity well, and the ability of growing trees to capture carbon is well understood and respected.
It is a material in which the process of farming and replacing trees provides significant benefits. The process of converting raw wood into usable wood products is relatively energy efficient, and certainly not as intensive as metals or plastics, and there is no concern about end-of-life issues because untreated wood is naturally biodegradable and leaves no pollutant residue.
So, where exactly is the problem?
The problem is that sustainability entails more than just environmental concerns. It is not only about carbon sequestration, energy efficiency, biodiversity, and wildlife; it is also about social and economic sustainability.
As the world has shrunk, with more and easier trade between nations, and an overpowering imperative to pursue efficiency and profit, we have become overly reliant on imported hardwoods in the UK, to the detriment of our domestic hardwood industry.
This has had a negative impact on our native woodlands. Imported woods have surpassed demand for British timber, causing our domestic industry to contract, resulting in job losses and the consequences for communities.
As a result of this contraction, no investment has been made to ensure that our woodlands are properly managed. Nonetheless, even as imported wood has come to dominate the British timber industry, our domestic industry remains the ace card in many ways.
For starters, and perhaps most importantly for designers, British timber provides superior design flexibility. Imported woods are almost always generic in terms of grade and available sizes. If a designer wants a particularly texturally interesting wood or a non-standard size, there is little mechanism in place to pass this request back up the chain to the source.
Imported timber is very much ‘off the shelf’ in nature, whereas with British timber such a mechanism exists, and is even local. The designer only needs to travel a few miles to a British sawmill to discuss specific requirements and, in many cases, to inspect the actual timber before purchasing it. Furthermore, if necessary, the sawmill can cut bespoke sizes.
So, where imported woods are ‘off the shelf,’ consider British timber to be more akin to Saville Row. However, in terms of environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, British timber has clear advantages in terms of the carbon footprint of its transportation. It’s not a huge decrease, but it’s still significant.
If the woodland and sawmill are only 50 miles apart, it is also easier to monitor, inspect, and report on the environmental and social effects of the process. Imported woods may be certified as coming from properly managed sources, but can we see for ourselves that there are no negative effects on ecology or communities if the source is on another continent?
It is true that the UK timber industry cannot meet the entire demand for wood. The UK timber industry would struggle to meet even a quarter of the demand for hardwood. Despite this, only 6% of the hardwoods currently used in the UK are indigenous. Customers have a lot of leeway in converting to British timber and having their needs met. There are no real economic incentives to do so, and from a national social, economic, and environmental standpoint, there are more reasons to buy British than not to.
When considering how to close the timber sustainability gap, these messages are compelling. The challenge for the UK industry is to spread these messages and reassure manufacturers, builders, and designers that not only is British timber a more sustainable material than imported timber, but that the domestic industry has a lot of capacity that can be filled.
The movement Grown in Britain is working hard to spread this message and promote the UK timber industry. As a result of Grown in Britain, the UK timber trade is now much more closely cooperating, and the supply chain has made significant strides in developing a more consistent offer to the market in terms of information and product.
The industry is working to create more modern and advanced products, such as thermally modified timber products, which will allow for greater use of less commonly used hardwoods.
Meanwhile, the new Grown in Britain certification ensures that the wood you use is sourced from well-managed British woodlands. We protect, value, and support our own woodlands by using British wood. We are not only assisting our domestic industry and preserving jobs, but we are also assisting in the growth of an industry that has been greatly impacted by less sustainable imported timber, and which has successfully modernised itself to meet modern market demands.
Finally, we want to make sure that wood as a manufacturing and construction material is truly sustainable in every way.