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Deforestation: The Furniture Industry's Open Secret

Deforestation: The Furniture Industry's Open Secret

Furniture manufacturing is a major driver of global deforestation, which has significant consequences for our global environment and quality of life. The global rate of deforestation is estimated at 10 million hectares a year, and our planet has already lost around a third of its total forest cover. Furniture production is the world’s third-largest consumer of wood and its demand for raw lumber is accelerating deforestation across the globe. It is why deforestation has been called the “biggest issue in the furniture industry.”

The impacts of deforestation are substantial. Scholars find that deforestation reduces biodiversity by destroying habitats; disrupts weather patterns and water cycles; increases desertification that induces crop failures; degrades soil and water quality; and contributes to the melting of polar ice caps.

Logging also has a double effect on climate change. The building of roads and other logging infrastructure and the harvesting of lumber are not only significant contributors of carbon dioxide (C02) emissions, but forests also act as “giant carbon vaults” that sequester C02 that is already in the atmosphere. Deforestation compromises the capacity of forests to sequester C02 and logging releases the C02 already contained within trees and other forest vegetation. The impacts of logging on climate change are often hidden and underestimated due to inadequate regulations.

Deforestation also imposes significant economic and social costs. Losses in revenue and employment due to unsustainable forest management are estimated to be tens of billions of dollars every year. Indigenous communities are among the hardest hit by deforestation and unsustainable logging, which destroy “traditional life styles, customs and religious beliefs” in a profound act of social injustice.

The furniture industry creates a heavy demand for logging that devastates forests. In addition to using raw wood to manufacture desks, bedframes, bookshelves and other furniture, the industry also consumes trees for packaging materials such as cardboard and wooden boxes as well as wooden pallets for shipping.

The demand for wood in the furniture industry—supercharged by “fast furniture” that is intentionally more fragile and designed to be replaced—has been a key driver of deforestation in recent years. Decreases in domestic logging and wood furniture manufacturing in the United States have led to much of these activities being shifted to developing countries overseas. Major wood suppliers such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and countries in central Africa are experiencing rapid deforestation as a result of the demand for wood furniture in the United States.

Deforestation caused by the demand for new furniture is unsustainable and has unique environmental, economic, and social consequences. The pressure for low price lumber combined with high levels of corruption means that furniture demand often fuels widespread illegal logging in developing countries. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that illegal logging accounts for “15-30% of all wood traded globally.” The Union of Concerned Scientists finds that illegal loggers exploit forests through “unsustainable and unmanaged” practices that have “many long-term negative effects on the ecosystem,” including greater impacts on biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and soil quality. Illegal logging ranks as “one of the most destructive wildlife crimes.”

Illegal logging also prevents economic benefits—such as tax revenue and economic development—from reaching the communities where the lumber is harvested. Illegal logging can also foster organized crime in the forms of money laundering and the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and even people. The WWF also finds that “poor communities who are completely dependent on forests lose out to powerful interests” through exploitation, repression, and human rights violations. These are often indigenous communities that engage in more sustainable forestry management practices, and which lack the resources to enforce environmental regulations through legal action.

In recent years, IKEA has become the leading example of how furniture companies contribute to unsustainable and illicit logging. The company consumes 1% of the world’s total lumber supply every year, and has been found to illegally log from old-growth forests to keep up with the demand for their products, causing “astonishing” rates of deforestation in countries such as Russia and Romania. Old-growth forests often have higher levels of biodiversity, sequester more C02, and are more resilient to the effects of climate change than young forests. Old growth forests are also home to many indigenous communities and have unique “aesthetic, symbolic, religious, and historical” value.

While IKEA claims to harvest 50% of its lumber from sustainable forests, there is widespread doubt about whether their practices are truly sustainable. Some evidence suggests that commercial logging can never be environmentally or economically sustainable over the long term.

The furniture industry’s role in deforesting the planet highlights the importance of buying used and vintage furniture. Purchases of wood products from upcyclers and resellers such as Magpie Reclamations help reduce the demand for new furniture that drives deforestation. It is also important to buy high-quality and durable furniture as well as maintain, repair, and refinish furniture instead of buying new whenever possible. Buying furniture from local sources also reduces the amount of wood used for the packing and transportation of furniture and home décor.

Keep up to date with our Bird Blog as we cover more about how to make more sustainable choices as a furniture consumer!