When it comes to making timber sustainable – grow your own

Wood is the quintessential sustainable material, right? Well, in this modern global economy that entirely depends upon where it is grown and where it ends up being used, as the Grown In Britain campaign is keen to point out

It seems ridiculous to suggest that timber is in anyway not a sustainable material. After all, it surely represents one of the most sustainable materials known? Wood has served humanity well since the dawn of history and the ability of growing trees to capture carbon is entirely understood and respected.

It is a material whereby the actual process of farming and replacing trees itself delivers huge benefits. The process to turn raw timber into useable wood products is relatively energy efficient, and certainly not as intensive as metals or plastics, and there is definitely no issue with end of life, as untreated wood is naturally biodegradable and leaves no pollutant residue.

So where exactly is the issue?

The issue is that sustainability encompasses more than environmental considerations. It’s not just about carbon capture, energy efficiency, biodiversity and wildlife; it is equally about social and economic sustainability.

As the world has shrunk, with more and easier trade between nations which has facilitated an overpowering imperative to pursue efficiency and profit, we have become overly reliant in the UK on imported hardwoods to the detriment of our domestic hardwood industry.

This in turn has had a negative effect on our own native woodlands. Demand for British timber has been superseded by imported woods, and as a result our domestic industry has contracted, with inevitable job losses and the consequences this has for communities.

A further result of this contraction is that there has not been the investment made into making sure our woodlands are properly managed. And yet, even as the British timber industry has become dominated by imported wood, our own domestic industry still holds the ace card in many respects.

Firstly, and perhaps of most interest to designers, British timber offers superior design flexibility. Imported woods are invariably generic in both grade and available sizes. Should a designer want a particularly texturally interesting wood, or a non-standard size, there is little mechanism for passing this request back along the chain to the source.

Imported timber is very much ‘off the shelf’ in nature, yet with British timber such a mechanism is in place, and indeed local. The designer needs only to travel a few miles to a British sawmill to discuss specific requirements and often view the actual timber before purchasing. Plus, the sawmill can cut bespoke sizes if necessary.

So, where imported woods are ‘off the shelf’, it’s worth thinking of British timber as more akin to Saville Row. But moving back to the traditional view of environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, British timber offers obvious advantages with regards to the carbon footprint of its transportation. It might not be a huge reduction, but it is still significant.

With British timber it is also easier to monitor, inspect and report on the environmental and social effects of the process if the woodland and sawmill are just 50 miles away. Imported woods might carry accreditation that it comes from properly managed sources, but can we see for ourselves that there are no negative impacts to ecology or communities if the source is on another continent?

It’s true that the entire demand for wood cannot be met by the UK timber industry alone. The UK timber industry would have trouble satisfying perhaps a quarter of the demand for hardwood. Yet only 6% of hardwoods currently used in the UK are native. That leaves a great deal of scope for customers to convert to British timber and have their demands met. There is no real economic disincentive to do so, and indeed, from a national social, economic and environmental perspective there are more good reasons to buy British than there are not to.

These messages are compelling when considering how to close the sustainability gap of timber. The challenge for the UK industry is to spread these messages and reassure manufacturers, builders and designers that British timber is not only a more sustainable material than imported timber, but that the domestic industry has a lot of capacity that can be filled.

The Grown In Britain movement 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 working together much more closely and the supply chain has made great strides in developing a more consistent offer to the market in terms of information and product.

The industry is working on the development of more modern and advanced products, such as thermally modified timber products that will enable greater use of lesser used hardwoods.

Meanwhile the new Grown In Britain certification is an assurance that the wood you use comes from well-managed British woodlands. By using British wood we are protecting, valuing and supporting our own woodlands. We are not only supporting our domestic industry and safeguarding jobs, we are also helping to grow an industry that has been to a great degree negatively impacted by less sustainable imported timber, and which has successfully modernised itself to meet the modern demands of the market.

Ultimately we are working to ensure that wood as a manufacturing and construction material is truly sustainable in every sense of the word.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine