Why Rubberwood Is Not Sustainable

In Blog, Green Manufacturing by Morgan Dix

Do you want sustainable residence hall furniture that meets high environmental standards? If you do, you’ve probably come across Rubberwood in your research. It’s a popular raw material used to build residence hall furniture.

Rubberwood is referred to as an ‘environmentally farmed timber’ but that moniker is strictly a made up marketing term.

In fact many authoritative institutions–National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science–have cast strong doubt on the ‘environmental’ designation of rubberwood. Even the National Wood Flooring Association has reservations.

So here’s the question. Is rubberwood a sustainable and environmentally friendly choice for your institution? It’s a question that we get a lot here at DCI. In the final analysis, no it’s not, but let’s break it down.

Rubberwood is a species used by some furniture manufacturers in the residence hall furniture market. It’s also known as parawood, Hevea Brasiliensis and Asian Oak

When it comes to the ‘environmental’ moniker, it’s somewhat misleading and more marketing than genuine stewardship of the earth.

If sustainability is important to you in choosing your residence hall furniture, you may want to think twice about buying furniture made from H. Brasiliensis.

According to Jack Hurd, director of the The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Asia-Pacific Forest Program, rubberwood has a complicated story as far as sustainability is concerned.

Hurd explains “why you might want to steer clear of this supposedly sustainable choice.”

Specifically, here’s a short list of reasons why this asian hardwood isn’t a sustainable resource.

  • Rubberwood tree farms are displacing virgin rainforest
  • These tree farms turn diverse tropical ecosystems into monocultures
  • Furniture made from H. Brasiliensis has a large carbon footprint
  • Minimal profits are reinvested in local economies
  • Rubberwood profits support international timber companies
  • The majority of H. Brasiliensis is not FSC-COC certified

Is H. Brasiliensis A Sustainable Choice?

First, let’s back up a step. Before we expose the dirt on this tree, let’s explore why rubberwood is marketed as an environmentally farmed timber.

Using Rubberwood Extends Productive Life

During its growth cycle, rubberwood produces latex, which is tapped as a natural source of rubber. Every rubberwood tree produces latex for almost 30 years.

At the end of its productive life, the tree is harvested and used as raw material in wood furniture.

Until relatively recently, after it finished producing latex, rubberwood was left to rot and release carbon into the atmosphere. So harvesting H. Brasiliensis for furniture was an obvious way to extend the productive life of the tree and provide a source of carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change.

Rubberwood Imperils Biodiversity & Tropical Rainforests

However, the international appetite for rubberwood has exploded over the last few years. So much so that according to The Nature Conservancy and National Geographic, the ecological benefits are offset by the clearcutting of pristine virgin rainforest to make way for new plantations of H. Brasiliensis.

According to TNC, because of that increased demand, “new lands are being cleared to make way for new plantations. And in some instances, those cleared lands may include vital patches of tropical rainforest.”

Hurd says:

In the end, your best bet to ensure the sustainable pedigree of a wood product is by seeking those that are independent third-party certified. The certification scheme employed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the most widely used measure of sustainability for forest products.

A lot of our competitors give lip service to FSC, but that doesn’t mean they are certified. If your supplier can’t show you an official FSC registration mark with their associated certification number, it’s not FSC certified.

In fact, tree plantations growing popular species like H. brasiliensis have unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences on the ecosystem. The folks at the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), speaking about Rubberwood, put it in perspective here.

Because a lot of the world has decided plantations are ‘green’ (greener), people are boycotting tropical timber and choosing plantation wood. As a result, many developing nations are burning their native forests to plant imported plantation species. Many plantations, being made of single species and well-trimmed, often do not hold a variety of wildlife. They are generally more susceptible to disease and insect attack, and often to fires as well. And many plantations are NOT sustainable for years without extensive chemical support.

It gets worse. According to a recent article in National Geographic, because of the skyrocketing demand for H. brasiliensis, the proliferating tree farms are causing:

One of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history. In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people.

According to an article in Science, the popular journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this rapid and unmitigated expansion of rubber plantations could have disastrous environmental effect. Essentially, these plantations are turning land rich with biodiversity into monocultural desserts. Reporting on this, Hawaii’s prestigious East-West Center think tank writes:

“In the case of rubber, homogeneous monocultures with myriad negative environmental consequences have emerged,” they write. “Erosion has accelerated and stream sediment loads have increased where repetitive cultivation is performed on steep slopes without appropriate conservation methods; permanent conversion of hill slopes and road building have increased the risk of landslides; irrigation of cash crops in the dry season has desiccated streams; and use of pesticides and fertilizers to sustain commercial agriculture has reduced water quality.”

Rubber Plantations: A Lose-lose Scenario

A more recent analysis of the spread of rubber tree plantations was highlighted in the article “Risky Rubber Plantations: A Lose-Lost Scenario” from the University of Washington’s Conservation Magazine. According to the article:

Manufacturers make more than a billion tires every year from natural rubber, much of which comes from a plant called the para-rubber tree [H. Brasiliensis]. Rubber plantations have spread through southeast Asia, including areas rich in biodiversity. Now a new analysis suggests that this rapid growth at the expense of environmental protection may not even pay off economically. Many new plantations are located in areas ill-suited for growing rubber trees, and the sites could become even less productive with climate change.

Writing at Science Direct, the authors of the aforementioned analysis highlight four central findings and state that:

Overall, expansion into marginal areas creates potential for loss-loss scenarios: clearing of high-biodiversity value land for economically unsustainable plantations that are poorly adapted to local conditions. High demand has led to widespread conversion of marginal areas to rubber in SE Asia. 1. We estimate that 57% of plantations in continental SE Asia may not be sustainable. 2. There is widespread evidence for plantation failures, with severe economic impacts. 3. Frequently, high-biodiversity land is converted to rubber in marginal areas. 4. Current rubber planting trends thus bear a high risk of loss-loss scenarios.

Rubberwood Is Bad For The Climate

There are additional issues with using Hevea Brasiliensis. Although rubberwood is native to Brazil, it is mostly grown and harvested for commercial use in Asia.

In a May 2013 feature article from The Atlantic Monthly called “That Stink Is the Smell of Money: China’s New Rubber-Farming Dilemma,” author Chris Horton illuminates the treacherous environmental effects of rubber tree plantations.

[The] rubber industry at present is anything but sustainable. Rubber plantations sequester less carbon than natural forests and their spread has led to a substantial net release of carbon dioxide. Because after the first few years the plantations require chemical fertilizers that often contaminate nearby bodies of water, oxygen-sapping algae can bloom and kill off fish and other aquatic species. In addition, since rubber trees use more water than native vegetation or other crops, especially during the hot months of November through April, the area’s dry season is growing longer and both the number of foggy days and the amount of fog on those days is declining, affecting other agricultural production and regional food security.

And when it comes to using reclaimed rubberwood for furniture, there are more issues. Before it’s used to manufacture furniture in the US, it’s harvested and milled almost 10,000 miles away and requires significant inputs of (mostly fossil fuel) energy to ship before it ever reaches the shores of the US.

Consequently, this increases the carbon footprint of H. Brasiliensis, further offsetting any environmental benefits.

Rubberwood Isn’t American

According to the furniture makers at Thurston,

Virtually 100 percent of EFT material is imported from Asia and India — there is no domestic source for this material. ‘Asian oak’ or EFT comes from a foreign-grown rubberwood tree that must be treated with a harmful chemical before it can be used in furniture construction.

This is problematic on many levels. Social responsibility is another big component of sustainability. The rights and wages of workers in Asia don’t hold a candle to American standards.

Of course, because labor is cheap in Indonesia and China, it helps drive down the cost of this wood source. But it’s important to remember that the labor standards and working conditions are poorer as well. Cheap wood comes with a social cost.

Additionally, many of the companies that run their timber harvesting operations in Asia are international. The bulk of the profits that come from harvesting this natural resource don’t benefit the United States or local cultures.

To say nothing of the low wages, it’s unlikely that local economies are enjoying the benefits of the rubberwood boom.

Here’s the bottom line. This so called “green” option for furniture is dubious at best. It’s been well marketed as an EFT, but there are more red flags accompanying that designation than you’d find at a formula one drag race during a hail storm.

I encourage you to think twice and take time to follow up on this research before choosing furniture manufactured with H. brasiliensis.

Committing To Sustainable Furniture

Instead, there are more sustainable methods and sources of solid hardwood right here in the United States. If your concern is sustainability, consider buying from providers who harvest their timber locally and close to their mills and manufacturing plants.

So what should you look for in sustainable furniture? Because you can get wood furniture with unassailable sustainability credentials. For example, solid hardwood from the United States.

When you are choosing a furniture manufacturer for your residence hall furniture, make sure they can guarantee the following:

  • Third party certification from FSC C-O-C
  • Local sourcing and manufacturing
  • A zero-waste policy
  • Zero VOC emissions
  • A sustainability policy demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement
  • Minimal carbon footprint
  • A commitment to reclaiming and recycling old furniture
  • A 25 year guarantee

At DCI, we place the highest importance on conducting business in an environmentally, socially, and economically responsible way. We do this through our vertical integration manufacturing process.

We use only hardwood that is selectively harvested within 80 miles of our own sawmill, uniquely positioning DCI within the college residence hall furniture market. This enables us to adhere to our environmental principles because we control the entire manufacturing process—from start to finish.

Furthermore, we maintain a zero-waste policy, which means that all the byproducts from our production process are used for other purposes. Sawdust from our mills fuels the steam generator that powers our factory. Wood chips are reused for landscaping and rough woodcuts are used for pallets.

You can read our full sustainability white paper here.

So what should you do?

First, follow the advice of The Nature Conservancy. When choosing your furniture and make sure that your residence hall furniture supplier can show you their FSC license and certification number. A lot of suppliers talk a good game but without that FSC license, you can’t ensure the sustainable pedigree of your furniture. You can search directly at the FSC certification directory.

How can DCI help you reach your sustainability goals? Contact us at sales@dcifurn.com.

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To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representative, you write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.

You can learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).

Download the DCI Sustainability overview here.