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The right choice of furniture

Posted on 27 June, 2011 by in Environment

I was recently at the Ligna fair in Hannover, a large event that brings together the forestry industry, the furniture sector and everything related to wood, from drying kilns to biomass fuelled power stations.

It was very interesting to see very powerful (and very expensive) sawmills, de-barkers, and such things that are part and parcel of timber production or quite simply keeping a forest healthy.

In the furniture pavilion it was very sad to see how the industry is taken over by what can only called mock-wood, often a photographic image of wood printed on laminated plastic, covering a plank of reconstituted woodchip in the form of MDF or some such thing.

A thriving Spanish company exhibited its wares, glossy kitchen furniture that shone like a mirror as though it were the best Japanese lacquered wood, whereas it was just a high-tech mix of synthetic materials with an MDF core.

I wonder if the world is simply gone crazy.

Not so long ago, people thought that we would be better off resorting to synthetic materials to make furniture. The logic behind this being that the less wood we use fewer trees would be cut and there would be more forests left standing. Customers often deliberately avoided purchasing real wood thinking that it was some form of environmental vandalism.

Of course, the opposite is true. Using real wood is very good for the environment, and it is in fact necessary to combat climate change.

The most important fact about forests is that we must extract wood from them in order to keep them healthy. A typical forest can grow in terms of timber volume by about 10 to 20 per cent in a year, and it is possible to extract about 10 per cent of good-quality timber and almost as much in biomass (in the form of woodchip, which can be use to generate electricity).

When forests are looked after in this way, one can have the right spacing between trees so that they can grow bigger and healthier. Also it becomes a very efficient sink of carbon as dead trees are removed and used for timber rather than left to rot (in which case they would re-remit the CO2 they sequestered while growing).

Of course in our planet we have many more forests than we can realistically look after, and much more timber extraction potential in them than our furniture industry will ever need. When there’s no sustainable maintenance going on nature takes over and all forms of vegetation grows creating a compact jungle-like type of mess.

This is not particularly good for the trees but that’s how nature is, au naturel, so to speak.

Illegal logging is of course another story. These are typically poor and thoughtless people who destroy entire swathes of forest for their timber content or the charcoal industry, rather than selectively extracting timber in a sustainable fashion.

(Illegal loggers don’t own their land, otherwise they wouldn’t destroy it, and I feel that private ownership of forests is key to conservation and eradicating this difficult problem).

The furniture industry has many good reasons to force-feed us mock wood. It is very cheap to produce (woodchip has a negligible cost compared to solid timber) and laminated surfaces can be very strong, impermeable, easy to maintain, and –at least when they are brandnew– they can be rather attractive.

It is all very sad and in very poor taste because I am yet to see any mock-wood that ages well.

Nobody has heard of a “mock-wood antique”. These things will never exist. Even with the best technology, a mock-wood piece of furniture invariably becomes a piece of rubbish with age.

This type of mentality of consuming cheap furniture and replacing it frequently is encouraged by the big producers and it is generating mountains of rubbish.

It might be too much to ask producers to give us real furniture made of solid wood like the only acceptable option, but perhaps we consumers can change through our own choices.

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