What sustainable material is
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What sustainable material is

7 June 2016

Sustainability is a term which has been mis-used and mis-represented across every sector, including our own. So much so, we, AHEC, even considered abandoning the phrase altogether. Instead we have spent time reconsidering what ‘sustainability’ means for American hardwoods and how we can leverage that, through our programmes.
We believe that sustainability isn’t just about nature growing twice as many trees as those we harvest every year (although this is the reality for most American hardwood species). Sustainability has to also be about how the material is used and the impact of that use on the environment.
That’s why we’ve commissioned studies in sustainability and legality and instigated original research on the environmental Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) impacts of American hardwoods. We now have precise product specific data on a wide range of American hardwood environmental impacts. For example, on climate change, we know how much carbon is captured by the vast American forests, how much carbon is produced in its processing, manufacturing and shipping. And we now know the genuine carbon impact of nearly all the creative projects we are involved in. What is more, we’re evolving and refining the way we communicate these findings and presenting them in a way that can help educate the market. A perfect example is the recent campaign; growninseconds.org
We were really excited to see how many countries signed up to the Paris agreement to genuinely try and set long term targets for climate change. However, these targets can’t be met without significant changes to emissions in the built environment, making the knowledge and information we have been collecting on the carbon impacts of using hardwood a real opportunity for our industry.
From our experience working with leading professionals we know that architects and designers want to use sustainable materials and they want their working practices to be sustainable too. It is a default position and natural instinct for them. Understandably, they also need to be able to make a compelling business case in order to act on those instincts.
We see it as our role on behalf of our industry to help them do this and provide inspiration, information and evidence that can shape their creative process. In turn these professionals become ambassadors for the use of wood. For example, it was influential architects who coined the phrase ‘wood is the new concrete’ not the wood industries themselves. A key element of this strategy to communicate the real sustainability of American hardwoods is the American Hardwood Environmental Profiling tool, called the AHEP.
The American hardwood industry is the first sector able to provide environmental Life Cycle Data, assurance of legality and ‘growth versus harvest’ sustainability information with every container of its material. The tool we’ve created allows American hardwood exporters to create a comprehensive report for each individual consignment of product delivered to any market in the world. Simply put, this report demonstrates the legality and sustainability of the American hardwood species contained in that consignment, including quantitative data on the environmental impacts associated with delivering it, anywhere in the world. This is a huge step forward in terms of real, genuine sustainability.
There is a single issue (and species) which dominates our thoughts and informs our strategy in relation to what we promote and that is the question of oak.
Human’s historical relationship with this timber and it’s abundance in Europe is a reason why European markets are always fascinated by it. The current almost obsessive focus on European oak, almost to the exclusion of other species, has long-term implications. The predilection with a single species doesn’t just limit the choice we’re offering to our customers but also makes it difficult to achieve sustainability. Especially when we have so many other good looking and sustainable species to offer the market. If European markets are to use more hardwood, we can’t ignore the vast and renewable resource of North America which can comfortably meet any increasing demand.
On a personal note and as a wood scientist who has been involved in wood marketing my whole life I struggle to understand why markets are not embracing more species. It also perplexes me that most of the European market turns its back on one of the most abundant and sustainable oak species which is of course, American red oak. In Milan last month where we created Along the Lines of Happiness we were steaming, shaping and bending red oak in front of the international design community who were clearly excited by its look and performance.
We have a collective responsibility to promote everything that nature provides or this exciting resource cannot be truly sustainable. Using wonderful species such as maple, cherry, red oak and tulipwood we believe improves creativity, increases product options and offers a wider and more exciting choice to consumers. If we don’t do this, options for growth are limited and opportunities are lost.

 

David Venables, European Director, American Hardwood Export Council - AHEC


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