Environmental Responsibility (Yep, I’m going there!)

Article - January 22, 2009

Looking back, its clear that one major recurring theme for 2008 was environmental responsibility. Not just in our normal daily activities, but in our shops as well. Many companies are feeling the pressure to “go green” and many individuals are measuring their worth by the size of their carbon footprint (not my favorite term). So its no surprise that woodworkers are becoming concerned about how their behavior impacts the environment.

In the last few months alone, I have received numerous emails dealing in one way or another with environmental issues. These emails come from well-meaning individuals who should be commended for their pro-active approach. But the same thing happens at the end of each email: I am left wishing I could provide them with more information, more statistics, and more concrete solutions. Of course there are the standard recommendations: use water-borne finishes and dyes, use recycled wood, and obtain lumber from sustainable resources.

I have two problems with these generic solutions. First, they are much easier said than done. Water-based finishes can be tricky to apply. If you’re used to the long working time of an oil-based finish, water-based finish can initially be very frustrating to work with. Furthermore, the finish appearance and durability does not yet match what we get from traditional lacquers and oil-based products (although this is improving each year). So the barrier to entry is rather large and most folks are not motivated enough to switch. Concerning the purchase of local, sustainable, or recycled lumber, in some regions this just isn’t possible. It can be difficult to track down materials and many folks would rather just head to the local lumber dealer where there are no surprises in terms of price, quality, or availability.

My second issue is one of knowledge, meaning, what is the REAL impact of me buying that single Honduran Mahogany board? If every hobbyist stopped using exotics, what would be the potential impact on the environment? What percentage of the wood from these exotic forest-clearing efforts actually goes to hobbyists and individual craftsmen, and how much goes into other areas like the flooring and cabinet industries? I am hungry for facts, not hearsay. And some of the conversations I see in forums about this topic remind me of the recent high fructose corn syrup commercials.

I really have mixed feelings on this. I am always game for helping the environment, but only when it makes sense. And some things just don’t add up. I completely understand the concept of everyone doing their part, but even if every Joe/Jane Woodworker in his/her small shop stopped using solvent-based lacquers and oil-based finishes, would that still be just a drop in the bucket when compared to all of the big companies out there spraying industrial coatings for flooring and kitchen cabinets? I guess what I want to know is this: will our efforts be rewarded with more than just a clear conscience? Or should we be focusing our attention on getting legislation passed that will affect the wood products and finishing industry at large? I don’t know the answers, I’m just posing a few questions.

I have always been the kind of person who never just took someone’s word for it. If you tell me something is bad for me, I want to know why. And when someone says we should stop using exotic lumber species because it’s hurting the environment, I want to know more information before making any major decisions. So this is pretty much a request for information from anyone who can contribute. Some of the things I would like to learn:
Statistics concerning exotic lumber sales and the impact of the small-shop woodworker. Any information you can provide about foreign logging industries and their business practices. More information on where people can buy recycled lumber. If you use recycled lumber, where do you get it? How can we make sure we are buying lumber from sustainable resources? Some guidelines would be great. Are any exotics considered “acceptable”, and if so, why?