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  • Writer's pictureGina Gaurisas-Wilson

Furniture and deforestation

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Furniture and deforestation. A mass-produced chair in front of logs destined for furniture
Furniture mass-production and deforestation | Image: CanStockPhoto

In my previous post, The most eco-friendly furniture you willl ever find, I talked about the effects of mass-produced furniture on global deforestation. I’m expanding the issue a little more in this post.

The high demand for new furniture in the United States (5% of total global exports; $120 billion annually) is contributing to the loss of forests not only in the United States, but also in West-Central Africa, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Chairs and tables on display at US retail stores
Furniture at US retail stores | Photos: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

Chairs and tables displayed at US retail stores
Furniture at US retail stores | Photos: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

We are losing 18.7 million acres of forest every year. Some logging is illegal, and although some is from so-called "sustainable" logging, it may not be less harmful than any other logging.

Side tables at US retail stores
Furniture at US retail stores | Photo: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

China, which cut down most of its forests by the late 1990’s, is now the largest importer of wood, some from illegal logging. In 1998 it suffered devastating consequences when the Yangtze River flooded. As a result, China established the National Forests Protection Project that restricted cutting of the few remaining natural forests and accelerated the planting of new fast-growth trees—rubber, eucalyptus and poplar—non-natives that provide no biodiversity or habitat. Wood imports now come from Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and the United States to make low-cost furniture that is shipped back to the countries of origin.

IKEA, the global Swedish retailer of flat-pack low-cost furniture, gets its wood from various Asian and European countries, and it’s known for harvesting old-growth trees (200-600 years old) from Russian virgin forests rich in biodiversity.

The giant manufacturer and retailer is the largest private landowner in Romania, which has the largest number of primeval forests left in Europe.

Only half of IKEA’s products come from certified "sustainable" forests. The furniture is not made in Sweden anymore, but in China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Russia and Poland—some of these known for harvesting timber illegally.

Deforestation is responsible for at least 10% of the world’s greenhouse emissions.

Sustainable forests—a marketing buzzword?

Are forests that are managed to be sustainable better than the uncontrolled logging in the past? "Sustainable" makes consumers feel good about buying furniture that came from a well-managed forest. Selective logging is a more appropriate word.

The word, sustainable, is often used but not often defined. The definition I like is from the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987): “A sustainable society is one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I’d also add some consideration for the survival of all the other species that we share this world with. I don’t think most current forestry practices, even the good ones, qualify.

According to biologist and author George Wuerthner, current sustainable practices remove half of the genetic diversity of the forest floor that contains rare genes to fight disease, drought, and insect attacks. Logging requires building roads, which create soil erosion and sedimentation. Then, herbicides are sprayed on these roads to control weeds, and more herbicides are sprayed on the ground after old trees are logged and new ones are planted. There’s little biodiversity left in these “sustainable” forests.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), is the most reputable non-profit organization that certifies sustainable forests around the world but has had significant challenges to the accuracy and efficacy of its work: FSC-Watch, Yale Environment 360, and Environmental Investigation Agency. In light of the remote locations of logging and the corrupt and often violent world of resource extraction, it’s not surprising that a very complicated certification process that involves local third-party “certifying bodies,” which are paid by the timber interests they are certifying, is not reliable. Compliance with chain-of-custody tracing and forest management standards does not seem to be assurable, even with a second level of auditing—too far away and too much money involved.

Undisturbed forest
Undisturbed forest | Photo: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

Logging destroys or fragments forests that are vital to wildlife

Forests provide habitat, food and a place to breed. Cutting down forests displaces animals and fragments their habitat, and when they have nowhere to go they get closer to humans, creating a conflict that often ends tragically. Some species are driven closer to extinction when their fragile habitat is destroyed.

Logging affects the basic needs of local communities

It affects water quality. Streams used for cooking and drinking are contaminated, affecting people’s health. Forests protect aquatic systems, and logging changes the hydrology and biology of watersheds. Fertilizer and pesticides from the same logging operations also contribute to water pollution.

Villagers are promised improvements to their livelihood by leasing the land to logging companies. Only later do they realize that hunting and foraging for food in the forest are no longer options for the villagers.

The effects of deforestation impact us all. It’s a global tragedy. People and animals lose habitat, the soil erodes, the air gets drier, and the planet gets warmer. We all lose.

Dry and cracked soil
Dry soil where once trees stood | Photo: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

As of 2020, Worldometers lists the current human population is over 7.7 billion and growing at an alarming rate of 82 million people per year.

The demand for furniture, construction, and land for agriculture is booming to the point that it is unsustainable.

Trevor Fuller, ecologist and professor at the University of California in LA was the co-author of a study linking China and the United States to deforestation in Africa. He suggests seeking furniture made from bamboo or recycled wood. Look for the certificate of approval by the Forest Stewardship Council showing wood origin from legal and “sustainable” forests, but keep in mind that certification may not always be trustworthy (see above).

Reusing old furniture is truly eco-friendly because it saves trees.

Regardless of the source of the wood, there are environmental costs in sourcing, manufacturing and transporting new furniture---my previous blog explains this more.

Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional to do it for you, rescue an old piece of furniture and make it your own. It can be transformed to fit your taste and budget. Here are some before and after examples of restyled furniture.

Undisturbed forest in the morning
Undisturbed forest | Photo: Gina Gaurisas-Wilson

Can we change our consumption behavior by being more responsible with our purchasing and use? When you do have to buy new, choose better quality products that may cost a little more but will last a lot longer.

Thanks for reading.

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