Interest in wood and paper-based goods from sustainable sources and produced in a sustainable manner is growing at a rapid rate as more and more companies are participating in the world’s sustainable development goals.

In all respects, timber is an excellent substitute for other traditional and finite construction materials. Image credit: ITC-SA

In all respects, timber is an excellent substitute for other traditional and finite construction materials. Image credit: ITC-SA

Concerned consumers, retailers, investors, communities, governments, and other groups increasingly want assurances that by buying and consuming these products are making positive social and environmental contributions.

Today, organisations look beyond price, quality, availability and functionality to consider other factors in their procurement decisions including environmental (the effects that the products and/or services have on the environment) and social aspects (labour conditions, indigenous peoples’ and workers’ rights). This is known as sustainable procurement, and includes:

  • Licensing
  • Reputational risks
  • Sustainable supplies
  • Sustainable practices

Sustainable procurement can also be used to align companies with their stakeholders’ values and make organisations along the supply chain (from forest owners and producers to retailers) more resilient to changing business conditions.

Similarly, state and local governments, responsible for public procurement, are more and more concerned by sustainability issues as are civil society organisations, for example, green building councils. They are increasingly interested in developing and issuing sustainable procurement policies and guidelines to determine or influence buying decisions by public administrations and sector-specific buyers.

A sustainable choice

Forests and forest-based products (timber) have a number of features and characteristics which make them ideal products for sustainable consumption.

Climate-mitigating properties

Forests play a key role regulating the volume of climate changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They capture carbon dioxide and store it (in wood, soil and biomass). Forest products, including wood, timber and paper can store carbon dioxide for several decades. (Carbon dioxide is only released when wood burns or decomposes.)

Substitution opportunities

Wood is durable and strong. This makes it a good choice as a building material. Studies have also demonstrated that over their lifetime, wood products are associated with far lower greenhouse gas emissions than building materials including steel, concrete and aluminium. Also, when treated correctly, wood has remarkable durability and strength resistance when exposed to various tests such as fire – in fact wooden pillars have show better resistance than steel in the same structural design requirements in application under fire conditions, thus making timber a comparable substitution to conventional materials.


Wood and wood products require relatively less energy to extract and harvest than other resources. Similarly, burning biomass in the place of traditional fossil fuels releases comparatively less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while wood and cellulose yield high energy efficiency.

Timber construction also has remarkable properties with regards to insulation – retention of warmth in winter and cooling properties in summer months. Regulating building temperatures is a high contributor to energy consumption and in most cases when using conventional building methods, additional costs are incurred to add insulation cavities or thermal regulation such as panelling or ceiling insulation.

Source of income, livelihoods and poverty alleviation

Forestry represents 3% of the world’s gross economic output. Forests are a source of livelihoods and income for communities throughout the world, particularly in developing countries. Developing countries often lack the traditional resources and technology to process timber correctly and so this is also an industry for great potential for development.

Positive life-cycle assessments

Unlike other resources whose supply is finite or whose life-cycle is measured in tens of thousands or in millions of years, forests are a renewable resource with a relatively short growth cycle. As such, they have the potential to continue yielding their products and services indefinitely. In todays times, timber production has reached a point where supply can meet demand and at the same time reduce carbon emissions.

No waste by-product

The use of wood and forest-based products has the potential to generate no waste. It is possible to use the entire resource. Once the timber has been harvested, wood residues and biomass can be burned for energy, wood chips can be used for compost, spreading on fields and reduce soil water loss in crop farming, while leaves and pine needles can be composted and used for agricultural and cultivation purposes.

Tropical timbers and resource management

Tropical forests constitute the principal reserve of species and biodiversity worldwide. They are also a source of livelihoods for large numbers of people. Yet, they are among the most threatened ecosystems. Threats to tropical and sub-tropical forests include population growth, poverty and institutional failings, all of which can result in illegal logging, one of the most severe threats to these ecosystems.

Sustainable management and consumption of tropical forests and timber can actually contribute to their conservation. This in turn can contribute to the protection and survival of the communities, wildlife and biodiversity that depend upon them.

One of the most effective ways to protect a resource is by creating incentives for its conservation. In the case of tropical timber, this can be achieved by placing an economic value on the timber and trading it in the marketplace. The value must be realistic, and it must but also reflect market values applied in industrialised nations, the source of greatest demand for tropical timber and products. Returns to the local communities responsible for harvesting the wood must also be equitable.

Certification adds value to the wood being traded. Using tropical timber to generate incomes and livelihoods provides important incentives to ensure that the resource is conserved so that it can continue to yield its full range of benefits over the long term. Equally, creating an economic market value for the resource contributes in no small measure to combating illegal logging.

Source: Designing Buildings