Whether we are environmentally minded or not, the choices we make every day as consumers can have a long-lasting impact on the planet upon which we live, particularly if the products we buy are made from resources like teak or mahogany, which are now endangered species. So how can we make sure that the impact of any furniture shopping we do, is a positive one?
Helen Yeomans, Director of RattanAndTeak.co.uk, reveals some eco-friendly options
If trees could speak, they could boast an extraordinarily long heritage in the furniture industry. Even the earliest of human civilizations forged simple chairs and tables from the branches, trunks and roots of the natural resources that grew around them; and when they developed the tools and the means to cut and shape those resources, they exploited them further in order to make their lives more comfortable, stress-free and enjoyable. Examples of early wooden furniture, including stools and tables, date as far back as the early Ancient Egyptian dynasties, around 5,000 years ago, and wood’s popularity as a furniture manufacturing material continues to this day.
No surprise really. Wood is relatively easy to transport. It can be cut, sliced, whittled, carved and sawn into so many shapes and forms, for so many uses. Just consider for a moment the number of teak, oak and pine pieces in our Outdoor Furniture Catalogue: tables, chairs, stools, benches, bar sets, swing seats, storage units, parasols, coffee tables, sun loungers, steamer chairs … even hammock frames and lazy Susans.
Strong and long-lasting
We love wooden furniture because it is strong and long-lasting, and we adore teak in particular, because it has natural properties, such as a high oil content and a dense grain, which mean that any outdoor furniture made from it can withstand the wind, rain and sun far longer than pieces made from other materials. Teak ages beautifully too, turning from a rich golden-brown colour to an elegant silvery grey.
Yes, we love wooden furniture because it is beautiful. It comes in so many shades and textures. We love running our hands along a teak table top that has been sanded until it is so smooth it feels like velvet beneath our fingertips, yet equally we love feeling its natural grain. It appeals to our sense of place within the natural world that wooden furniture blends in with the environment: how each piece of it feels unique and ties us, somehow, to nature. But it is those very same ties that are now helping to open our eyes to the dangers that irresponsible harvesting of timber - including teak - can bring.
No longer a limitless resource
As our world’s population reaches 7.3 billion, we are finally recognising that our planet cannot continue to give up its natural resources at the rate we have come to expect. We know that we can’t keep felling swathes of the Earth’s forests without restraint. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an estimated 18.7 million acres of forest is lost each year. Trees simply cannot grow fast enough to replace the numbers we are harvesting, and a shocking 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation alone.
Wood is no longer a limitless resource, and teak is now listed among the most endangered of wood species. So if we want to continue to enjoy its benefits, to keep manufacturing the furniture that we need and that we want for our homes, gardens, parks, work spaces and communities, then we have to make our supply more sustainable.
As shoppers and consumers, we have to educate ourselves and become more conscientious about what we buy. Our choices shouldn’t always be driven by what can be delivered to our door quickly or the most cheaply. When it comes to wooden furniture, cheaper options are generally a false economy anyway, not just because they are less well-made and less durable, but also because the wood is rarely sourced responsibly.
That is not to say that all eco-friendly wooden furniture is expensive. Shopping responsibly does not have to be a luxury enjoyed only by the rich. There are hand-finished reclaimed teak and sustainable furniture pieces available from Rattan and Teak, for instance, that are priced as low as £150 and many more under the £500 mark.
So if you care about the environment and want to protect the world’s forests, what should you look for when buying wooden furniture?
Search for Reclaimed Timber
Furniture that is labelled as being made from reclaimed wood has been manufactured using timber that has been used before. Essentially, it has been recycled from things like fence posts, barn doors or barrels. Much of Rattan and Teak’s reclaimed teak furniture has been recycled from old ox carts, railway sleepers and teak boats in Indonesia, where local craftspeople have used their inventiveness and their carpentry skills to treat and clean the old timbers before turning them into something new and exciting.
Reclaimed timber can also include wood that has been gathered from the forest floor: branches that have fallen from the trees naturally, or the roots and the stumps of trees that have been felled for other purposes and would otherwise have gone to waste. The Kipling Reclaimed Teak Root Bench is one fine example, where the back and side panels of the bench are formed from slices of genuinely reclaimed teak tree roots.
So in the case of Indonesia, reclaiming wood not only means that fewer trees need to be felled, which helps slow the rate of deforestation and protects the eco-system, it also provides new employment for the local craftspeople.
Reclaimed wood furniture can be beautiful too. The pieces are truly original and aesthetically pleasing, often incorporating and capitalising on the natural twists and turns, bumps and bends, of the natural wood. Others cleverly incorporate entire pieces of reclaimed goods, as in the case of the funky Whitman Wagon Wheel Bench, which sees a genuine old wagon wheel being used as a backrest, with its central bearing forming the armrest between two seats.
Reclaimed furniture can be contemporary and sophisticated too, as in Rattan and Teak’s Reclaimed Teak Bar Set, which is hand-finished with a black wash to accentuate the beauty of the wood’s natural grain.
Look for a timber that is sustainably sourced
When you are buying teak garden furniture on the high street or via online retail stores such as Rattan and Teak, look out for products that are flagged up as sustainably sourced, like our beautiful Lutyens Classic Garden Bench or our Gainsborough 150cm Sustainable Teak Round Garden Table. This means that the timber used to make the furniture has been grown in forests that are responsibly managed. Ideally, the timber will also have been carefully tracked from source to store so you can buy that piece of furniture with the confidence and the knowledge that the source wood has come from well-managed forests and/or is made from recycled materials.
Buying teak garden furniture from responsible suppliers means that you can be assured that any trees that have been harvested to make your bench, or your garden dining table or whatever it is that you are buying, will have or will be replaced or given time to regenerate naturally. Your conscience can be clear that the wood has not come from forests or parts of the world that are protected, which means that rare or endangered species are not put under further threat by your purchasing decision. You can also be certain that the wood from which your new furniture is made has not been extracted from forests that are sacred to indigenous peoples, and that its manufacturing process will not have had a negative impact on the rights of those people or their homes, culture and livelihoods.
Rather, you can be encouraged by the fact that buying responsibly sourced timber will have a positive effect on the lives of those who depend on the forests from which the wood comes. Rattan and Teak's suppliers only buy from felling companies that draw on local populations for their workforce, and who treat those people well and offer them fair recompense for the employment they undertake.
Essentially, you can buy your furniture with a clear conscience.
Every little contribution counts
We have a long path ahead of us and a lot of work to do if we are going to make a significant dent in the statistics, and reduce that figure of 18.7 million acres of forest lost annually. Yet reduce those statistics we must if we want to protect our planet, its ecosystems, and secure its resources for future generations.
Every little contribution counts. Every purchasing decision we take can make a difference, even if it’s just one teak parasol, one oak bench or one small teak chair. What we buy today does matter, and if we do our tiny part, whole cultures can change. Just look at the lowly plastic bag and the way in which our shopping habits have altered since the 5p levy was introduced. Yes, it’s annoying when you turn up at the supermarket checkout and you’ve left your shopping bag at home or in the car again, but it’s a small price to pay to save our oceans and reduce our waste.
So the next time you need a new dining suite for your conservatory, a new lounger for the poolside or a new garden bench, ask about the type of wood from which it is made. Check out what eco-friendly options there are. Use the search filters on websites to find products that are sustainable, from responsibly managed sources or labelled as ECO, eco-friendly or Reclaimed. Buy responsibly and your conscience will be clear.
You will enjoy your furniture all the more for it.