How Sustainable Is Acacia Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Acacia Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Acacia is one of the prettiest woods out there, offering gorgeous tones and shades. The wood is also extremely versatile, suitable for a wide range of furniture projects. As some acacia species become rarer in the wild, where they provide food for many birds and mammals, we had to ask:  How sustainable is it to buy products made of acacia wood?

Acacia wood is sustainable because acacia trees capture carbon from the atmosphere, while acacia furniture works as long-lasting carbon storage. As a fast-growing and adaptive species, acacia trees enable a sustainable supply of acacia timber.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of acacia wood used for furniture and flooring. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable acacia wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Acacia Wood Is

Acacia is a great hardwood for many projects from furniture to flooring to musical instruments. There are more than 1,000 acacia species, adapting to many climates from temperate to tropical to desert, which means acacia timber is fairly accessible in most world corners. Acacia trees grow fast and can be harvested for other products besides timber, which makes acacia wood a very sustainable option.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of acacia wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like flooring or decking. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life-cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

The life-cycle stages of acacia woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of acacia woodGrowing acacia trees is sustainable because of the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and because more than one product can be harvested from the same tree. 
Manufacturing of acacia woodTurning acacia wood into furniture or flooring can have a relatively low carbon footprint when wood waste is utilized to make by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. Significant reduction in carbon emissions can also come from using fossil-free energy. 
Transporting of acacia woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of acacia furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As acacia timber in the US could have come from as far as Australia, transporting acacia products would have a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood.
Usage of acacia woodUsing acacia furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of acacia woodThe end-of-life stage for acacia furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Overall, acacia wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it a piece of furniture or musical instrument, depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing of Acacia Wood

Growing acacia trees is sustainable because of the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and because more than one product can be harvested from the same tree. 

What Type of Wood is Acacia and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Acacia wood comes from hardwood trees in the genus Acacia. Trees in the family are fast growers, potentially reaching a height of 20 to 30 feet in five years

How Sustainably Does Acacia Wood Grow

Acacia timber’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, fast and adaptive growth, and the multipurpose of acacia trees.  

  • Carbon sequestration: As acacia trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, which could be more than 200 years old. This means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow big and tall. Australian blackwood – one of the most common acacia species – can reach 100 feet in height with a trunk of 1 foot in diameter.
  • Fast and adaptive growing: Acacia trees grow fast and can take hold in almost any soil type. They do not need fertilizer and rarely need pesticides. It means acacia wood is much more available than wood from endangered tree species like teak or mahogany. Besides, these species adapt to various habitats, from coastal to sub-alpine regions and from high rainfall to arid inland areas. Consequently, acacia timber is accessible from many corners around the world. 
  • Land use: Using land to grow acacia trees can yield several products. Gum acacia, a species native to the Sudan region of Africa, produces gum arabic (a natural and versatile ingredient used in food, drinks, and chemical products). The bark of most acacia, including golden wattle and green wattle, is rich in tannin, which is used in tanning and in dyes, inks, and pharmaceuticals. The multipurpose of an acacia tree means it is more sustainable to harvest its timber.  

Where Is Acacia Wood Usually Grown

There are over 1,300 species of acacia worldwide, of which almost 1,000 species are found in Australia. They grow natively in tropical and subtropical regions across the Pacific region and Africa. Acacia trees are also found in plantations around the world, from Southeast Asia to South America. 

Harvesting acacia wood from natural forests can result in biodiversity loss. One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

Cutting down acacia trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals as the leaves and fruits feed various mammals and birds while the foliage provides shelter for wildlife. 

Illegal logging of acacia is unfortunately not non-existent. For example, poor management and corruption in various South East Asia countries make it easier for illegal loggers to cut down trees and sell them domestically or abroad. 

The only way for consumers to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with acacia at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Acacia Wood

Turning acacia wood into furniture or flooring can have a relatively low carbon footprint when wood waste is utilized to make by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. Significant reduction in carbon emissions can also come from using fossil-free energy. 

The first step of manufacturing acacia furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Sawing is an electricity-consuming step. 

The next step is to dry lumber and turn it into furniture. If a piece of lumber can be air-dried to the desired moisture content, no added energy is needed for this step. However, if a kiln is used, it requires extra energy, which could mean higher carbon emissions. For example, the timber of the popular Australian blackwood, or acacia melanoxylon, has a moderate drying rate. A 25-mm board of Australian blackwood can be air-dried to 30% moisture content in 12-20 weeks before the final kiln drying, which then takes four to five days. 

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy that could replace fossil fuels. Luckily, at least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector comes from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Acacia Wood

Transporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of acacia furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.   

Acacia furniture in the US would typically be made from either Australian Blackwood or Hawaiian koa. The latter has a shorter transporting distance but is becoming rarer in the wild due to high demand. The former, Australian Blackwood, travels a long distance and has a much higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood, like oak or pine.

The actual emission during the transporting stage depends on the type of vehicles used, the fuel they need, and the distance the wood travels. Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your wood suppliers how their products are transported to and within the US and opt for the more sustainable option. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Acacia Wood

Using acacia furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 

Acacia is highly durable: it is considered being more durable than oak, hickory, and maple. The wood is resistant to fungi and insect attacks as well as scratches. In terms of lifespan, acacia products can last for decades, especially when cared for.   

When acacia wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usage at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore, long-lasting furniture can be considered a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is then reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Acacia Wood

The end-of-life stage for acacia furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and other household projects – at the end of their life. 

They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, they’d keep their role as carbon storage. 

Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens. 

In another end-of-life scenario, products like an acacia table can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity.  

With smaller items, like a flute, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, if such products are made from wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

How Can You Buy Acacia Wood More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the acacia wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy sustainable furniture and flooring made with acacia wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, because acacia species are widely distributed, make sure you opt for the one with the shortest transportation distance. And, as a rule to most consumer products, use any acacia furniture for as long as you can, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

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