How Sustainable Is Balau Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Balau Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Balau is a group of valuable tropical timber commonly used and traded globally. Balau tree species, alongside other tree species in the meranti group, used to dominate tropical forests in South and Southeast Asia. But high demand and lax regulation have led to decades of overexploitation. Illegal logging and unsustainable practices reduce the tree population while damaging the forests’ invaluable biodiversity. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of balau wood?

Balau wood is generally sustainable thanks to its carbon sequestration. But the decline in natural habitat, the widespread illegal logging (with its adverse impact on the ecosystems), and long transporting distances make it less sustainable than timber from local temperate forests.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Balau Wood Is

Balau wood is a sustainable material for two main reasons. The first reason is the potential for carbon sequestration from balau trees. Secondly, it is the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with balau wood. 

Conversely, tropical forest deforestation, which is partly driven by timber trade, has mounting ecological costs that we can’t ignore.   

It is important, however, to note that wood is better for the environment than plastic, providing that it is sourced from sustainably managed forests.

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 balau wood, we assess the life-cycle of balau furniture and 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.  

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life cycle of balau wood. 

The life-cycle stages of balau wood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of balau wood Growing balau trees in their native habitats is sustainable because of carbon sequestration (the carbon storage) in the trees and their rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of the rampant illegal logging and unsustainable practices.
Manufacturing of balau wood Turning balau wood into furniture or decking 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 balau wood Transporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of balau wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As balau wood furniture in the US would come from South and Southeast Asia, transporting balau wood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood.
Usage of balau wood Using balau wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of balau wood The end-of-life stage for balau wood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable balau wood for your furniture or floor. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product 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 Balau Wood

Growing balau trees in their native habitats is sustainable because of carbon sequestration (the carbon storage) in the trees and their rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of the rampant illegal logging and unsustainable practices.

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

Balau wood comes from about 40 different hardwood tree species in the meranti (or lauan) subgroup of the genus Shorea in the family Dipterocarpaceae. This subgroup contains five classes of meranti: light red meranti, dark red meranti, white meranti, yellow meranti, and balau.   

Balau timber varies significantly from species to species, regarding how they look or how hard they are. Based on timber color, the balau group is divided into yellow and red balau species, of which timber is yellow-brown and red-brown, respectively. 

The growth rate of a balau tree is typically slow. But again, the actual speed varies depending on the species and the growing conditions. 

How Sustainably Does Balau Wood Grow

The alarming issues that make harvesting balau wood less sustainable include the dwindling population of these species and the diminishing of the earth’s critical natural habitats

  • Dwindling population: The high demand for balau timber drives unsustainable and illegal logging practices in South and Southeast Asian tropical forests – the epidemic home to most balau species.

    Considering a period of 160 years (1959 to 2119 – two generations), the species is likely toexperience a decline of at least 50%

    In just two generations – or about 160 years, from 1959 to 2119 – the red balau species (Shorea inaequilateralis), for example, is estimated to experience a 50% population deduction in it’s single location in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Such a drastic reduction in two generations drives IUCN to put it on the Red List for endangered species

The population decline of many balau species results from excessive logging, slow growth (and thus slow recovery rate), and the loss of natural habitats to palm oil plantations. Reports show that 56% of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan, Borneo – home to many balau species – were cut down between 1985 and 2001 to supply global timber demand. That is an area of almost the same size as Belgium or about the US state of Maryland.

A dwindling population means sustainable harvesting of balau would require a longer felling rotation to give the forests more time to replenish. If it is not the case, harvesting is not sustainable. 

  • Eco-cost of land use: The Southeast Asian rainforests and peat swamp forests, home of the majority of balau tree species – have incredible and unmatched biodiversity

When loggers bulldoze roads into those pristine forests to cut down trees, they kill wild animals and threaten their habitat.

Cutting, killing, and displacement lead to the mass distinction of earth’s million-year-old plants and animals. The biodiversity loss, especially in old-growth rainforests, has a very high eco-cost

When balau trees are harvested from sustainably managed forests, their timber can be more sustainable than materials like wood plastic composite. This is due to carbon sequestration (carbon storage) in tree trunks and roots (as well as in timber and wood products). 

  • Carbon sequestration: As balau wood trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan. This means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a significant amount, growing as big as 200 feet with a 6 feet diameter

Where Is Balau Wood Usually Grown

Balau wood trees grow natively in South and Southeast Asia. Borneo, the largest island in Asia divided between Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, is home to many balau species. 

Their natural habitats include lowland dipterocarp forests, coastal forests, peat swamps forests, and limestone forests. 

  • The most commercially important representative of yellow balau species – Shorea laevis (or bangkirai) – can be found in lowland mix forests and hill forests.
  • The red balau species Shorea balangeran typically grows in Borneo’s peat swamp forests

Outside Southeast Asia, the Indian and Nepalese sal forests (i.e., tropical moist deciduous forests) are dominated by the red balau species Shorea robusta. 

Harvesting balau wood from natural forests can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the forests. 

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 balau wood trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. Dipterocarp trees, including balau trees, can live more than 100 years and host hundreds of insects.

Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the Borneo island that is home to balau trees, has almost 10% of the world’s tropical forests and extraordinary biodiversity. Some of the world’s most endangered mammals – the pygmy elephant, the clouded leopard, the sun bear, and the orangutan – are endemic to these forests. Large mammals like orangutans and elephants need vast areas to survive. Consequently, deforestation has a serious impact on their population.  

Scientists from the Delft University of Technology have developed an indicator for the “eco-costs of land-use,” factoring in the environmental price of biodiversity (loss) in harvesting and using wood for furniture. 

  • They calculated that such cost for a window frame made with old-growth meranti (a timber tree group including balau) – from an FSC-certified forest is 22 times higher than when the window is made with wild pine.
  • However, using meranti wood from a plantation reduces the eco-cost significantly, resulting in a reduction of the eco-cost by 11 fold

Illegal logging and unsustainable logging are rampant in Southeast Asia rainforests. For example, illegal logging happens even in Indonesian protected areas where the government bans logging to protect the endangered orangutan. According to a report from the Guardian, only four of the 300 timber concessions currently logging in West Kalimantan have written procedures regarding sustainable practices. 

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

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

Turning balau wood into furniture or decking 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 balau wood 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. 

Balau dries slowly though the rates vary between species. Timber is prone to checking and splitting but often not warping. For example, yellow balau boards of 0.5 and 1.5 inches can take 4 and 10 months to air dry, respectively

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 Balau Wood

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

As balau wood furniture in the US would come from South or Southeast Asia, transporting balau wood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood, like maple 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 Balau Wood

Using balau wood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the product life. 

Balau wood is not considered highly durable regarding decay and insect resistance; however, durability varies amongst different species. Decking made with yellow balau can last more than 40 years if used above the ground. 

When balau 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 Balau Wood

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

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

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
  2. 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.
  3. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a balau wood cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller items, 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 Balau 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 balau 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 made from balau wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. Balau wood is, however,  an imported tropical wood. It has a much higher transporting carbon footprint than hardwoods from US temperate forests. The extreme level of balau wood’s exploitation and slow replacement rate means it is best to avoid this timber. 

If you can’t find an alternative wood for your project, source plantation (or better yet) recycled balau wood with sustainability certification, such as one from the Forest Stewardship Council – FSC. It would be a much better option than timber from old-growth forests. 

Most importantly, make sure you use any balau wood furniture and decking for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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