How Sustainable Is Cedar Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Cedar Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Cedar wood makes durable exterior furniture thanks to its being rot-resistant. And because of cedar’s lightweight, the energy consumption during harvesting and transportation is relatively low compared with most hardwoods and some softwoods. However, cedar trees, especially in old-growth forests, play a significant role for wild animals, birds, and insects. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of cedar wood?

Cedar wood is sustainable thanks to the trees’ carbon sequestration. Emissions from transporting cedar timber are relatively low because of its lightness and abundance in the US. Also, cedar’s high rot resistance makes it a durable option for exterior projects, which increases its sustainability. 

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

Here’s How Sustainable Cedar Wood Is

Cedar wood is a sustainable material because of the trees’ carbon sequestration and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with cedar wood. 

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 better understand the sustainability of cedar wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like flooring or furniture. 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 cedar wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of cedar wood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of cedar wood Growing cedar trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and high availability of these timbers. 
Manufacturing of cedar wood Turning cedar wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 
Transporting of cedar wood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of cedar wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As cedar wood is a local, lightweight timber, the carbon emissions of transporting cedar products would be relatively low. Cedar’s transportation footprint would likely be smaller than other local hardwoods and softwoods and imported tropical timber. 
Usage of cedar wood Using cedar furniture, decking, and musical instruments can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of cedar wood The end-of-life stage for cedar furniture, decking, and musical instruments is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that cedar wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a guitar soundboard or fence posts, 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 Cedar Wood

Growing cedar trees for timber is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential and high availability of these timbers.

What Type of Wood Is Cedar Wood and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

When it comes to cedar wood, there’s much confusion. Historically, the term “cedar” has been reserved for any trees with aromatic bark. Thus, many species of different genera and families fall under this umbrella term. Most trees are conifers, but there are some hardwood exceptions, such as the Australian Red Cedar

Commercially in the US, western red cedar, or giant arborvitae, is one of the two most commonly-used cedar woods. In scientific terms, giant arborvitae trees belong to the Thuja plicata species of the genus Thuja, the family Cupressaceae (aka Cypress). Because only trees in the Cedrus genus are considered by some as truly a cedar species, Western red cedar is, in fact, considered a “fake” cedar. 

The same goes for the other commonly used cedar timber in the US market: aromatic red cedar. It doesn’t come from the Cedrus genus but from the Juniperus genus. Aromatic red cedar is of the same Cypress family as western red cedar. However, this Juniperus virginiana species is more closely related to juniper.

Some other US native cedar timber species: 

Though “fake” cedar species belong to different genera and families, their timber shares some common straits, as with the “true” Cedrus species like Cedrus libani – Cedar of Lebanon – or Cedrus deodara – Himalayan cedar. Three important characteristics defining the sustainability of these woods are: 

  • Lightweight 
  • Rot resistance 
  • Dimensional stability 

Western red cedar has all these three straits. It is also one of the two most commercially used cedar timber in the US. Thus, in this article we mainly use data based on this Thuja plicata species. When relevant, we also use examples from aromatic red cedar

Western red cedar is an evergreen softwood species with highly variable growth rates. Because it tolerates growing in the shade, western red cedar trees are often found in the natural forests under the canopy of other conifers like Douglas Fir. There, their growth is very slow. Conversely, these trees grow faster in managed forests containing wide-spacing pure stands of western red cedar. 

According to the US Forest Service, the seedlings of western red cedar and western hemlock are the slowest-growing conifers in the northern Rocky Mountains. Annual height growth varies from less than 0.39 inches in dense stands to over 7.5 inches in thinned stands. 

In most sites in western Washington, pure stands of Thuja plicata showed a mean annual height growth of the dominants of 1.64 feet during the first 40 to 60 years

This is a slow growth rate compared with many other North American conifers. Douglas fir and most pine species have annual growth between 12 and 24 inches. Redwood and Sitka spruce trees grow even faster, adding about 3 to 5 feet every year. 

How Sustainably Does Cedar Wood Grow

Cedar trees’ sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, the growing stock, and the amount of wood. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As western red cedar trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan of over 1000 years

As a carbon sink, cedar trees pull a lot of greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow big and tall. Western red cedar, for example, can reach 200 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter. Aromatic red cedar trees have smaller trunks yet are still large trees over 100 feet in height. 

  • High availability: Thanks to the sustainably-managed stock and large tree sizes, western red cedar wood is highly available. 

The forests in North America are abundant with western red cedar trees. New trees are regularly planted to replace harvested ones, keeping the stock high. In Canada, for example, for every Western Red Cedar cut down, at least three new trees are planted.

There are about 44 billion board feet of western red cedar saw timber in the United States, plus an estimate of 8.7 billion cubic feet of growing stock

On top of a high population, western cedar trees are also very large. Each tree provides a significant amount of timber because it can grow as tall as 200 feet and as wide as 4 feet in diameter. Western red cedar trees dominate some of the most productive sites in the Rocky Mountains. They grow in stands with very high volume.

Where Is Cedar Wood Usually Grown

Western red cedar’s native range runs along the Pacific Coast of North America. These trees can be found from the southern part of the Alaska Panhandle all the way down to the redwood forest of northern California. 

The species usually grows in mixed forests with firs, hemlock, Douglas-fir, and broadleaf trees such as red alder. Occasionally, western red cedar trees are found in pure stands on very wet soils not suitable for other conifer species. 

Harvesting cedar in natural forests, especially old-growth forests, can result in loss of biodiversity regarding tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods. 

Biodiversity loss regarding tree species

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

Biodiversity loss regarding forest animals 

Cutting down cedar trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

Western red cedar provides one of the most important conifer foods for black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, and other big games

Old-growth stands of western red cedar provide hiding and thermal cover for several wildlife species, such as grizzly bears, raccoons, and skunks. Bird species such as yellow-bellied sapsuckers, hairy woodpeckers, tree swallows, chestnut-backed chickadees, and Vaux’s swifts use this species as nest trees. 

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not non-existent. 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 cedar wood 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 Cedar Wood

Turning cedar wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 

The first step of manufacturing cedar furniture, decking, and musical instruments involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Electricity is needed to run sawing machines. 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into a household item. 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.

Cedar timber has a low tendency of checking and warping. Also, the wood is dimensionally stable, so drying is relatively straightforward. It takes about two weeks to dry 2-inch thick western red cedar logs in a conventional kiln. 

A high proportion of energy (to power sawing machines and kilns) can come from renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass

In a Cradle to Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of Western red cedar products in North America, renewable energy accounted for more than 73% of the total energy used in the sawmill stage. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Cedar Wood

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

As cedar wood is a local, lightweight timber, the carbon emissions of transporting cedar products would be relatively low. Cedar’s transportation footprint would likely be smaller than other local hardwoods and softwoods and imported tropical timber, like ipe, teak mahogany, or rosewood. 

Cedar wood is the closest thing to balsa that the United States has domestically, being light and soft. Because of this nature, these timber species require less energy during both harvesting and transportation

For example, in a hypothetical situation of constructing a large commercial building, a truck fully loaded with Western red cedar without exceeding the maximum weight allowance can deliver enough material to clad 20,000 square feet of the wall surface. If the same truck is to load with fiber-cement panels, it can only carry enough material to cover 8,000 square feet. The calculation indicates that transporting emission of fiber-cement panels would be 2.5 times more than western red cedar wood. 

The actual emission during this 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 and opt for the best option. 

In a Cradle to Gate Life-Cycle Assessment of Western red cedar products in North America, the carbon footprint of the different stages to produce 1m3 decking are as follows: 

  • Timber harvesting: 11.04 kg CO2 eq
  • Timber transporting from forest to sawmill: 13.69 kg CO2 eq
  • Deck manufacturing: 6.59 kg CO2 eq

The carbon uptake during forestation is 621.74 kg CO2 eq. Consequently, the net carbon balance cradle-to-decking is negative (-590.43 kg CO2 eq). 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Cedar Wood

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

Though cedar timber is soft and low strength, it is rated as being durable thanks to resistance to decay. Thus, cedar is favored for many outdoor products, from garden decking to fence posts. Cedar decking can last 15 to 20 years and beyond with proper care. Or, hand-split western redcedar shakes will last 100 years on a roof. 

When cedar 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 Cedar Wood

The end-of-life stage for cedar wood furniture, decking, and musical instruments is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – outdoor furniture, musical instrument, and building material – 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. 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 garden chair can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity.

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

How Can You Buy Cedar 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 cedar 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 musical instruments made from cedar wood as long as the timber comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any cedar wood item for as long as you can, 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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