How Sustainable Is Douglas Fir Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Douglas Fir Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Dennis Kamprad

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Douglas fir – one of the tallest trees in the North American continent – is as impressive as it can be. The trees provide food and shelter to a wide range of mammals and beautiful wood for human activities, from constructing houses to making furniture. And even though Douglas fir trees are readily available in the U.S., the loss of wildlife habitat due to logging makes us ask how sustainable it is to buy products made out of Douglas fir.

Douglas fir wood is a sustainable material thanks to trees’ carbon sequestration, carbon storage in durable furniture, and biomass energy generation from wood waste. These trees grow fast and last for a long time, making Douglas fir wood a more sustainable option than hardwoods like oak or walnut.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Douglas Fir Wood Is

Douglas fir is one of the world’s most important timber trees, growing in temperate forests in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The trees grow tall, provide plenty of beautiful wood and continue to live for a long time. The fast rate of regeneration and the carbon storage potential make it a sustainable material.

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 Douglas fir wood, we assess the life-cycle of furniture and household construction products, such as tables, flooring, or frames. 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 furniture made with Douglas fir wood. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of Douglas fir woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of Douglas fir woodGrowing douglas fir trees is sustainable thanks to its potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and its ability to reproduce quickly, sustaining the growing stock. 
Manufacturing of Douglas fir woodTurning Douglas fir wood into furniture and household construction items 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 Douglas fir wood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of black walnut furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.
Usage of Douglas fir woodUsing Douglas fir furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of Douglas fir woodThe end-of-life stage for Douglas fir furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

We can say that Douglas fir wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a shelf or a cabinet, 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 Douglas Fir Wood

Growing douglas fir trees is sustainable thanks to its potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and its ability to keep growing very tall and sustaining the lumber stock for a long time. 

What Type of Wood is Douglas Fir and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Douglas fir is classified as a softwood tree, producing seeds in open cones and staying green through the winter. Douglas fir a distinct conifer species. Despite the name, it is not a fir (or pine or spruce), but a specific conifer species producing wood that is more durable than many conifers, including hem fir, yellow pines, and Sitka spruce. 

Douglas fir trees grow at a medium rate, with height increases of 13-24 inches per year, and can keep growing until they reach an impressive height. The record for Douglas fir height is 330 feet, more than double the height of a tall black walnut tree. 

How Sustainable Does Douglas Fir Wood Grow

The reasons for Douglas fir being a sustainable material lie in the tree potential for carbon sequestration and the species’ sufficient growing stock. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As Douglas fir trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. During their long lifespan – the coastal variety of Douglas fir commonly lives longer than 500 years, with the current record set at 1400 years – they act as a carbon sink. This means that they are taking out greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot, growing as tall as 250 feet in old-growth forests and reaching five to six feet in diameter. The douglas fir variety that lives around the Rocky Mountain is generally smaller and has a shorter lifespan, yet the carbon sequestration potential is still undoubtedly significant.
  • Sufficient Growing Stock: Douglas fir trees are so widespread in the U.S. that the growing stock can sufficiently sustain the extensive harvest for its timber. This species accounts for a fifth of North America’s total softwood reserves, covering 14 million hectares of forests. It grows across the largest portion of Western North America amongst commercially used conifers. Either in nearly pure stands or as a component of mixed redwood forest type, Douglas fir thrives under a wide variety of conditions, from mild coast climate to the more severe weather of the Sierra Nevada. 

Where Is Douglas Fir Wood Usually Grown

There are two varieties of Douglas fir species in the U.S: coast Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain Douglas fir. As their names indicate, the two varieties live in distinct habitats. Their growth rates and sizes are also different. Coast Douglas fir habitat runs along the Pacific coast to central California and western Nevada. The Rocky Mountain Douglas fir is native to the inland mountains of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, ranging north from British Columbia to as south as central Mexico. 

Douglas fir provides food and shelter for many mammals, big and small. Chipmunk, mice, shrews, red squirrels, and many songbirds eat the seeds. Bears eat the sap while antelope, deer, elk, mountain goats, and mountain sheep eat the twigs and foliage. The rare northern spotted owls rely on the old-growth forests of Douglas fir for cover. One species depending on Douglas fir trees almost exclusively is the red tree vole. These tiny animals build nests in the crowns of Douglas fir trees and feed on the needles. While cutting down Douglas fir for timber doesn’t normally kill the trees, these wild (and sometimes rare) animals lose their valuable habitats. Animal replacement is a legitimate concern when it comes to sustainably managing commercially used Douglas fir. 

As Douglas fir is widespread and highly prized, it is also an attractive target for illegal logging in the Pacific Northwest national forests and parks. Poaching (or poorly managed logging) can cause many problems for forest equality and diversity. 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. 

The best way for you, as an individual, to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to ensure that the Douglas fir of your desired products is sourced sustainably from forests where animal replacement is accounted for. We will point you in the right direction with Douglas fir in a later section. 

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

Non-native to Europe, Douglas fir has been grown in increasing numbers across the continent due to its high productivity and desirable wood properties. It is the second most common non-native tree species in European forests, covering 800,000 hectares. However, there are public concerns about the detrimental effects on native ecosystems and their biodiversity.

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Douglas Fir Wood

Turning Douglas fir wood into furniture and household construction items 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 Douglas fir furniture involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. The carbon emissions here come from electricity usage. 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into furniture. Douglas fir lumber can be air-dried in stacks or dried in a temperature and humidity-controlled kiln. A large part of the energy needed for running the kiln can come from biomass fuels

In one calculation, kiln drying cross-laminated timber made with coastal Douglas fir used nearly 100% of heat energy, coming from burning wood waste. The final manufacturing steps, in this case, resulted in more than twice the emission of the drying stage, mainly due to making resin. However, offset by carbon storage in the product, cross-laminated timber made with coastal Douglas fir is still carbon-negative from a cradle-to-gate perspective.

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Douglas Fir Wood

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

As Douglas fir is distributed widely in the U.S, a piece of Douglas fir furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, providing they are both sold in the U.S. 

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. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Douglas Fir Wood

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

Douglas fir is one of the strongest Western softwood species. It also gives your furniture, window, or flooring beautiful colors: the sapwood has a light straw color while the heartwood is dark brown with a rosy cast. Though Douglas fir furniture won’t last as long as the denser hardwood furniture, you can expect 10-15 years for untreated furniture and longer if it is treated. 

When 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 as a good way of keeping the 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 Douglas Fir Wood

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

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

They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its 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 softwood framing lumber 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 a Douglas fir cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity. 

With smaller household items, like a doorknob or a small chair, 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 Douglas Fir 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 Douglas fir 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 Douglas fir wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any Douglas fir furniture 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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