How Sustainable Is Ebony Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Ebony Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Ebony is favored by many furniture and musical instrument makers because of its unique colors, ranging from very dark to jet-black. Its density and hardness are other reasons for the wood’s popularity. However, high demand for this valuable hardwood drives illegal logging and overexploitation in tropical forests, causing great biodiversity loss. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made with ebony wood?

Ebony wood is generally a sustainable wood thanks to its carbon sequestration and storage. However, the high ecological cost of tropical forest deforestation due to logging and the long transporting distances make this tropical timber less sustainable than timber from local, temperate forests.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Ebony Wood Is

Ebony is a type of hardwood desired for furniture and musical instrument projects that call for hardiness and a nice dark color. Unfortunately, some ebony species are endangered, making it, in some cases, unsustainable and illegal to trade their wood. Still, it is important to note that wood is better for the environment than plastic, especially when 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 ebony wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like a table inlay or piano black keys. 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 ebony woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of ebony woodGrowing ebony in its native tropical forests is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of over-harvesting, illegal logging, and wood originality fraud. 
Manufacturing of ebony woodTurning ebony wood into furniture inlay or piano black keys 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 ebony woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of ebony furniture or musical instrument parts due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As ebony timber in the US could have come from places in Asia or Africa, transporting ebony products would have a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood, like Douglas Fir or maple
Usage of ebony woodUsing ebony furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of ebony woodThe end-of-life stage for ebony furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable ebony wood for projects such as a guitar fingerboard or furniture inlay. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table or a guitar, depends on many factors, especially the forest management practices and 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 Ebony Wood

Growing ebony in its native tropical forests is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, logging practices are a cause for concern because of over-harvesting, illegal logging, and wood originality fraud. 

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

Ebony trees are hardwood trees of the genus Diospyros. They are small and slow-growing tree species. For example, the East African ebony species take from 70 to 200 years to reach maturity. That is a long time, even in comparison with other slow-growing tropical hardwood trees. A planted teak tree, for example, often reaches maturity in 60 years, and a wild teak tree in around 80 to 120 years. 

How Sustainably Does Ebony Wood Grow

The alarming problem about the sustainability of harvesting ebony wood is the diminishing natural habitat, especially due to over-harvesting and illegal logging

  • Diminishing natural habitat: Exploitation and illegal logging, driven by high demand, have caused a significant decrease in forests where many ebony species grow, making the trees critically endangered or highly vulnerable. Ceylon Ebony, for example, has been exploited to the point of commercial extinction. Currently, the timber can only be bought and sold in their native land in Sri Lanka and India. Mun Ebony – another Asian species – is on IUCN Red List (for critically endangered species) due to a population reduction of over 80% in the past three generations, caused by a decline in its natural range and exploitation. 

When ebony trees are grown in sustainably managed forests, the carbon sequestration and carbon storage in tree trunks and roots (as well as in timber and wood products) contribute to its being more sustainable than materials like wood plastic composite.  

  • Carbon sequestration: As ebony trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. During their lifespan, which can be several hundred years, they act as a carbon sink. It means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. 

Where Is Ebony Wood Usually Grown

Ebony trees are native to hot climates in Asia and Africa. They often thrive in low lands in coastal regions. 

Harvesting ebony wood illegally or without proper management from natural forests results 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 ebony trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals as the fruits feed different monkeys and apes while the leaves are food for big animals like elephants

In forest communities where poverty is widespread under corrupt and unstable governments, ebony trees often fall victim to illegal logging and uncontrolled trading. For example, in the island of Madagascar – the only home to over 200 ebony species (of the 700 species recorded around the world), there is reportedly zero control over the management of precious timber like ebony or rosewood. Consequently, all ebony species from Madagascar are listed in the CITES Appendix III – a list of wildlife and plant species identified as needing international trade controls. They are also on the IUCN Red List. 

Illegal logging and over-exploitation of ebony species are alarming problems in other countries where the trees grow natively, such as Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia

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 ebony 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

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Ebony Wood

Turning ebony wood into a product, such as a furniture inlay or the black keys of a piano, 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 ebony 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. Until thoroughly dry to six to nine percent moisture content, ebony is prone to cracks and checks. The wood dries slowly: it can take several years to air dry a small log whole. Kiln drying fastens the process to a matter of weeks but risks cracking during the process. 

A significant part of the energy required for kiln-drying can come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector comes from such biomass. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Ebony Wood

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

As ebony timber in the US could have come from places in Asia or Africa, transporting ebony products would have a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood, like Douglas Fir or maple

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 Ebony Wood

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

Ebony is exceptionally dense, hard, and durable. It has high resistance to attack by termites and an incredible ability to resist any sort of rot. In terms of lifespan, products made with ebony can last a lifetime, providing they are properly cared for. 

When ebony 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 Ebony Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and musical instrument parts – 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 ebony cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity.  

With smaller items, like a guitar fingerboard, 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 Ebony 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 ebony 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 working 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. 

Because there is a high risk of illegal or over logging for ebony timber, make sure you only buy ebony furniture with an FSC or PEFC certification.

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 with ebony wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, because ebony is an imported tropical wood, it has a higher transportation carbon footprint than hardwoods from temperate forests in the US or even South America. If you decide to use ebony for any wood project, make sure to use it 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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