How Sustainable Is Koa Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Koa Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Koa is a durable and beautiful hardwood from Hawaii – an exotic tropical jewel from the US forests. It is one of the most valuable woods in the world, sought after from furniture and musical instruments. However, koa forests play hugely important ecological roles in the tropical hotspot of the Pacific, so we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of koa wood?

Koa wood is a sustainable material because of koa trees’ carbon sequestration potential. This species is adaptive, grows fast, and regenerates easily, making it possible to sustain a healthy koa population. Koa timber travels shorter distances to other US states than most tropical hardwoods. 

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

Here’s How Sustainable Koa Wood Is

Koa is largely a sustainable material because of the trees’ carbon sequestration and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with koa 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 cypress wood, we assess the life-cycle of products like furniture or musical instruments. 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 koa wood. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of koa woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of koa woodGrowing koa trees is sustainable thanks to carbon sequestration during the tree’s lifespan. Also, this species can regenerate prolifically with both seeds and sprouts. Lastly, koa trees are of immense ecological importance. 
Manufacturing of koa woodTurning koa 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 koa woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of koa furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. Because koa grows in Hawaii, its timber travels shorter distances to other US states than most tropical hardwoods.
Usage of koa woodUsing koa furniture and musical instruments can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of koa woodThe end-of-life stage for koa furniture and musical instruments is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Overall, koa wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it a table or a guitar, 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 Koa Wood

Growing koa trees is sustainable thanks to carbon sequestration during the tree’s lifespan. Also, this species can regenerate prolifically with both seeds and sprouts. Lastly, koa trees are of immense ecological importance. 

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

Koa wood comes from Acacia koa trees – a hardwood species endemic to Hawaii. It is in the same genus as Australian blackwood and yarran, two valuable timber trees native to Australia. The acacia genus has about 1,200 members and belongs to the legume family.

Similar to many other acacia species, koa trees grow rapidly

In favorable conditions, koa seedlings can have an annual height increase of over 5 feet. Growth slows down to about 20 inches per year from five to 30 or 40 years of age. At 30 or 40 years old, koa trees generally stop growing higher, with the tallest trees leveling at 100 feet

How Sustainably Does Koa Wood Grow

Koa timber’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, the ease of regeneration, and the benefits koa trees bring to forests and agricultural systems that they are a part of. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As koa trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their natural life circle of about 80 to 150 years. 

    As a carbon sink, koa trees take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow big and tall (Trees store as much carbon as 50% of their dry weights.) 

    Acacia koa can reach 100 feet in height with a trunk of 5 feet in diameter.
  • Fast and adaptive growing: Koa trees can regenerate from seeds and shoots. Its seedlings can take hold in many soil types and grow rapidly in both height and diameter. 

    Koa trees produce long-lived seeds that can stay dormant for many years (up to 25 years) and regenerate after fire. 

    Besides, viable shoots sprout from the roots and stumps of koa trees. If no browsing animals are present, koa shoots grow vigorously and develop into new trees. Thanks to the vegetative regeneration from stump sprouts, it is easier and faster to reestablish koa forests after logging, providing grazing animals are kept out.
  • Ecological importance: Koa trees are a valuable component in agroforestry systems (i.e., the intentional combination of agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land-use practices).

    Acacia koa species fixes nitrogen, cycles nutrition, and recharges groundwater, enriching soils and encouraging the development of diverse understory plants, including grass, shrubs, herbs, and sometimes ferns.

    Consequently, silvopastoral systems with koa components can stay productive over a long period and prevent new forest lands from being cleared for agriculture. 

Where Is Koa Wood Usually Grown

Koa is endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago. Although koa trees are found in the wild on all the main islands (except Niihau and Kahoolawe), koa forests occur only on Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai islands. 

Koa is the second most important and widespread species in Hawaiian forests. These trees can be found in occasional pure stands but mainly grow in mixed-species forests. 

Koa is a shade-intolerant species. It dominates or co-dominates the crowns of the forests while a wide range of shrubs and herbs grow under its shade. 

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

Koa trees are crucial for the survival of many species found nowhere else on Earth but Hawaii – a biodiversity hotspot in the Pacific. Hawaii’s forests are home to over 10,000 unique species and one-third of the plants and birds on the US Endangered Species List. 

About 30% of Hawaiian threatened and endangered plant species can be found in koa forests. 

Similarly, koa forests are essential for native birds. 30 out of 35 Hawaii-native bird species can be found in koa forests

For example, the ‘akiapōlā‘au (Hemignathus munroi) uses its curved bill to extract insect larvae that bore into koa wood. The ‘ākepa (Loxops coccineus coccineus) and the ‘ōmaō (Myadestes obscurus) make nests in cavities in large, old koa trees.

The loss of koa forests, primarily through conversion to rangeland, has been a major cause of species extinction and endangerment in Hawaii. 

Though illegal and unsustainable logging practices of koa are unfortunately not non-existent, Hawaii adheres to US forestry and trade laws. Consequently, the origin of koa wood tends to be more transparent than other tropical hardwoods from conflict- and corruption-ridden countries.

Nevertheless, 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 koa 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 Koa Wood

Turning koa wood into furniture or musical instruments 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 koa 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. 

Acacia koa is easy to dry and highly stable. Koa lumber seasons well without major defects. Still, it can take two years to air dry koa lumber from green to a moisture level content of 20%. 

Using a kiln will shorten the drying time. Typically, it takes 30 days to kiln dry koa lumber of 1-inch thickness from green to a 6% or 7% moisture content

The thicker the lumber, the longer it takes. Solid plank for crafting bed posts or dining tables can take up to 6 months to dry completely. Smaller pieces of koa used as tonewood in musical instruments would dry fast. 

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. 

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

For example, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy that could replace fossil fuels. 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 Koa Wood

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

Because koa grows in Hawaii, its timber travels shorter distances to other US states than most tropical hardwoods. Other acacia timber would come from Australia, while other tropical (tonewood) options such as ebony, mahogany, or rosewood are from far-flung corners in Asia, Africa, and South America. 

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 Koa Wood

Using koa furniture and musical instruments can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 

The hardness of koa, like any wood, varies depending on the growing site, age, and type (heartwood vs. sapwood). However, koa is typically as hard as black walnut and harder than teak and maple. Furniture and musical instruments made with koa can last 20 years or more, providing proper care. 

When koa 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 Koa Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for koa wood products – furniture or musical instrument – 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 the sides of a guitar, 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 Koa 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 koa 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 with koa wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any piece of koa furniture or musical instrument 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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