How Sustainable Is Palm Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Palm Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Palm wood comes from various tree-like species in the palm family. This large and diverse family of plants grows in abundance across the world’s tropical regions. It means palm woods can be sustainable thanks to their high availability. However, logging in tropical forests could cause great ecological damage. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of palm wood?

Palm wood is sustainable, thanks to carbon storage and carbon sequestration. As palms are abundant in tropical forests, harvesting palm wood reduces the pressure on timbers from endangered hardwood trees. Also, some palm species are cut down only when they stop bearing economically valuable fruits. 

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

Here’s How Sustainable Palm Wood Is

Palm wood is a sustainable material because of the plant’s carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made of palm 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 understand the sustainability of palm wood, we assess the life-cycle of flooring, furniture, and household items. 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 flooring, furniture, and household items made with palm wood.

The life-cycle stages of palm woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of palm woodAs they grow, palms uptake carbon dioxide, reducing its presence in the atmosphere (the main cause of climate change). Palms adapt to many habitats throughout the world’s tropical regions, providing alternatives in the wood industry to reduce pressure on rare hardwoods. Also, planting some palm species brings in more than the wood (i.e., valuable fruit crops). 
Manufacturing of palm woodTurning palm 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 palm woodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of palm furniture due to the long distances from its source and emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As palm wood typically comes from the tropics, transporting palm wood furniture would typically have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood. 
Usage of palm woodUsing palm furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of palm woodThe end-of-life stage for palm furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we will say that you can find sustainable palm wood. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular furniture or flooring 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 Palm Wood

As they grow, palms uptake carbon dioxide, reducing its presence in the atmosphere (the main cause of climate change). Palms adapt to many habitats throughout the world’s tropical regions, providing alternatives in the wood industry to reduce pressure on rare hardwoods. Also, planting some palm species brings in more than the wood (i.e., valuable fruit crops). 

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

The palm family has 190 genera and 2800 species, making it one of the largest in the monocotyledon (or monocot) group. Other widely-known families in this group are banana and bamboo

Palms, like all other monocots, are more closely related to grass than trees: the plant has only a single stem, no bark, no branches, or secondary growth. Thus, palm wood is technically neither hardwood nor softwood.

This family of plants is highly diverse, including species of various growth forms, growth rates, and lifespans

In tropical forests, some palm species are lianas (long-stemmed woody vines) while others grow like shrubs and large trees. 40% of palm species can produce tall and big stems: more than 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter at 4.26 feet (1.3 m) above the ground. Such species are defined as tree palms.

The tree palms are the source of wood in bigger boards. Still, flexible stems from climbing rattans – a large palm subfamily – are commonly used to make furniture and household items. 

Within the family, growth rates vary from slow to fast. Here are some examples of palm species and their annual growth:

  • A Carpentaria palm tree (Carpentaria acuminata) growing in the right conditions can add 6 feet a year. Such a growth rate makes this species one of the fastest-growing palms and the fastest-growing of all trees. 
  • Mexico palm (Washingtonia robusta) has a consistent growth of 4 feet annually. In comparison, the fast-growing redwood trees grow an average of 3 feet while the most-rapid-growing black cherry trees increase about 4 feet in height every year. 
  • Queen and King palms are often found with an annual growth rate of 2 feet. That is comparable to soft maple
  • Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) grows rather slowly, between 2 to 10 inches annually. 

Growing conditions, such as temperature, seasonal rainfall, are other deciding factors for the growth speed of individual palm trees. 

Some palms have a very long life spanning hundreds of years, while others live merely half a century when it comes to lifespan. 

Palm plants have been long used for food, drink and raw material. Here are some palm species of which the wood is commonly utilized for building homes and making furniture: 

How Sustainably Does Palm Wood Grow

Palm wood’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, these species’ abundance both in the wild and in plantations, and the multiple benefits of land used for growing some palm species. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As palm trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan. Some palms have very long lives, spanning a few centuries. TThe Livistona eastonii species in Australia have been recorded at 720 years of age

A long lifespan means an extended period of taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, which helps mitigate the climate crisis. 

Though palms are more closely related to grass than trees, some palm species are tall and wide, thus being defined as “trees.” 

For example, coconut palm can grow to 100 feet in height and 1.3 feet in diameter. The carbon sequestration potential of ten-year-old coconut trees is up to  28 kg per tree per year, as reported on a plantation in India. This specific fifteen-year-old plantation of nearly 70,000 acres (27,974 hectares) had sequestered 1.15 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Some palm species are grown in large plantations for their valuable fruits and oils. Once these palms are no longer productive, they will be cut down to make room for the next generation of palms. These tree trunks (the by-products of the fruit crops) provide a large quantity of sustainable material for the wood industry. 

The abundance of palm woods reduces the pressure on hardwoods from endangered tree species like rosewood, batu wood, or cocobolo wood.

  • Land use: Some palm species are highly productive, providing more than one crucial product.

    Even the notorious oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) can be grown sustainably to provide the palm oil that is essential for many industries. These trees also offer a lot of wood for building houses and making furniture.

    Some palm trees are cut down only when they stop being productive. Hence, logging makes room for more trees to grow, starting a new cycle with possible harvests for food, drinks, and more. This is the main reason why palm wood is considered sustainable.

For example, every part of a coconut palm tree can be used: 

  • Leaves: Can be used for shelter and various household items 
  • Flesh (inside the fruit): Can be consumed as food 
  • Oil: Good for cooking as well as care products 
  • Shells: Can be turned in household and handicraft items 
  • Husks: Can be pressed into board material of equal or better quality than medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
  • Flowers: Have medicinal properties 
  • Water: Make a healthy, refreshing drink 
  • Stems: Can be used to build houses and make household items 

Similarly, date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) can be used first as a food source and then build houses. 

Where Is Palm Wood Usually Grown

Most palms grow natively in the tropics, adapting to many habitats within their geographic limits. They can be found from tropical shores to high mountains. Some palm species thrive in swamps, estuaries, and lagoons, while others grow in deserts and savanna. 

Harvesting palms from natural forests can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in those 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 palms also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

Many palms are considered keystone species of tropical ecosystems because various animals depend on them for food. Here are some examples: 

  • black bear eats and disperses some palms in Florida 
  • the African elephant feeds on fruits of Borassus aethiopum and species of Hyphaene
  • dates (from date palms) are a food source for shrikes
  • fruits from several rainforest palms (Calamus and Linospadix) are digested by the bird species cassowary. 
  • wild dogs and palm civets feed on the fruits of Arenga and Caryota

Because tropical forests where palms grow naturally have extraordinary biodiversity, more so than any other types of earth’s forests, such loss has a high price. 

However, many palm species are planted for plantations. Cutting them down after the trees are no longer productive is a good way of using the plants for raw material. 

Coconut, one of the two most economically important palms, can be invasive. In places where coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) dwarfs other native plants and has high abundances, lower biodiversity has been reported, according to multiple studies. Cutting down palm trees in those places is an effort being made to increase biodiversity. 

As the palm family is diverse and large, the impact of cutting down palms for wood varies depending on their habitats and the method of harvesting. Illegal and unsustainable logging can have devastating consequences in the world’s richest rainforests, such as in the Amazon or parts of Southeast Asia. 

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 palm 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 Palm Wood

Turning palm 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 palm furniture and flooring 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 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.

The rate of drying palm woods depends on the species, the sun, and the temperatures. It could take days, or it could take weeks. 

Density is another deciding matter for the drying time. Hardwoods have annual growth rings that are similarly dense. Conversely, a typical palm stem consists of two regions with unequal density. The region around the core is larger and softer than the outer region, which often is composed of densely packed fibers.  

The energy needed to power sawing machines and kilns can come from fossil-free sources to reduce carbon emissions. 

Burning wood waste is one way to avoid using fossil fuel in this step. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass

Other fossil-free fuel options are solar power and hydropower, both of which are often plentiful in sunny and rainy tropical regions.  

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Palm Wood

Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of palm furniture, flooring, or household items, due to the long distances from its source and emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.

As palm wood comes from the tropics, transporting palm wood furniture would typically have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood, like maple, oak, or birch. However, as palm trees are grown in many regions, you can opt for palm wood sourced closer to home to reduce the carbon footprint.

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 Palm Wood

Using palm furniture and flooring can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ life. 

Palm woods like black palm or red palm (coconut wood) are reported to have high decay resistance. However, it is susceptible to insect attacks. Therefore, products made from these woods don’t tend to last for a very long time if used in weather-exposed conditions. However, when used indoors, above the ground, it is a different story.  For example,  high-density coconut boards can last for more than a decade, providing they are dry and treated properly.

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 a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher.

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Palm Wood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – flooring, furniture, and household items – 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 coconut wood deck, can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, like a piece of jewelry made with peach palm wood, 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 Palm 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 palm wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management align 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 flooring made from palm wood as long as the material comes from verified sources that follow sustainable management practices. Opt for the wood that travels the shortest distance using the greenest mode of transportation. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any palm 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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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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