How Sustainable Is Rosewood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Rosewood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Rosewood is one of the finest and most demanded tropical woods for high-end furniture and musical instruments. The wood is famed for its rich red color and a strong sweet smell close to the fragrance of roses. However, much damage is done to their native tropical forests and grassland when rosewood trees are illegally cut down and overexploited. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of rosewood? 

Rosewood is generally a sustainable material thanks to carbon sequestration and storage. However, illegal logging and over-exploitation of rosewood in tropical forests and grasslands have a high ecological cost. Also, rosewood products often travel long distances, making them less sustainable.

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

Here’s How Sustainable Rosewood Is

Rosewood is a sustainable material because of the rosewood trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with rosewood. However, it is important to note there is a high ecological cost regarding the rampant illegal logging and unsustainable practices in tropical forests and grassland where rosewood trees grow.

The history of rosewood is rather blackened. Because of rosewood’s popularity, especially in China, this timber has fallen victim to excessive illegal logging and trading frauds. Rosewood is the most trafficked form of flora and fauna in the world. Globally, rosewood trafficking accounts for 35 percent of wildlife trafficking.

Still, wood is better for the environment than plastic, providing that it is 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 better understand the sustainability of rosewood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like musical instruments 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 rosewood. 

The life-cycle stages of rosewood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of rosewood Growing rosewood in its native conditions (i.e., tropical forests and grasslands) is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, illegal logging and overexploitation of rosewood trees cause much ecological damage. Thus, you need to avoid buying and using any rosewood harvested in such ways. 
Manufacturing of rosewood Turning rosewood 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 rosewood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of rosewood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As rosewood in the US would have come a long way (anywhere from Central America to Southeast Asia), it would have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood. 
Usage of rosewood Using rosewood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of rosewood The end-of-life stage for rosewood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable products made from rosewood. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a cabinet or the back of 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 Rosewood

Growing rosewood in its native conditions (i.e., tropical forests and grasslands) is sustainable because of carbon sequestration and carbon storage in the tree and its rooting system. However, illegal logging and overexploitation of rosewood trees cause much ecological damage. Thus, you need to avoid buying and using any rosewood harvested in such ways. 

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

Rosewood comes from hardwood trees in the Dalbergia genus – a large genus in the Fabaceae family (i.e., the pea family). All genuine rosewoods, such as the Brazilian rosewood, Honduran rosewood, Burmese rosewood, East Indian rosewood, and more, belong to this genus. Across this Dalbergian group, all rosewood species and closely related species share very similar looks. This makes it rather difficult, even for an expert, to tell them apart purely by looking at their timber.

The growth rate of rosewood tree species varies from slow to medium across the genus and even within a species when trees are subject to different growing conditions or reach a certain age. 

  • A slow growth rate, for example, is reported with the Burmese Rosewood, or Dalbergia oliveri, species. This tree species grows natively across Southeast Asia, especially in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. 
  • Also found in Asia, the Dalbergia latifolia species, or the commonly-known East Indian Rosewood, has been reported with considerably varying growth rates. On favorable sites in Java, Indonesia, the annual increase in height is 6.5 feet (2m) for young rosewood trees in the plantation. In India, however, the growth rate is much lower as the average height of 10-year-old rosewood stands is only nearly 20 feet (6m).
  • A Dalbergia latifolia rosewood tree (growing in India) can only reach a diameter of almost 2 feet (60 cm) at the age of 240 or more.
  • In Brazilian lowland forests, rosewood trees, as reported in a study, grow slowly in the first 15 years, faster from 16 to 20 years before slowing down again. Brazilian rosewood – or Dalbergia nigra is probably the most known rosewood species in the US. 

How Sustainably Does Rosewood Grow

Living rosewood trees can mitigate global warming impact through carbon sequestration. However, because of the high demand for rosewood’s color and fragrance quality, these tree species have faced overexploitation and trafficking in most continents, countries, and forests where they grow. 

Such unsustainable harvesting practices significantly reduce the growing stock of rosewood while causing the woods and grasslands much ecological damage. Thus, rosewood is likely to be less sustainable than timber from sustainably managed temperate forests, such as FSC-certified Douglas fir or white oak.  

The alarming problem about the sustainability of harvesting rosewood is the rapid population reduction (due to overexploitation, illegal logging, and trading fraud) and these species’ slow growth. The forests and grasslands can’t regrow rosewood trees fast enough to keep up with the current rate of logging and destruction. 

  • Rapid population reduction: The high demand for rosewood, especially in China, drives unsustainable and often illegal logging practices in tropical forests and grasslands in many countries across several continents.

    For example, the population of Brazilian rosewood (i.e., Dalbergia nigra) reduced by 20% in the past three generations due to the species being overharvested and a decline in its natural range. Brazil banned rosewood export in the late 1960s due to the alarming drop in its population. This timber and finished products made of it are both listed on CITES Appendix I – a list of wood subject to the most restricted regulations. It is also listed on the IUCN Red List as (being) vulnerable.

    There was a genus-wide restriction on all Dalbergia species (and finished products made of the timber of such trees) set by CITES in 2017 to protect forests and rosewood trees. Some of the restrictions were lifted in 2019. For example, a guitar containing less than 10kg of rosewood can be sold and transported across borders without a CITES permit. However, this change does not apply to Brazilian rosewood species.

    Timbers from rosewood and related species in the Dalbergia genus share very similar looks. That leads to traffickers repeatedly moving from one country to another, replacing one rosewood species with another to meet the unquenched demand. Because these tree species have a tendency to slow growth and poor natural regeneration, the rapid reduction in rosewood population worldwide means a serious threat to the sustainability of timber. 

  • Slow growing rate: Most rosewood species grow slowly, much less productive if compared with, for example, softwood species like pine or Douglas fir. On average, it takes many decades (for a rosewood stand) to grow to a commercially viable size and centuries to reach maturity

When rosewood 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. These tree species are also good candidates for agroforestry systems. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As rosewood trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan – like 200 years in the case of some East Indian Rosewood trees in Java, Indonesia. This means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a fair amount, growing to a height of 130 feet, in the case of Brazilian Rosewood or 100 feet in the case of some Asian species (East Indian, Burmese, and Siamese). 
  • Agroforestry land usage: Rosewood trees can play a part in agroforestry systems (i.e., the intentional combination of agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land-use practices). Such sustainable food production systems are more sustainable as they tend to produce food and timber without further deforestation. For example, East Indian Rosewood – or Dalbergia latifolia, can be used to improve soil condition as it has a nitrogen-fixing ability and as a shade tree in agroforestry areas.

Where Is Rosewood Usually Grown

Rosewood tree species grow in tropical forests and grasslands around the world: South and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Africa. Below are some rosewood species and their native range:

In theory, the wide distribution of rosewood species and their similarity means that rosewood products, for example, a guitar, could be accessed from many corners of the world. However, this is not the case because of the species’ vulnerability. CITES restricts rosewood species trade within or across borders with permits and a weight cap to protect it from becoming extinct. 

Harvesting rosewood from its native environment, especially when done illegally or unsustainably, can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods. 

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 rosewood trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. For example, in Madagascar, logging has devastating consequences on the population of ruffed lemurs who nest on tall rosewood trees. Lemurs not only lose their home to loggers, sometimes they lose their own life as loggers hunt them for food while working in the woods. Lemurs and many other animals are endemic to Madagascar – an island with more generic information per surface unit than any other country in the world. Consequently, such damage is beyond the removal of rare tree species. 

Cutting down trees also reduces the resilience of the forests against natural disasters. In West Africa, over logging dries out forests and leaves them vulnerable to fires and desertification.

Illegal and overlogging of rosewood is an extremely serious problem. It is the most trafficked wildlife, far more than elephant ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales put together

These species are cut down and transported (very often illegally) all around the world to meet the demand of a few countries, especially in China. And, for example, in 2003, an estimate of 85% of the total harvest in broadleaf forests in Honduras was illegal. In many countries, rosewood trafficking is run by rebel groups, extremists, or protected by police and army forces. Sadly, the trade of this timber is too full of exploitation, fraud, and even violence. 

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 rosewood 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 Rosewood

Turning rosewood 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 rosewood 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. 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 drying property varies between different rosewood species. For example, Honduran rosewood can be air-dried, but it takes a long time, and there is a checking tendency. Sometimes, this timber species can season for 2 to 7 years before use

East Indian Rosewood dries well, but fast drying can cause splitting. It can take about 2 weeks to dry pre-sawn East Indian guitar backs in a dehumidifier. (A dehumidifier is a kiln that blows dry air across pieces of undried lumber.) Another study found that a kiln running 122ºF (50ºC) to 176ºF (80ºC) can dry East Indian rosewood logs to an average moisture content of 6% within 40 hours.

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy to replace fossil fuels. Luckily, at least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector comes from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). Other fossil-free fuel options (for running a kiln) are solar power and hydropower. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Rosewood

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

As rosewood in the US would have come a long way (anywhere from Central America to Southeast Asia), it would have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood, like maple or white oak

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 more sustainable option. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Rosewood

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

Rosewood is a durable hardwood provided that it is dried adequately. It is one of the hardest woods, with a hardness equivalent to teak. In general, timber from the Dalbergia (rosewood) genus has high resistance against rot and termite attack

In terms of lifespan, outdoor products made of rosewood, such as a table or guitar parts, can easily last six decades

When rosewood 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 Rosewood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture or musical instruments – 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
  1. 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. 
  1. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a rosewood cabinet can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller items, 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 Rosewood 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 rosewood 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. 

Even though it is possible to find FSC-certified rosewood, the fact remains that this group of timber is under extreme exploitation, much of it illegally. FSC-certified recycled rosewood of lesser exploited species would be the most sustainable option if you must use rosewood for your project. You can also opt for other woods that offer similar quality and are more environmentally friendly. 

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 rosewood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, rosewood is an imported tropical wood. It has a much higher transporting carbon footprint than hardwoods from US temperate forests. The extreme level of rosewood’s exploitation and trafficking means it is best to avoid this group of timber. 

However, recycled rosewood with a sustainability certification like FSC could be a good option if you can find another alternative wood for your project. Also, make sure you use any rosewood furniture and musical instruments for as long as possible, 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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