How Sustainable Is Tigerwood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Tigerwood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Tigerwood is the wood of choice if you want flooring with a dramatic appearance like no other wood could offer: vibrant tiger-like stripes on deep-colored background. Tigerwood is highly durable, resilient under your feet, but it feels softer and more comfortable than ipe or cumaru wood. However, some tigerwood tree species become rarer in their native tropical forests, some of which host the most diverse wildlife in the world. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made of tigerwood wood?

Tigerwood 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 tigerwood 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 tigerwood wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Tigerwood Wood Is

Tigerwood is the hardwood of choice for many projects, from flooring to furniture, because of its durability and dramatic color palettes. Several tree species provide wood of such qualities. Though not all those species are considered endangered, they natively grow in tropical forests where logging and over-logging have high eco-costs. 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 tigerwood wood, we assess the life-cycle of projects like flooring 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 mahogany wood. 

The life-cycle stages of tigerwood woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of tigerwood woodGrowing tigerwood trees is sustainable because of the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and its relatively fast-growing rate. 
Manufacturing of tigerwood woodTurning tigerwood 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. 
Transporting of tigerwood woodTransporting is a carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of tigerwood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As tigerwood furniture in the US would typically come from Central or South America, or even Africa, transporting tigerwood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood. 
Usage of tigerwood woodUsing tigerwood furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of tigerwood woodThe end-of-life stage for tigerwood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

We’ll say that it is possible to find sustainable tigerwood for your floor or furniture. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular 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 of Tigerwood

Growing tigerwood trees is sustainable because of the potential for carbon sequestration (i.e., capturing and storing carbon) and its relatively fast-growing rate. 

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

Tigerwood is a tropical hardwood from a few tropical tree species, native to Africa, South and Central America. Though these species are from different tree families, including both evergreen and deciduous plants, they are relatively fast-growing compared with many other tropical hardwood species. One African tigerwood, for example, can reach maturity within 50 years

How Sustainably Does Tigerwood Grow

Tigerwood’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration and the short duration of growth. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As tigerwood trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, averaging from 80 to 100 years. This means that they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow big and tall. For example, the tigerwood species distributing from Mexico to Brazil, often called Goncalo Alves, can reach 150 feet in height and 5 feet in trunk diameter
  • The short duration of growth: Compared to ipe – another popular tropical wood for flooring, tigerwood trees grow faster, and thus, more sustainable. Gonçalo Alves (the botanical name for tigerwood), for example, can be harvested in plantations around 35 to 45 years

Where Is Tigerwood Usually Grown

Tigerwood trees grow in various regions of Africa and Central to South America. 

The Central and South American trees that provide timber with a distinctive tiger-like appearance are commonly known as Gonçalo Alves. These are species of the Astronium genus, such as Astronium Fraxinifolium or Astronium Graveolens

The African tigerwood species include Coula Edulis and Lovoa Trichilioides. Though these species are not of the same family, they are both commonly referred to as African Walnut. 

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

Because some tigerwood species are native to rainforests, home to a wide range of animal and plant species, such biodiversity loss has a very high ecological cost. For example, Astronium Fraxinifolium trees can be found in the Amazon Rainforest, which is the biodiversity hotspot of our planet, and illegal and unsustainable logging practices in the Amazon damage a lot more than the trees themselves. 

Illegal logging and unsustainable logging of tigerwood are unfortunately not non-existent. For example, Lovoa Trichilioides – an African tigerwood species, has been subject to overexploitation, thus becoming rare in most of its distribution area, especially in Congo. 

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 tigerwood at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, in tropical climates, the loss in bio-diverse forests is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than that is 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 Tigerwood

Turning tigerwood 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. 

The first step of manufacturing tigerwood 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. A kiln is necessary for drying tigerwood to optimum moisture content. However, Lovoa trichilioides (yet another name for tigerwood), for example, can be kiln-dried fairly rapidly

If fossil fuel is used to operate a kiln, it adds to the total carbon emissions. However, burning wood waste (biomass) generates energy that could 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). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Tigerwood

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

As tigerwood furniture in the US would typically come from Central or South America, or even Africa, transporting tigerwood products has a higher carbon footprint than furniture made with regionally available wood, like oak or pine.

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 Tigerwood

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

Tigerwood is highly durable, thanks to its hardness and density. It is harder than most flooring hardwoods, including maple and pecan hickory. Tigerwood’s high density and abundance of natural oils mean a strong resistance to water, bugs, and rots. In terms of lifespan, tigerwood products can last for 50 years indoors (and 25 years if used outdoors). 

When tigerwood 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 Tigerwood

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

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture and flooring 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 a tigerwood table 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 wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

How Can You Buy Tigerwood 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 tigerwood 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 flooring made with tigerwood wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. However, because tigerwood can come from as far as Africa, make sure you opt for the one with the shortest transportation distance. And, as a rule to most consumer products, use any tigerwood furniture 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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