How Sustainable Is White Oak Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is White Oak Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Dennis Kamprad

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Some white oak species can live longer than six centuries, providing wildlife with plenty of food and living spaces. Their abundance, deep roots, and broad canopies also help with watershed health and climate mitigation. As white oak trees play such an important ecological role, we had to ask: How sustainable is it to cut down white oaks for our products? 

White oak is a sustainable wood to use in furniture. With a large growing stock, it’s possible to keep harvesting the wood without harming the forests. A living white oak tree can sequester a large amount of CO2, and products made from its wood can be recycled to substitute fossil fuel for energy.

In this article, we break down the life cycle of white oak wood used for furniture and other household items. We evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable white oak.  

Here’s How Sustainable White Oak Wood Is

White oak is a hardwood that is often used for cabinets, flooring, and other home furniture. It is strong, durable, naturally water-resistant. Despite being a slow-growing tree, white oak can be a sustainable material for furniture.  

To understand the sustainability of white oak, we assess the life cycle of furniture products, such as doors or cabinets. 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. 

This article uses the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of a product’s life cycle. 

The life-cycle stages of white oak woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of white oak woodGrowing white oak trees is sustainable as they grow naturally in many types of land without the need for fertilizer and irrigation. 
Manufacturing of white oak woodManufacturing white oak furniture can be sustainable as most of the energy needed can be generated from burning wood waste. 
Transporting  of white oak woodTransporting white oak wood has the highest carbon footprint in all stages of its life cycle. The emission can, however, be reduced with a more sustainable choice of hauling vehicles and fuels. 
Usage of white oak woodThe usage of white oak wood is sustainable because the product usually lasts for a long time. 
End-of-life of white oak woodThe end-of-life of white oak wood is sustainable as the product can be upcycled or recycled for biomass energy. 

We can say that white oak wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a door or a cabinet, 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 White Oak Wood

Growing white oak, especially in its native North American land, is sustainable thanks to its adaptation, abundance, and potential for carbon sequestration. 

What Type of Wood is White Oak and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

White oak is a hardwood native of North America and is also distributed in Europe and Asia. 

Oak trees are typically slow growers, climbing only 12 to 14 inches per year, compared to other trees such as Monterrey oak, which can grow 48 inches in one year. However, some white oak species grow faster than others. Fast growers included Mexican white oak, bur, swamp white, and English oak. 

How Sustainable Does White Oak Wood Grow

Growing white oak for furniture is sustainable because of its potential for carbon sequestration, diverse land usage, and large growing stock. 

The following section zooms into three sustainable effects of growing white oak:

  • Carbon sequestration: Oak trees can reach 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. Their large size means high carbon sequestration over their lifetime, which is average at 300 years (with some species living 600 years or longer). 
  • Diverse land usage: White oaks grow well naturally in most states in the east of the U.S., adapting to a broad range of land types from north to south. It tends to grow at lower elevations but can also be found growing naturally in the mountains. It means there is no need for fertilizer or irrigation to maintain a healthy population of white oaks. 
  • Large growing stock: White oak accounts for 15,5% of all American hardwood growing stock. It takes 1.57 seconds to grow 1m³ of American white oak. In a quarter of a second, the U.S. forest can grow enough white oak needed for making a door. Yearly harvesting for domestic and export uses of white oak currently takes up only half of the growing stock in the U.S.

Where Is White Oak Wood Usually Grown

White oak trees are native to North America and can also be found across Europe and Asia. 

In the Eastern United States, oak is considered the most ecologically important species. It produces plenty of acorns –  between 2,000-7,000 per tree per year – serving as a substantial food source for squirrels, blue jays, black bears, and other wildlife. Oak’s large canopy and flaky bark provide ideal habitat for many species, including moths and butterflies. 

Illegal logging of white oak is unfortunately not non-existent in the US (especially because white oak is sought after for whiskey barrels) and elsewhere like Russian Far East

Improperly managed logging (including illegal activities) can cause many problems to forest equality and diversity. 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. 

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 white oak 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 forests over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of White Oak Wood

Turning oak wood into furniture is a sustainable process because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets. 

Manufacturing wooden furniture comprises harvesting and preparing the wood and turning it into the final product. The CO2 emission in this stage possibly comes from fossil fuel to power hauling vehicles and/or machines that cut, dry, and manipulate the wood into a product. 

As white oak wood dries slowly, the energy used during the kiln drying process is significant. However, the carbon footprint can still be relatively low when a high proportion of energy comes from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the U.S. hardwood sector is derived from biomass.

In one calculation, carbon emissions during material extraction and processing, manufacturing, and transporting a white oak door in the U.S. to the U.K. amounts to 155 kilograms of CO2 equivalent. Almost half of the total emissions happen during manufacturing but are mostly offset by burning wood waste for energy.

Illlustration of cradle-to-grave impact of a hardwood door
American Hardwood: Environmental Life-Cycle Assessment

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of White Oak Wood

Transporting white oak wood is typically the least sustainable stage in the life cycle due to the carbon emissions associated with operating hauling vehicles. 

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. The cost efficiency is higher when the distance increases and emissions are reduced when using biofuels. 

In one calculation, transporting a white oak door from the U.K. to the U.S. would account for 35% of the total CO2 emission

Typically, the sustainable options would be locally manufactured white oak furniture, transported by rail or large trucks using biofuel. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of White Oak Wood

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

White oak wood is strong, durable, and naturally water-resistant. It makes great indoor furniture and flooring. As oak takes a long time to grow, the wood is dense, and the products generally last for a long time, like century-long

When wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usages at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore long-lasting furniture can be considered as a good way of keeping the 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 White Oak Wood

Because white oak furniture can be fully recycled for bioenergy, also the end-of-life stage of white oak wood is sustainable.

The impact of recycling depends on how much non-wood material is used in the product. On a calculation for a white oak door, the carbon offset amounts to 127 kilograms CO2 equivalent. It’s thanks to burning wood waste for energy that substitutes fossil fuels. Half of the amount comes from manufacturing waste, and the other half from end-of-life recycling. As the total footprint of the product is 155 kilograms CO2 equivalent, the final stage can offset a significant 40% of the product emissions. 

With smaller household items, like a doorknob or a small chair, 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 White Oak 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 white oak 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. 

American white oak wood is generally considered sustainable as growth exceeds harvest in all major states. However, there are concerns over the future supply because of the difficulty of naturally regenerating. The current dominance of white oak in the United States can be traced back to historical land disturbances that promoted regeneration. When a small fire clears the forest of trees that are more prone to fire, like maple, white oak can thrive. 

Prescribed fire is a useful disturbance technique to ensure forest health and the natural growth of white oak. However, in the eastern U.S., prescribed burns aren’t suitable as many forests are close to crowded human settlements without the infrastructure needed to contain a burn. 

Another issue with sustainable white oak is its slow growth. It’s important to have measurements in place to ensure there is no large gap between the oak supply and the thick canopy for wildlife. 

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 woods 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

Making furniture from white oak wood is sustainable as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. As white oak trees grow slowly while supporting a wide range of wildlife, logging needs to be properly planned to leave no big gaps between the supplies of wood for human activities and canopy for birds, butterflies, and more. A sustainable approach would be to use any white oak furniture for a long time, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully. 

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