12 Most Sustainable Woods for Flooring: A Life-Cycle Analysis

12 Most Sustainable Woods for Flooring: A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:28 Minutes

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Wood is generally a sustainable material, largely thanks to carbon uptake by timber trees. Besides, wood is renewable, though renewing rates vary among plant species. The environmental impacts of using wood also depend on transportation and forest management. So we have to ask: Which woods are the most sustainable for indoor floors? 

Douglas fir and pine are the most sustainable softwoods for flooring, thanks to their fast growth rates. Black cherry, maple, and oak are sustainable hardwood flooring options because of their durability and abundance. Bamboo, cork, and palm are sustainable wood-like alternatives. 

In this article, we will walk you through the life-cycle of the most sustainable flooring woods and wood-like alternatives. Then, we evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. We will also investigate the possibilities of using tropical hardwoods and engineered (composite) wood panels for floors inside your home. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable flooring woods.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of All Types of Wood for Flooring

In general, wood is a sustainable material because of timber trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of the wood product’s life-cycle. 

“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

However, some woods are better than others for flooring inside your home. One way of assessing the sustainability of wooden floors is to go through their life-cycles and evaluate each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to assess the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s look at the LCA of some of the most sustainable woods for inside flooring!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of woods used for floors inside your living quarter. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

These five stages of the life-cycle of a wooden floor are as follows:

  1. Growing of the wood
  2. Manufacturing of the wooden planks for flooring
  3. Transportation of the wooden planks
  4. Usage of wooden floors
  5. End-of-life of wooden floors

The life-cycle assessment typically covers some or all of the following environmental impacts:

  • Global warming potential 
  • Primary energy demand from resources 
  • Acidification potential
  • Freshwater eutrophication potential 
  • Marine eutrophication potential 
  • Photochemical ozone creation potential 
  • Resource depletion

The global warming potential impact reflects the risk of accelerating climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases. It focuses on CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (CH4, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons) released throughout a product’s life-cycle. This impact is measured in kg of CO2 equivalent emitted per unit of a product – the carbon footprint

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Deciding factors for a high or low carbon footprint in wooden floors are: 

  • Drying requirements of wooden planks
  • Distribution of timber trees 

Because of the tree’s carbon sequestration potential, the carbon emitted during various stages in the life-cycle of floors made with solid wood can be compensated by the carbon captured and stored. The deciding factors for high or low carbon storage in wooden floors are 

  • Tree sizes 
  • Tree growth rate 
  • Natural durability

Specifically, we’ll zoom into species’ growth rate, tree size, distribution, woodworking properties, and natural durability, as these are the deciding reasons behind the carbon balance of woods. 

We will also look into how to make a more sustainable choice when using tropical hardwoods and engineered (composite) wood panels for the floors inside your house. 

These Are the 12 Most Sustainable Types of Wood for Flooring

These woods are relatively strong and can be harvested sustainably, making them environmentally friendly flooring materials. Also, the solid form of these woods has an environmentally favorable carbon balance (i.e., more carbon uptake than carbon emission). 

Type of woodOverall sustainability
Douglas fir woodWhat makes it so sustainable: Douglas fir trees are abundant in North America (~20% of all softwood reserves). Also, they grow relatively fast and extremely tall, quickly replenishing any timber cut.

Additionally: Douglas fir is one of the strongest Western softwood species. It also has a natural resistance to decay.
Pine woodWhat makes it so sustainable: Pine has a sustainable population throughout the US, they thrive under a wide variety of soil and climate, and it is possible to harvest pine timber without harming the forests. 

Additionally: As pine trees are distributed widely in the US, the transporting footprint of pine flooring is relatively small, especially when compared with tropical hardwood flooring.
Western red cedar wood What makes it so sustainable: Western red cedar wood has high local availability and a negative carbon balance of -13.39 kg CO2-eq (per 100 ft2 of no-stain flooring) thanks to its high carbon sequestration during the forestry stage. 

Additionally: Western red cedar has good rot and pest resistance, high stability, and a good strength-to-weight ratio. 
Black cherry wood What makes it so sustainable: Back cherry wood (or American cherry) has a carbon footprint of 301 kg CO2-eq, cradle-to-gate. That is lower than all US-native hardwoods of similar density and strength.

Additionally: Black cherry wood is a very sustainable hardwood because of the durability of the timber and the fast rate at which the cut wood is replaced in the wild. 
Hard maple wood What makes it so sustainable: Hard maple has a carbon footprint of 394 kg CO2-eq and is still one of the most sustainable hardwood species, thanks to the durability of the timber.

Additionally: Hard maple trees grow in abundance throughout the US forests, making it possible to sustainably harvest timber without harming the forests. 
Oak wood What makes it so sustainable: Oak floors can last for a long time, keeping their carbon storage role. Their end-of-life is also sustainable because it is possible to recycle or burn the untreated wood for bioenergy. 

Additionally: Oak trees grow in abundance in the US forests, providing a sustained timber stock. 
Black walnut wood What makes it so sustainable: Black walnut wood is a sustainable wood for flooring because black walnut trees sequester a lot of carbon and black walnut timber stores it for a long time. However, one cubic meter of black walnut wood (1-inch) has a carbon footprint of 427 CO2 eq, higher than most commonly traded US hardwoods (except for hickory, red oak, and white oak).

Additionally: Black walnut is one of the most durable woods, leading to long-lasting flooring.
Hickory wood What makes it so sustainable: Hickory is one of the strongest and hardest US hardwoods, making it a durable flooring material. Hickory species grow in abundance throughout the US forests. 

Additionally: One cubic meter of hickory has a carbon footprint of 463 kg CO2-eq, higher than all most other commonly used US hardwoods. However, the same volume of hickory trees uptake 3,260 kg CO2-eq, resulting in a highly environmentally favorable carbon balance.
Honey mesquite wood What makes it so sustainable: Honey mesquite is a sustainable material for flooring because of its strength and stability. Floors made with honey mesquite can last for many years, even if subject to frequent humidity changes or heavy usage. 

Additionally: Honey mesquite grows naturally in the US southwestern states, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to tropical hardwoods that travel long distances.
Palm “wood” What makes it so sustainable: Palm “wood” is a sustainable material for flooring because this by-product is harvested after palm trees are no longer productive. They are abundant waste material that needs to be cleared so that more palms can be grown, sequestering more carbon and producing more valuable fruit and oil. 

Additionally: Palm wood is a durable option for heavy traffic flooring. 
Bamboo “wood” What makes it so sustainable: Bamboo plants have a quick growth rate, short time to maturity (compared to timber trees), and an ability to self-propagate. Mature bamboo can be harvested sustainably after three to five years of planting. Better yet, if the roots are left undisturbed, the plant can regrow very quickly without needing fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide.

Additionally: Bamboo is more durable than traditional hardwoods. It’s stronger than steel and more resistant to water, infestation, rotting, and warping than hardwoods. Bamboo floors don’t shrink or swell due to temperature and humidity changes. They last longer compared to floors made with most US hardwoods. 
Cork “wood” What makes it so sustainable: Cork is a highly sustainable flooring material because it is a by-product. This wood alternative comes from the replenishable outer bark of cork oak trees. Cork oaks have a high carbon sequestration potential, which increases if the outer bark keeps being harvested. 

Additionally: Cork oak forests play an important ecological role. 

Overall, these woods are highly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a wooden floor depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each wood and the stages of its life-cycle and find out how it can be even more sustainable. 

The Most Sustainable Softwoods for Flooring 

Softwoods are generally not as strong as hardwoods. Softwood planks dent easily under the weight of heavy furniture. Thus, softwood floors tend to last not as long as hardwood floors if subject to heavy traffic or objects. However, softwood tree species typically grow (and replenish the timber source) more rapidly than hardwood tree species. The fast growth indicates high sustainability, especially for flooring with light usage. 

1

Douglas Fir: Strong Flooring Material From Widely Distributed Softwood Species

Douglas fir wood comes from one of the tallest tree species on the North American continent. This tree species grows across the largest portion of Western North America, accounting for a fifth of North America’s total softwood reserves

Here are the life-cycle stages of Douglas fir wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of Douglas fir wood: The high carbon sequestration potential makes growing Douglas firs for timber sustainable. This tree species (Pseudotsuga menziesii) can grow as tall as 250 feet and as big as six feet in diameter in old-growth forests. The record for Douglas fir height is 330 feet, more than double the height of a tall black walnut tree. The annual growth rate of Douglas fir is up to 2 feet, higher than that of most hardwood species. 
  • Manufacturing of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir lumber can be air-dried from green to a 20% moisture content. The drying time varies significantly depending on the season and location (20 to 200 hours). Using a kiln takes about 32 hours to dry 1/8 inch-sized Douglas fir lumber from green to 15% moisture content. 
  • Transportation of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir trees are distributed widely in the US: they populate the largest section of western states. Consequently, transporting carbon footprint is relatively low, especially compared with popular imported hardwoods for flooring like ipe or meranti
  • Usage of Douglas fir wood: Douglas fir is one of the strongest Western softwood species. It is twice as hard per square inch as cedar and, thus, a possibly longer-lasting choice for heavy-traffic flooring. The longer floors last, the more sustainable they are because they store carbon instead of releasing it back to the atmosphere. 
  • End-of-life of Douglas fir wood: The end-of-life stage for Douglas fir flooring is sustainable when the wooden flooring planks are reused or burned as bioenergy.

Douglas fir makes beautiful and long-lasting flooring. These coniferous trees grow relatively fast and extremely tall, quickly replenishing timber cut for flooring, furniture, or construction projects. Also, as a softwood, Douglas fir is harder than most, making it last longer as carbon storage than most other softwoods. 

2

Pine Wood: Highly Available Flooring Timber From Sustained Conifer Populations

Pine wood comes from various pine species that grow in abundance in the US forests. One in four American cone-bearing trees is a pine tree, which makes pine wood a highly available material for flooring. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of pine wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of pine wood: Pine has a sustainable population throughout the US, north and south, east and west. They adapt and thrive under a wide variety of soil and climate. Some pine species, like eastern white pine, grow rapidly, adding 2ft to 3ft per year. Thus, it is possible to harvest pine timber without harming the forests. 
  • Transportation of pine wood: As pine trees are distributed widely in the US, the transporting footprint of pine flooring is relatively small, especially when compared with tropical hardwood flooring. 
  • Usage of pine wood: While pine timber is used as flooring, it continues to store carbon (instead of releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere). The heartwood of pine – the innermost layer – is moderately durable. It makes relatively durable light-traffic floors, especially with proper maintenance. 
  • End-of-life of pine wood: Natural pine flooring can be disposed of sustainably in biomass or upcycling projects. 

Pine is one of the most common types of softwoods used for flooring because of the availability of this timber regarding both volume and transporting distance. It is an environmentally friendly flooring material because pine trees grow much faster than many local hardwood trees. 

3

Western Red Cedar Wood: Light Flooring Material With Low Transporting Carbon Footprint 

Western red cedar is timber from the tall and big conifers that grow in abundance in the US – the giant arborvitae. This timber is highly available. Its natural properties make it a long-lasting material for flooring, more durable than many US softwoods and hardwoods. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of western red cedar wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of cedar wood: Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) trees have a high carbon sequestration potential, thanks to their large sizes (200 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter) and their long lifespan (over 1,000 years). In North America, western red cedar trees are abundant and sustainably managed. Thus, timber harvesting doesn’t harm the forests.
  • Manufacturing of cedar wood: Western red cedar is dimensionally stable; thus, less energy is wasted on shrinkage, checking, and warping during kiln-drying. 
  • Usage of cedar wood: Western red cedar is relatively soft and prone to dent. However, cedar planks won’t need to be replaced regularly if the floors are subject to minimal traffic. 
  • End-of-life of cedar wood: The end-of-life stage for cedar flooring is sustainable because the wood can be fully reused or burned as bioenergy. 

The net carbon balance of 100 square feet of no-stain western red cedar outdoor flooring is -13.39 kg CO2-eq (cradle-to-grave). The negative balance is thanks to carbon sequestration during the forestry stage. Also, cedar timber has a relatively low transporting carbon footprint because it is light and available locally within the US. 

The Most Sustainable Hardwoods for Flooring 

Hardwood floors tend to last longer than softwood floors under heavy usage because hardwoods can be dense and strong. Their durability is the telltale sign of their sustainability because the longer floors last, the longer the carbon captured by timber trees stays out of the atmosphere. 

4

Black Cherry Wood: Durable Hardwood from Fast-Growing Trees 

Black cherry is a sustainable hardwood for flooring because of its short rotation for harvesting and its low carbon footprint. On a life-cycle assessment, cradle to gate, black cherry wood has a carbon footprint of 301 kg CO2-eq – lower than all US-native hardwoods of similar density and strength.

Here are the life-cycle stages of black cherry wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of black cherry wood: Black cherry trees grow at fast rates of 2 to 4 feet per year. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
  • Manufacturing of black cherry wood: Kiln drying 1-inch-thick black cherry lumber takes up to 120 hours and has a relatively low carbon footprint of 42.7 kg CO2-eq. Manufacturing carbon emission of black cherry is similar to willow wood and smaller than many other dense hardwoods like hard maple, hickory, red oak, and white oak
  • Transportation of black cherry wood: Black cherry grows abundantly in the wild throughout the US, resulting in a lower transporting carbon footprint. Thus, it is a sustainable alternative to imported tropical woods like mahogany
  • Usage of black cherry wood: Black cherry flooring is long-lasting carbon storage because the wood is resistant to decay and weather changes. Regarding usage, it is a very sustainable option, more so than hardwoods like maple.
  • End-of-life of black cherry wood: The end-of-life stage for black cherry flooring is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Black cherry (or American cherry) wood is a very sustainable hardwood because of the durability of the timber and the fast rate at which the cut wood is replaced in the wild. 

5

Hard Maple Wood: Durable Hardwood from Highly Sustainably Managed Stock 

Hard maple is a sustainable flooring hardwood because these species are abundant in the US forests. Hard maple floors last many years while requiring little care. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of hard maple wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of hard maple wood: Because of the large population of hard maple trees in the US, it takes merely 3.31 seconds to grow one cubic meter of timber. Though hard maples aren’t rapid-growing trees, such a growing stock – 6.6% of total US hardwood growing stock – allows harvesting timber without harming the forests. 
  • Manufacturing of hard maple wood: Kiln-drying one cubic meter of 1-inch hard maple logs emits 47 kg CO2-eq, which is lower than the drying footprint of black walnut, red oak, and white oak (other common hardwood flooring options). 
  • Transportation of hard maple wood: Because hard maples are widely distributed in the eastern part of the US, it is possible to source this timber at relatively short transporting distances. These species have a lower transportation footprint than imported hardwoods of similar density and strength. 
  • Usage of hard maple wood: Hard maple floors are durable because this timber is heavy with good strength properties. Also, hard maple floors can endure heavy furniture because of this species’ high resistance to abrasion. Durable hardwood material is more environmentally friendly because the longer floor planks last, the more sustainable it is in using the floors as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of hard maple wood: The end-of-life stage for hard maple flooring is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

The maple trees grow in abundance throughout the US forests. Hard maple has a carbon footprint of 394 kg CO2-eq – higher than many other softer and lighter hardwoods. Yet, it is a sustainable material thanks to the large growing stock and the durability of the timber.

6

Oak Wood: Durable Hardwood Flooring From Highly Sustainably Managed Stock 

Oak is the most common US hardwood used for flooring. Oak species grow in abundance throughout the US (FSC-certified) forests. Also, oak timber makes long-lasting floors. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of white oak wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of white oak wood: Oak trees (genus Quercus) account for one-third of US hardwood growing stock. Even though both red oak and white oak are slow growers, the large growing stock allows harvesting timber without harming the forests. 
  • Manufacturing of white oak wood: Kiln drying white oak and red oak has a carbon footprint, respectively, of 98.3 kg CO2-eq and 89.7 kg CO2-eq (one cubic meter of 1-inch logs). As oak species dry slowly, they tend to have a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.
  • Transportation of white oak wood: Because oak trees are widely distributed throughout most eastern states, it is possible to source this timber at relatively short distances. An oak floor would have a lower transportation footprint than, for example, a teak floor imported from South East Asia. 
  • Usage of white oak wood: Oak timber is strong and stable, making it a long-lasting flooring material. Also, white oak is generally water-tight thanks to the presence of tyloses in its “pores.” These cells prevent white oak wood from wicking up water and rotting. Thus, white oak makes an ideal material for floors in wet places like the bathroom. 
  • End-of-life of white oak wood: The end-of-life stage for oak flooring is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

White oak and red oak have the highest carbon footprint of all commonly used US hardwood (556 kg CO2-eq and 496 kg CO2-eq, respectively). However, both woods have a highly environmentally favorable carbon balance because of carbon sequestration during the forestry stage. Besides, oak is strong and stable, making it a long-lasting flooring material. 

7

Black Walnut Wood: A Durable Flooring Material From a Naturally Regenerating and Planted Species 

Black walnut is highly prized for flooring because of its dark tones and striking grain patterns. Also, it has good strength and high resistance to decay. Black walnut comes from one of the few hardwood native species that not only grow and regenerate naturally but also are planted on farms and fields. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of black walnut wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of black walnut wood: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees grow at a medium rate, reaching 120 feet in height and 3 feet in diameter at maturity. They act as a carbon sink, sequestering carbon and mitigating the climate crisis
  • Manufacturing of black walnut wood: Kiln drying one cubic meter of 1-inch black walnut logs has a carbon footprint of 59.7 kg CO2-eq. As this timber species dries slowly, they tend to have a high manufacturing footprint because kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production.
  • Transportation of black walnut wood: Black walnut trees grow very widely across the eastern US in mixed hardwood forests and on farms. Thus, the transporting carbon footprint is lower than imported hardwoods like ebony or wenge
  • Usage of black walnut wood: Black walnut is rated as very durable in terms of decay resistance. It also has good dimensional stability, shock resistance, and strength properties. Thus, floors made with black walnut can last many years, keeping their role as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of black walnut wood: At the end of its life, black walnut wood can be upcycled or recycled for bioenergy. 

One cubic meter of black walnut wood (1-inch) has a carbon footprint of 427 CO2 eq, higher than most commonly traded US hardwoods (except for hickory and oak). However, it is still a sustainable wood for flooring because black walnut trees sequester a lot of carbon. Also, black walnut timber stores it for a long time. The durability of black walnut flooring sets them apart as being sustainable. 

8

Hickory Wood: Strong and Water-Resistant Hardwood For Flooring 

Hickory is one of the strongest and hardest US hardwoods. Floors made with hickory require little maintenance and are water and scratch-resistant. Hickory species grow in abundance throughout the US forests. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of hickory wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of hickory wood: As hickory trees (genus Carya) grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan (up to 500 years). 

    It takes only 4.33 seconds to replace 1m³ of hickory lumber in the US forests because of these species’ large population. Hickory trees account for 4.7% of US hardwood growing stock and yearly growth exceeds harvest in all significant producing states. Thus, it is possible to harvest timber without harming the forests
  • Manufacturing of hickory wood: Kiln drying hickory has a carbon footprint of 42.7kg CO2-eq (one cubic meter of 1-inch hickory logs), slightly higher than hard maple but lower than other popular hardwoods for flooring like oak and walnut
  • Transportation of hickory wood: Hickory trees grow naturally throughout the Eastern US, from north to south. Thus, hickory floor planks would have a lower transportation footprint than imported hardwoods like merbau or padauk
  • Usage of hickory wood: A hickory floor can last for decades, keeping its role as carbon storage. These species have high Janka scores, indicating good strength and hardness. Also, hickory wood is water and scratch resistant, ideal for floors in wetter regions or in homes with pets. 
  • End-of-life of hickory wood: The end-of-life stage for hickory floors is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

One cubic meter of hickory has a carbon footprint of 463 kg CO2-eq, higher than all most other commonly used US hardwoods. However, the same volume of hickory trees uptake 3260 kg CO2-eq, resulting in a highly environmentally favorable carbon balance. 

9

Honey Mesquite Wood: Local and Durable Hardwood

Honey mesquite is an ideal hardwood for floors in humid environments. This timber has exceptional stability, exhibiting very little movement (bending or warping) when subject to changes in humidity. Honey mesquite trees grow naturally in the US southwestern states. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of honey mesquite wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of honey mesquite wood: As honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan, helping to mitigate the climate crisis
  • Manufacturing of honey mesquite wood: Thanks to its exceptional stability, honey mesquite can be fast dried in extreme temperatures and yet has little loss due to shrinkage or warping (compared to other flooring hardwoods like white oak or pecan). The kiln drying time could be 10 days instead of 20 days by adjusting the kiln schedule. This is a favorable property because less energy is wasted on shrinkage, checking, and warping during drying. (Kiln-drying is the most carbon-intensive step in lumber production. 
  • Transportation of honey mesquite wood: Honey mesquite is a domestic hardwood with relatively short traveling distances, especially within southwestern states. The transporting carbon footprint of honey mesquite is lower than imported hardwoods like ipe or sapele. 
  • Usage of honey mesquite wood: Using honey mesquite for flooring is sustainable because honey mesquite can last for many years. This timber is as strong as hickory and even harder. It is ideal for floors in humid areas and/or subject to heavy furniture. 
  • End-of-life of honey mesquite wood: The end-of-life stage for honey mesquite floors is sustainable when the wood can be reused for another woodworking project or burned as bioenergy. 

Honey mesquite is a sustainable material for flooring because of its strength and stability. Floors made with honey mesquite can last for many years, even if subject to frequent humidity changes or heavy usage. Also, honey mesquite grows naturally in the US southwestern states, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to tropical hardwoods that travel long distances. 

The Most Sustainable Wood-Like Material for Flooring 

10

Palm “Wood”: Strong Flooring Material From an Agriculture By-Product

Palm “wood” is highly sustainable because it is harvested as a by-product after the palm trees finish bearing fruit and producing oil. Though palms are more closely related to grass than trees, some palm species have tall and big stems. These species produce “wood” in large planks and meet the conditions for being defined as “trees.” 

Here are the life-cycle stages of palm wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of palm “wood”: The potential for carbon sequestration, the ability to adapt to many habitats, and the multiple benefits of forest land make it sustainable to grow and harvest palm for a wood-like material.

    As palms grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. 

    Some palm species are highly productive, providing more than one crucial product. Because wood from the trunk is the last product (and a by-product) to be harvested when a palm tree no longer bears fruit, it is highly sustainable. 

    Palms are highly adaptive: they grow in abundance throughout the world’s tropical regions. Palms account for six of the 10 most common tree species of the Amazon rainforests. The abundance of palm “wood” as an alternative to rare hardwoods reduces the supply pressure in the wood industry. 

    Some palm species grow very rapidly, leading to short rotations of harvesting all their products. Some examples of fast-growing palms are the Mexico palm (4 feet per year) and the Carpentaria palm tree (6 feet per year). The Carpentaria palm tree is one the fastest-growing of all plant species.
  • Manufacturing of palm wood: The rate of drying palm woods depends on the species, the sun, and the temperatures. It could take days, or it could take weeks. Drying time is significant because kiln drying is usually the most energy-intensive and carbon-heavy process for wood products. 
  • Transportation of palm wood: As palms grow in the tropics, transporting palm flooring panels would typically have a higher carbon footprint than regionally available wood like maple or black cherry. However, as palm trees are grown in many regions, you can opt for palm “wood” sourced closer to home to reduce the carbon footprint.
  • Usage of palm wood: As a material, palm “wood” is very dense, especially towards the outer side of the tree trunk. Thus, palm wood is a great option for long-lasting flooring for areas with heavy foot traffic. The longer floors last, the more sustainable they are because they store carbon instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere. 
  • End-of-life of palm wood: The end-of-life stage for palm flooring can be sustainable if the panels are upcycled for another project or used to make bioenergy. 

Palm “wood” is a sustainable material for flooring because this by-product is harvested after palm trees are no longer productive. They are abundant waste material that needs to be cleared so that more palms can be grown, sequestering more carbon and producing more valuable fruit and oil. Also, palm wood is a durable option for heavy traffic flooring. 

Bamboo “Wood”: Light Flooring Material From Rapid-Growing Species 

Bamboo “wood” is highly sustainable because the bamboo grass plant grows and regrows rapidly, producing 35% more oxygen than a tree with an equivalent mass. Though bamboo is technically not wood (not from a tree), this material has been utilized in many woodworking projects because of its strength and many other beneficial properties. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of bamboo wood and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of bamboo wood: Besides carbon sequestration, growing bamboo for “wood” is sustainable because of the quick growth rate, the short time to maturity (compared to wood), and the ability to self-propagate. 

    Mature bamboo can be harvested sustainably after three to five years of planting, compared to the 10 – 20 years needed for most softwoods. 

    Better yet, if the roots are left undisturbed, the plant can regrow very quickly without any other inputs but water and sunlight. There is no need for fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide. 

    Last but not least, one acre of bamboo can absorb around 10,000 lbs of carbon dioxide per year.
  • Manufacturing of bamboo wood: Manufacturing is the biggest carbon emitter in bamboo “wood” production, mainly due to the energy-intensive drying step.
  • Transportation of bamboo wood: The main sources of valuable commercial bamboo are China and Latin America. It means long traveling distances from forestry to customers in the US. However, bamboo is lightweight. One truck can carry much more bamboo panels than, for example, teak logs. The weight tends to compensate for the distance, leaving bamboo one of the sustainable flooring choices. 
  • Usage of bamboo wood: Bamboo is more durable than traditional hardwoods. It’s stronger than steel and more resistant to water, infestation, rotting, and warping than hardwoods. Bamboo floors don’t shrink or swell due to temperature and humidity changes. They last at least as long as most US hardwoods. 
  • End-of-life of bamboo wood: Bamboo floors are often made with solid long lengths of bamboo glued together under high pressure. Because of the use of (synthetic) glues, these floors are not fully biodegradable. However, they can be partly recycled or up-cycle for other household projects. 

Bamboo flooring is sustainable because this material has comparable properties to hardwoods without the disadvantages of slow growth cycles. These grass species are ready to be harvested within a few years and regrow easily afterwards. Also, bamboo’s lightweight means transporting vehicles can carry more bamboo panels, reducing the carbon footprint of a unit. 

12

Cork “Wood”: An Easily Replenishable Material for Well-Insulated Floors

Cork “wood” comes primarily from cork oak trees – a unique evergreen oak species with the ability to regenerate its outer bark. Technically, cork is not a wood as it doesn’t come from the tree trunk but the (easily replenished) outer bark. That makes cork a highly sustainable by-product. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of cork “wood” and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of cork “wood”: Cork oak (Quercus Suber) trees sequester carbon as they grow and harvesting cork from the trees multiplies this environmental benefit. 

    As cork oaks grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their lifespan, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. One hectare of cork oak trees can retain around 6 tons of CO2 per year

    After a cork oak tree reaches 25 years of age and its trunk is 2.3 feet (70 cm), the outer bark can be harvested for cork every 9 to 12 years without causing damage. During the lifespan of about 200 years, a typical cork oak tree can be harvested over 16 times.

    Better yet, a harvested cork oak tree stores up to five times more carbon than an unharvested tree since the tree utilizes additional carbon in the regeneration of its bark. 

    Also, cork oak forests support a high biodiversity of plants and animals, including critically endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer, and Iberian imperial eagle. 

    Even more importantly, cork forests play a crucial role in averting soil degradation by acting as a barrier against wind erosion and water run-off.
  • Manufacturing of cork “wood”: The first steps of making a cork floor are curing and drying the harvested outer bark planks. In most cases, wine stoppers are punched out of the dried and cured plank before the waste is ground, blended with an adhesive, and then cured. Energy is needed for drying, grinding, mixing, and curing. Making adhesive or any other add-on ingredient can also be energy-intensive. (HDF boards can be added to make floating cork floor planks.) 
  • Transportation of cork “wood”: Because of its unique structure of air-filled cells, cork is very light. It is only one-fifth as heavy as water. Transporting this lightweight material like cork is more fuel-efficient than hauling dense hardwoods. It compensates for the long traveling distances (Most cork oak trees grow in southern Europe.) 
  • End-of-life of cork “wood”: When cork floors are manufactured using natural adhesives, they are biodegradable. Natural cork flooring can, thus, be disposed of sustainably in biomass or upcycling projects. 

Cork is a highly sustainable flooring material because it is a by-product. This wood alternative comes from the replenishable outer bark of cork oak trees. Cork oaks have a high carbon sequestration potential, which increases if the outer bark keeps being harvested. Also, cork oak forests play an important ecological role. 

Tropical Hardwoods for Flooring: A Few Words on Their Sustainability

Some tropical hardwoods are long-lasting (and stunning-looking) flooring materials thanks to their hardiness and natural resistance to decay. However, they come from tropical rainforests where illegal logging has devastating consequences on the earth’s biodiversity.

Some highly prized tropical hardwoods for flooring include:

Though the durability of these hardwoods is a big contribution to their overall sustainability as a flooring material, there are two other factors: 

  • Eco costs of logging 
  • Transportation distances 

Firstly, it is possible to source tropical hardwoods that are sustainably harvested. There are certificates such as FSC and PECC, which guarantee sustainable forestry management. In that case, the eco costs of such hardwoods can be lower than woods that might require treatment to last equally long. 

Providing that you can find FSC-certified tropical hardwoods, the distances and the mode of transport still affect the total carbon emissions. 

The transporting footprint of these hardwoods is undoubtedly higher than woods sourced locally in the US. 

In brief, tropical hardwoods are not as environmentally friendly as untreated softwoods and hardwoods available locally within the US. 

However, suppose you want floors made with naturally durable, beautiful tropical hardwoods, you should search for the most sustainable options in this group:

  1. You should watch out that they have a sustainable certificate, such as FSC or PECC. You need to avoid timber associated with deforestation in tropical rainforests – the world’s most biodiverse places.
  2. Traveling distance matters. You should weigh all your options and go for the woods that travel the least.
  3. It would also be an environmentally friendly option if you can find salvaged or recycled tropical hardwoods. 

Engineered Wood for Flooring: A Few Words on Their Sustainability 

Engineered (composite) wood panels have become a popular choice for flooring because of their low maintenance and wood-alike look. Besides, they can be made with wood waste from fast-growing, easily replenished species like cypress, pine, or hemp. It is an environmentally favorable factor compared to using slow-growing hardwoods. 

Besides, engineered wood is less susceptible to swelling and warping from moisture and heat. Consequently, plywood panels, for example, can be a longer-lasting option than some solid woods for flooring in kitchens and basements. 

Yet, some composite panels are more environmentally friendly than others. If you decide to go on this path, make sure your flooring material has the highest recycled content and that the resins used are safe for the environment and, if possible, biodegradable. 

How Can You Buy More Sustainable Wood

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 ash wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

There are three levels of FSC certifications (FSC 100%, FSC Mix, FSC Recycled). Ideally, opt for FSC 100% or Recycled.

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. 

For flooring woods, there are two other reliable certification systems in the US: 

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a non-profit with a mission to protect forestry resources. An SFI-Certified Wood Flooring certification would ensure that the wood for your floors isn’t coming from old-growth forests, for example. 

The American Tree Farm System is a non-profit organization that works to certify sustainable forests. This certification ensures that your flooring wood is sustainably sourced. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Improperly managed logging (including illegal activities) can cause many problems for 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. 

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

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

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 build sustainable woods for your floors as long as they come from sustainably managed forests. Douglas fir and pine are fast-growing softwood species suitable for flooring. Also, hardwoods like oak or walnut make durable and beautiful floors for your home. There are also sustainable options for flooring coming from wood-like materials or engineered woods. More importantly, you can make it more sustainable by using floors made with these woods for as long as possible. Then, look into upcycling the material to extend its usage and/or arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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