7 Most Sustainable Woods for Furniture: A Life-Cycle Analysis

7 Most Sustainable Woods for Furniture: A Life-Cycle Analysis

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Quynh Nguyen

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Wood is generally a sustainable material for making furniture inside your home, largely thanks to carbon uptake by timber trees. However the environmental impacts of using wood differ depending on the renewing rates vary among tree species, traveling distance, and method of transportation as well as how sustainably they are grown and logged. So we have to ask: Which woods are the most sustainable for indoor furniture?

The most sustainable furniture woods are black cherry, beech, maple, ash, eastern red cedar, mango, and bamboo. These woods are highly available thanks to large populations and wide natural ranges. Also, they are strong and dense woods, making them durable materials for all types of furniture.

In this article, we will walk you through the life-cycle of the seven most sustainable woods for furniture. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable woods for furniture.

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

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 furniture to stand the test of time. One way of assessing the sustainability of wooden furniture is to go through their life-cycles and examine each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate 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 furniture!

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 indoor furniture. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

These five stages of the life-cycle of wooden furniture inside your home are as follows:

  1. Growing of the wood
  2. Manufacturing of the wooden indoor furniture 
  3. Transportation of the wooden indoor furniture
  4. Usage of the wooden indoor furniture
  5. End-of-life of the wooden indoor furniture

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 (high or low) carbon emissions during construction lumber’s life-cycle are: 

  • Drying requirements of timber
  • Distribution of timber trees 

As trees grow, they sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The carbon uptake can often compensate fully for carbon emitted during all the stages of the life-cycle. It indicates a negative carbon balance, which is environmentally favorable. The lower the carbon balance stays below zero, the better it is for the climate. Relevant factors to the actual carbon balance of woods are: 

  • Tree sizes 
  • Tree growth rate 
  • Natural durability 

In this article, we’ll specifically 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.

These Are the 7 Most Sustainable Types of Wood for Indoor Furniture

These woods are highly available because they have large populations. It makes sustainable harvesting more attainable. Also, their high strength and density mean that they can last a long time inside your home, keeping their carbon storage role. Most importantly, the plain-sawn form of these woods has an environmentally favorable carbon balance (aka more carbon uptake than carbon emission). 

Type of woodOverall sustainability
Black cherry wood Carbon footprint: Back cherry wood 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 (or American cherry) wood is a very sustainable hardwood for furniture because of the durability of the timber and the fast rate at which the cut wood is replaced in the wild. 
Beech wood What makes it so sustainable:Beechwood has a carbon footprint of 377 kg CO2-eq, cradle-to-gate, a mid-range value compared to commonly traded American hardwoods. Beechwood’s strength is comparable to oak, but its carbon footprint is about two-thirds of white oak’s. 
Additionally: Beechwood is locally available, resulting in a relatively low transporting footprint compared to imported hardwoods. 
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. 
Ash wood What makes it so sustainable: Ash is a durable wood for furniture with a similar strength and density to oak. 
Additionally: Because many ash trees have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer infestation, reclaiming ash timber from dead trees is an environmentally friendly way of sourcing this wood. 
Eastern red cedar wood What makes it so sustainable: Eastern red cedar is a sustainable material for indoor wooden furniture because of its strength, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial property. This tree species has a wide natural range, making it possible to source timber within a relatively short traveling distance. 
Additionally: Eastern red cedar’s lightweight contributes to low transporting footprint.
Mango wood What makes it so sustainable: Mango wood is sustainable because it is harvested as a by-product after the mango trees finish bearing fruit. It is a hard yet flexible tropical hardwood that can be harvested after 15 years. Its short rotation and by-product nature make mango wood a sustainable material for furniture, despite the traveling distances. 
Additionally: Mango wood is a strong and dense hardwood, making it a durable option for indoor furniture. 
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 stronger than steel and more resistant to water, infestation, rotting, and warping than hardwoods. Furniture made with bamboo can last for many years. Also, thanks to the lightweight, bamboo furniture can be moved under cover during extreme weather, which would help extend its lifespan.

Overall, these woods are highly sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of wooden indoor furniture 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 more sustainable.

Black Cherry Wood: Durable Hardwood from Fast-Growing Trees 

Back cherry wood 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.

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

  • Growing of black cherry wood: Black cherry (Prunus serotina) 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 or teak
  • Usage of black cherry wood: Black cherry furniture is long-lasting carbon storage because black cherry, especially its heartwood, is very durable and resistant to decay. 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 furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

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

American Beech Wood: Durable Hardwood From Domestically Available Species

Beechwood has a carbon footprint of 377 kg CO2-eq, cradle-to-gate, a mid-range value compared to commonly traded American hardwoods. Beechwood’s strength is comparable to oak, but its carbon footprint is about two-thirds of white oak’s. 

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

  • Growing of beechwood: Growing American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is sustainable because of its carbon sequestration potentials. As beech trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, which averages from 300 to 400 years. This means they are taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow up to 130 feet in height and 5 feet in trunk diameter.
  • Manufacturing of beechwood: Beechwood is challenging to dry because it is prone to warp, split and checks. Kiln drying can take 37 days. In comparison, kiln drying pine could take 14 days, and tulipwood takes only 4 to 5 days. 

    The carbon footprint of the drying step for a 4/4 inch log is 51.6 kg CO2-eq – lower than that of, for example, white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq) and red oak (89.7 CO2-eq), but higher than black cherry (42.7 CO2-eq). 
  • Transportation of beechwood: American beech trees grow widely across the eastern US in mixed hardwood forests. Because it is a domestic wood, the transporting footprint would be lower than imported hardwoods like mahogany or teak
  • Usage of beechwood: Beech is a strong and heavy hardwood, good for making furniture pieces that require bending (like chairs). It is susceptible to insect attacks and thus unsuitable for outdoor use. When beechwood is used for interior furniture, its durability is comparable to oak and hard maple
  • End-of-life of beechwood: The end-of-life stage for beechwood furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy.

Beechwood is one of the most sustainable woods for furniture that withstand a lot of pressure because it is strong and dense. The carbon footprint of beechwood is relatively low compared with that of woods with similar strength (like oak). Furniture made with beech can last for many decades, extending its role as carbon storage. 

Hard Maple Wood: Durable Hardwood from Highly Sustainably Managed Stock 

Hard maple is a sustainable hardwood for furniture because these species are abundant in the US forests. Hard maple furniture 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 beechwood, red oak, and white oak (other common hardwoods for furniture). 
  • 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 furniture are durable because this timber is heavy with good strength properties. Durable hardwood material is more environmentally friendly because the longer a piece of furniture last, the more sustainable it is in using the furniture as carbon storage. 
  • End-of-life of hard maple wood: The end-of-life stage for hard maple 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.

Ash Wood: A Local Hardwood With Excellent Strength 

Ash wood comes from several ash species. Because many ash trees have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer infestation, reclaiming ash timber from dead trees is an environmentally friendly way of sourcing this wood. Ash wood is known for its heavy weight, strength, hardness, and shock resistance. 

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

  • Growing of ash wood: Ash trees’ growth rates e from medium to fast: 13 inches per year (white ash) to more than 24 inches per year (green ash). As they grow, they sequester carbon and help to mitigate the climate crisis. During their long lifespan – 300 years for some ash species – they act as a carbon sink. 
  • Manufacturing of ash wood: Ash wood dries fairly fast and has a relatively low drying carbon footprint of 38.5 kg CO2-eq (1 m3,4/4 ash logs). That is less than half of white oak – a furniture wood with similar strength. 
  • Transportation of ash wood: Thanks to ash species’ widespread distribution in latitude, climate, and soil conditions, it is easy to source this timber locally in western states, lowering the transportation footprint. Besides, ash is lightweight. One truck can carry more ash than, for example, mahogany. 
  • Usage of ash wood: Furniture made with ash wood are long-lasting thanks to this timber’s excellent strength and shock resistance. The longer a wooden product lasts, the more sustainable it is because the product works as carbon storage.
  • End-of-life of ash wood: At the end of their life, ash wood can be upcycled (making new items) or recycled for bioenergy. 

Ash wood has a carbon footprint of 407 kg CO2-eq (per cubic meter of kiln-dried, 4/4 lumber), which is in the high end of US hardwoods. However, furniture made with ash wood can last for a long time, thanks to the wood’s excellent shock resistance and strength. Its durability makes it a sustainable option. 

Eastern Red Cedar Wood: Light Yet Strong Softwood From Widely Distributed Conifers 

Eastern red cedar is one of the most common timbers sold under the cedar label, though it is more closely related to junipers. The trees are smaller than western red cedar (or the giant arborvitae), but the wood is much harder. Eastern red cedar has a Janka score of 900, though its western counterpart only has a Janka score of 350. 

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

  • Growing of cedar wood: As eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) trees grow, they sequester carbon and help to mitigate the climate crisis. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan (up to 900 years). 

    Eastern red cedar has a medium growth rate: the annual height increase averages 1 to 2 feet.
  • Manufacturing of cedar wood: Eastern red cedar is dimensionally stable; thus, less energy is wasted on shrinkage, checking, and warping during kiln-drying. 
  • Transportation of cedar wood: Eastern redcedar is the most widely distributed conifer of tree size in the eastern US. Its wide native range means the timber can be sourced and transported locally or within shorter distances. Also, eastern red cedar is a lightweight timber, making it more energy-efficient to transport from forest to home. Consequently, transporting carbon footprint per unit for eastern red cedar is relatively small. 
  • Usage of cedar wood: Eastern red cedar is often used for wardrobes and dressers because it contains a natural anti-fungal and antibacterial agent that can protect clothing. It is also a hard softwood, much more than its western counterpart, helping it last longer in homes and keep the carbon storage role. 
  • End-of-life of cedar wood: The end-of-life stage for cedar furniture is sustainable because the wood can be fully reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Eastern red cedar is a sustainable material for indoor wooden furniture because of its strength, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial property. This tree species has a wide natural range, making it possible to source timber within a relatively short traveling distance. Its lightweight also contributes to a lower transporting footprint.

Mango Wood: Strong Flooring Material From an Agriculture By-Product

Mango wood is sustainable because it is harvested as a by-product after the mango trees finish bearing fruit. It is a hard yet flexible tropical hardwood that can be harvested after 15 years. Its short rotation and by-product nature make mango wood a sustainable material for furniture, despite the traveling distances. 

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

  • Growing of mango wood: Fundamentally, mango wood is the by-product of the thriving mango fruit industry. Once mango trees become less fruitful (at around 15 years of age), they can be cut down for timber. 

    Mango plantations are widespread in many parts of the world, including South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central America, South America, and Australia. The large population and the relatively short rotation mean mango wood is much more available than tropical hardwood from endangered tree species like teak or mahogany
  • Transportation of mango wood: As mango wood comes from tropical regions, transporting mango wood furniture would typically have a higher carbon footprint than transporting furniture made with regionally available wood, like maple or black cherry. However, as mango trees are grown in many regions, you can opt for mango wood sourced closer to home to reduce the carbon footprint. 
  • Usage of mango wood: Mango wood is susceptible to both fungal and insect attacks, so it won’t last long in outdoor furniture. However, used in indoor furniture, mango can have similar levels of durability to ash and oak. With the right maintenance, a piece of mango furniture can last for decades. 

    The longer a piece of furniture last, the more sustainable the usage stage is as the furniture store carbon (instead of releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere). 
  • End-of-life of mango wood: The end-of-life stage for mango furniture can be sustainable if the panels are upcycled for another project or used to make bioenergy. 

Mango wood is a sustainable material for furniture because this by-product is harvested after mango trees are no longer productive with bearing fruits. They are abundant waste material that needs to be cleared so that more mango trees can be grown, sequestering more carbon and producing more valuable fruit. Also, mango wood has good strength properties, and indoor furniture made with mango wood can last as long as that made with strong American hardwoods like ash or oak. 

Bamboo “Wood”: Light Yet Strong 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 because the bamboo slashes need more, compared to solid hardwoods, processing steps (such as boiling and curing) before they can be made into strong and durable furniture. 

    Besides, manufacturing bamboo furniture often requires adhesives because bamboo can’t easily be held together with nails or staples. The use of synthetic adhesive adds to the total manufacturing footprint. 

    Most adhesives contain formaldehyde – a gas that is released into the air over a period of time. This process is called “off-gassing,” and a high-level exposure can cause skin rashes, shortness of breath, wheezing, and changes in lung function. However, with the proper curing step and limited adhesives, bamboo furniture should be perfectly safe indoors. 
  • 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 than, for example, teak logs. The weight tends to compensate for the distance, leaving bamboo one of the sustainable choices for furniture. 
  • 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 “wood” can last at least as long as most US hardwoods. 
  • End-of-life of bamboo wood: If synthetic glues are used in manufacturing, bamboo furniture won’t be fully biodegradable. However, they can be partly recycled or up-cycle for other household projects. 

Bamboo furniture 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. 

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.

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. Forest Stewardship Council

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 find indoor furniture made with sustainably harvested woods from well-managed forests. These seven woods are among the most sustainable options: black cherry, beech, hard maple, ash, eastern red cedar, mango, and bamboo. The reasons are the relatively low carbon emissions during harvesting, manufacturing, and transporting and the years and decades that carbon is stored inside these woods. You can make it even more sustainable by using indoor furniture 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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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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