Is Hardwood Sustainable? What You Should Know


is hardwood softwood sustainable

For centuries, hardwood floors have been the natural choice for interior design. Hardwood is timeless, durable and elegant.

However, is it sustainable?

If you want to make sure your home decor is an ethical choice, then keep reading. This article will cover the following topics:

  • Overview of hardwood
  • Comparison to softwood
  • Sustainability concerns of hardwood
  • Exotic hardwoods

What Are Wood Floors?

Wood floors get talked about a lot, but hardwood is a term that people use without much precision. The fact is that there are a variety of wood floors.

To start, you must first realize that wood floors come in natural and engineered variations.

Natural wood floors feature planks made from a single piece of wood. This means the wood can be sanded and refinished multiple times.

Engineered wood floors are also made from wood. However, instead of using a full piece of wood, these floors are made from layers of wood.

Most of the time, engineered wood cannot be refinished, but the floor may be better able to withstand temperature changes.

Finally, composite wood floors also feature layers. In this case, only the top layer is made from real wood.

The other layers are made from cheaper composite materials for the look of wood at a fraction of the cost.

While all of these types of flooring are often referred to as wood, each one is quite different.

What is Hardwood?

oak hardwood

Not all wood is created equal. The majority of flooring options comes from hardwood.

In fact, hardwood is so common that the term is often used interchangeably with wood. However, there are some defining characteristics of hardwood.

The name implies that hardwood is harder than other variations. While this is typically true, it is not always the case. Instead, hardwood has special botanical properties.

Hardwood comes from deciduous trees. Deciduous trees lose their leaves annually. This differs from softwood, which typically comes from conifer or evergreen trees.

In general, hardwood sources grow slower because they have a dormant season in the winter. This is why most hardwood is denser or harder than softwood.

Moreover, hardwood has a distinctive seed. To reproduce, hardwood trees will flower. Their seeds will be covered in a shell or fruit. In this way, hardwood trees play a role in pollination.

Specific types of hardwood vary dramatically. However, the most common types for flooring in the United States are listed:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Hickory
  • Cherry
  • Birch

What Are the Differences Between Hardwood and Softwood?

Although the name suggests the difference is all about strength, you need to look at the biology of the hardwood and softwood trees to grasp the distinction.

As mentioned previously, softwood comes from conifer trees. Conifer trees stay green all year, which is why they are known as evergreen trees. Instead of producing leaves, conifer trees make cones and needles.

The most common softwoods are listed:

  • Pine
  • Fir
  • Cedar
  • Redwood

Unlike hardwood seeds, which are naturally protected, softwood seeds are completely exposed. This means that softwood trees are gymnosperms (flowerless) and do not have a dormant period.

While hardwood is more popular for flooring, softwood is more commonly used overall. About 80 percent of all timber comes from softwood. It is very popular in construction.

Advantages of Hardwood

There are a few key reasons why hardwood is often preferred for flooring. While not all hardwood is more durable than softwood, the majority of it is.

Wood hardness is measured on the Janka scale. Most hardwoods score higher on the Janka scale.

This means that hardwood is less prone to damage. It will not get dinged or marked as quickly. This durability is very important in living spaces.

The advantages continue to mount. Hardwood is also made to last. Its timeless look can be refinished time and again.

This allows damaged floors to be transformed into like-new condition. It also gives homeowners the ability to makeover their space without wasting money on new floors.

On top of that, hardwood floors are easy to maintain. Simple sweeping is often all that is needed on a regular basis. Compared to carpet, which must be vacuumed regularly and scrubbed after staining, hardwood is a breeze.

Hardwood is also good for people with allergies. Because it is a solid surface, hardwood does not harbor allergens like carpet.

For most people, the real reason to invest in hardwood is that it looks better. Obviously, this is subjective, but there is a reason hardwood has traditionally been the go-to choice for flooring. It simply has a timeless look that will never go out of style.

Hardwood’s Sustainability

The look and functionality of hardwood are certainly important, but there are other things to think about when choosing your flooring.

Sustainability is a dynamic concept that looks at how something fulfills needs today without compromising the needs of the future.

The debate on hardwood’s sustainability starts with wood’s status as a renewable resource. Natural stone takes decades or centuries to form, but wood grows much faster by comparison.

This means that wood can be replenished quickly and effectively. In this sense, wood sources do not have to be depleted when harvested responsibly.

To address deforestation concerns, modern forestry has taken great strides in sustainability.

In most cases, when a cubic foot of trees is cut down, about 1.66 cubic feet are replanted. Therefore, even though hardwood trees take more than 50 years to mature, the harvest rate is still less than the growth rate.

Hardwood has other key sustainable features. Namely, the durability of the floors is of the utmost importance. Because hardwood floors can be refinished, they can stay in homes for decades or even centuries.

There are few other types of flooring that can perform like this. Because wood floors can look so good for so long, they are not replaced as often. This creates far less waste than other materials like carpet.

While tile and stone can last as long, their appearances cannot be altered. Therefore, stone and tile are more likely to be replaced for aesthetic reasons. Hardwood truly endures in both performance and style.

Hardwood is so durable that it can even be reused. There are many options for reclaimed wood floors. Even if the wood is too damaged for flooring, it can be given new life in a different building context.

If wood must be disposed of, it has minimal impact on the environment. Wood is fully biodegradable.

Environmental Concerns

Wood must also be shipped, manufactured and processed before it ends up in your home. All of these steps lead to certain risks to the environment.

First, after the wood is cut, it must be shipped to the mill. During this part of the process, lumber haulers must be used. These haulers do have some environmental output, and that amount may vary depending on the distance from the harvesting site to the mill.

After shipping the lumber, it must be dried. While this starts with air drying, it typically finishes with a kiln. To operate a kiln, fossil fuels must be used.

Similarly, water is used to make steam, and electricity must be used to operate fans. In addition to this consumption of resources, the process also produces some air emissions that include volatile organic compounds.

The newly dried wood must then be planed. Planing ensures that the lumber is a uniform thickness. More energy and fossil fuels are used during this process, and there is typically waste. Wood waste can either be burned or manufactured in new ways.

Planing handles the thickness of the lumber, but ripping creates width. Electricity must be used for the machinery, and there is a significant amount of sawdust output. Again, any wood waste from the ripping process is typically manufactured into things like wood bricks or pellets.

Once planks of wood have been created, there is more trimming to complete. Then, the boards are sorted and graded for shipment. Obviously, machinery is used in this process. If the wood is going to be pre-finished, additional environmental costs will be accrued.

While this breakdown reveals the numerous points of potential pollution or waste, it must be taken in context. Clearly, the production of hardwood floors is not without some environmental cost.

However, the production of hardwood floors compares well to other types of flooring. Most studies agree that wood is a low-carbon emission product.

One final environmental consideration comes from the treatment and sealing of the wood. The analysis detailed above looks at unfinished floors exclusively. Finishing a floor will add in additional factors.

There are some reasons to opt for pre-finished floors. When finishing takes place at a factory, there should be safeguards in place to deal with the gas outputs.

When installing and sealing your floors at home, always make sure that you use products without volatile organic compounds in order to minimize the environmental and health risk.

Why Your Wood’s Origin Matters

While it is easy to build up hardwood as the perfect environmental choice, there is one caveat. Namely, not all wood is sourced or processed in the same way.

The descriptions included above focus on the best-case scenario. Eco-friendly and sustainable wood flooring certainly does exist, but it is not a guarantee. It is essential for consumers to do their due diligence when picking hardwood floors.

It was only a few decades ago that wood floors had a much different reputation. As deforestation spiraled out of control, worries about the world’s forests were foremost in the minds of consumers.

While there has been a lot of action taken to mitigate this problem, it is still something to keep in mind.

To ensure that your hardwood floors are sustainable, look only at options approved by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Known as the FSC, this is an international nonprofit organization that is dedicated to responsibility in forest management. The FSC is the industry standard for sustainability.

It is not necessarily easy to get FSC approval. In all, there are 57 criteria that must be met. These criteria vary widely and include the following:

  • Wildlife protection
  • Minimal use of pesticides
  • Union access for loggers

This is just the start, and you can see that the criteria are diverse and specific. While this standard can be hard to meet, it does mean that products sold with this approval are very much up to snuff. Every product with the FSC seal can be traced back to its forest of origin.

When the program first started, only 20 companies in the United States were selling lumber with the FSC label. In 2005, this number had gone up dramatically to 556.

Worldwide, the progress is even more impressive with 4,000 companies carrying FSC approval internationally. The market for sustainable lumber is growing, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Current estimates suggest that only 10 percent of hardwood stocked by most retailers is approved by the FSC. Therefore, consumers must be careful when perusing their options in order to avoid choosing hardwood that is not sustainably sourced.

The best news is that the FSC guidelines seem to be making a difference. In 2005, there were 15.5 million acres of woodland certified by the FSC in the United States. This number was a huge improvement over the 1.4 million acres documented in 1995.

Another option is to look for hardwood floors certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

The SFI also certifies forests with an emphasis on reforestation and wildlife protection. However, the guidelines for SFI forests are less stringent than the guidelines for FSC forests.

Hardwood vs. Softwood – Which Is More Sustainable?

While hardwood floors are generally preferred for their durability, there are some sustainability advantages to understand about softwood floors. This has to do with the way softwood grows.

In previous sections, it was explained how hardwood has a dormant season. This causes the tree to grow slower. Therefore, it takes longer for a hardwood tree to be reforested once it has been cut down.

Softwood comes from evergreen trees. Because these trees never go dormant, they tend to grow faster. Therefore, softwood forests can be replenished much faster.

In this aspect, softwood is more sustainable than hardwood. Other factors like processing and manufacturing would carry similar risks and benefits.

The only other consideration when comparing hardwood to softwood goes back to durability. Durability not only makes life easier for homeowners, but it improves the lifespan of the product.

So when someone installs hardwood, it is likely to wear better than comparable softwood installations.

In this context, though softwood sources may be replenished more often, hardwood floors will need to be replaced less often.

Therefore, the question of sustainability is not as easy to delineate. Fortunately, if you source your floors responsibly, both hardwood and softwood can be smart, sustainable options.

Pay Attention to the Finishing

By most measures, it seems that hardwood floors can be both a sustainable and eco-friendly choice for your home.

This all stems from the harvesting and processing of the wood. What about installation?

There are some concerns during the finishing and installation of any floor. In some cases, floors are installed using glues or seals that could contain toxic chemicals.

Fortunately, many hardwood floors are now floating. This means that the pieces are not glued to the sub-flooring. Instead, these pieces are designed to be interlocking. This is a faster and safer installation method.

To ensure that your flooring is safe for the air quality inside and outside your home, look for the Floorscore or UL GREENGUARD label.

These certifications check to see that the product follows guidelines for safe air quality emissions, and they are both recognized by the LEED Rating System.

Disadvantages of Hardwood

With the evidence so far, it may seem like hardwood floors are a sure thing for any space. This is not quite the case.

In fact, it is imperative to accurately assess the potential drawbacks of hardwood before you install it in your home.

The biggest disadvantage to remember is that wood is affected by temperature changes. Hardwood or softwood will both contract in cold weather and expand in warm weather. This requires special installation considerations to keep the floor from warping.

This can make it difficult to maintain your floors in some cases. Traditional mops or steam mops should not be used on hardwood. The moisture can cause the wood to expand and warp.

For this reason, wood is not typically recommended for kitchens and bathrooms. Studies have shown that hardwood floors in these areas do not perform as well as alternatives like laminate, stone or tile.

Finally, wood floors are often noisier. While carpet absorbs noise, it only bounces off wood. Therefore, you are more likely to hear every noise in your house when you have hardwood floors.

Exotic Types of Hardwood

unsustainable forestry deforestation

While most hardwood floors are made from American standards like oak, maple or hickory, there are many other options. This is especially true as you look at exotic hardwoods.

Exotic hardwood may sound very fancy, but the term can be a little misleading. Exotic simply refers to woods that are not forested in the United States. Domestic hardwood comes from American soil, but exotic hardwood must be imported.

While there are risks to the environment when importing products, there are also some specific reasons why some of these hardwoods are worth the cost.

It is important to understand the unique qualities of each hardwood floor when making a selection.

Is Jarrah Sustainable?

Jarrah originates in Australia, and it has a limited growth area. It has become popular because of its distinctive color and noticeable grain. Jarrah floors are often burgundy in color with black streaks.

Because of its limited growth area, its sustainability is questionable. Old growth has been diminished dramatically in recent years. Even so, reforestation efforts are ongoing.

Jarrah is a very strong wood and ranks high on the Janka scale. Because of this, jarrah wood requires extra strength in processing. This can also limit the sustainability of jarrah.

Is Kwila Sustainable?

Kwila used to be prevalent in Southeast Asia, but today it can be found mostly in New Guinea. Due to its durability in extreme weather conditions, kwila is popular in outdoor furniture and decking. It has also found a foothold in the flooring industry.

However, there are serious concerns about the sustainability of kwila. Kwila was illegally harvested for decades, which led to a rapid loss of supply.

This is compounded by the fact that kwila takes nearly 80 years to mature. Moreover, it is not grown in dense groves. There are usually under 10 trees in every hectare.

Kwila regulations are a hot topic in New Zealand, where much of kwila is harvested.

Due to these considerations, while kwila is beautiful and durable, it is not the best choice for a sustainable floor.

Is Beechwood Sustainable?

Beech is widely grown in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of the beech forests in Europe are so established that they are actually protected as World Heritage Sites.

This does not mean that beech is immune to supply problems. For example, beech production in Armenia may bring in a lot of money, but it has also depleted Armenia’s forest cover substantially. It is estimated that Armenia loses 1 million cubic meters of trees every year.

The problem also extends to areas in the United Kingdom and France. Here, most beechwood has a PEFC certification. This certification is far less stringent and carries far less weight than the comparable FSC label.

If you are interested in using beech, then be sure to look for beech with the coveted FSC certification. You can also shop for reclaimed beech flooring.

There are many reasons why it is worth your time and money to look for sustainable beech. Beechwood is quite durable. It scores decently high on the Janka scale, coming in above popular floors like oak.

Beechwood also has a distinctive, fine grain. Its appearance is often smoother than other woods. This gives beech a lighter, more uniform look, which can be incredibly attractive in your home.

Is Mahogany Sustainable?

Mahogany is a beautiful wood. For years, it has been sought after for its rich coloring. It is a durable wood with an attractive grain.

For this reason, mahogany has been widely used in making furniture, instruments and more. It is also an option for your floors.

While the appeal is understandable, it is probably not a good idea to use mahogany for your hardwood floors. This has to do with mahogany’s sustainability.

Most mahogany is grown in the Caribbean or South America. Because of this, most mahogany forests were dramatically impacted by colonialism.

As Europeans came through these areas, the trees were logged and shipped back to Europe where they were used for furniture. Mahogany was one of the key resources targeted by early European explorers and settlers because of the high price it would fetch.

This led to rapid deforestation in the area. Logging started in the 1500s, and it continues to this day. Accordingly, mahogany is a very endangered wood. To work with mahogany legally, it must have approval from the FSC.


Hardwood is a timeless choice for your home. By taking the right precautions, you can also make sure it is a timeless choice for the world.

Learn about the types of hardwood that best suit your space, and verify the source of your floors to protect the environment.

With real hardwood floors, it is possible to prioritize both interior design and sustainability.

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