Timber & Wood Products


This guide provides a comprehensive overview of most of the common specifier and homeowner questions. What are the environmental issues? What is Timber Certification? What does Chain of Custody Mean? What are the various preservatives available and which ones are healthiest? What is the carbon sink benefits of MDF as opposed to solid timber, or plastics? These questions and many more are addressed.

This guide is divided into the following sections:

textbox1.pngFor further guidance see:


Timber & Wood Products Technical Guides:

- Preservatives and Treatments

- Suitable Uses and Applications


Priority Setting Guides.

Timber and Wood Products, Adhesives Tapes & Fasteners, Doors, Floor Surfaces, Kitchens, Paints & Walls




Timber & wood products are potentially among the most sustainable products designers can specify. They can also be among the most environmentally destructive.

The challenge to those designing with and specifying timber and wood products is to determine whether products fall into the former or latter category.

Many imported wood products come with environmental claims that are difficult to verify, and there remains a diversity of opinion over the ecological and social sustainability of management practices in forests globally.  Forests and plantations remain a touchstone for a broad range of industrial, social and political interests as much of the timber imported into developed economies like USA, EU, Australia and UK is illegal.

The extent of this illegal trade has prompted a number of countries to move to ban illegal wood imports. In the USA, the Lacey Act has been introduced, banning illegal timber imports. Both the  EU and Australia now have bans in place too. 

An assessment of the environmental characteristics of timber and wood products from a user's perspective should consider:

  • The procurement of the raw material including forest management practices;
  • The amount of energy used to extract and process timber into finished building components;
  • The impacts of timber throughout its use-phase including impacts and benefits on greenhouse emissions, energy efficiency and air quality;
  • The fate of the product, its recyclability, reusability and biodegradability;
  • The social sustainability of the supply chain and actions within it.

Environmental Overview


Habitat & Land

The devastation by logging of ecosystems and associated cultures from the Amazon to Canada's great Cedar forests is well known. Forest destruction continues to escalate, with increasing ramifications as more is removed. It is estimated that 80% of the worlds historic forests cover has been removed already, with an estimated 40% of the remaining 'frontier' or unlogged high-biodiversity forests likely to be destroyed or degraded in the next 10-20 years {Environment News Service, 2002}. This is of critical importance with the global replacement of forests by plantations, and the fundamental ecological differences between old-growth (primary/ frontier) or High Conservation Value (HCV) forests, 'managed' forests, and plantations.

The desire for independent assessment of sustainability claims, domestically and internationally, and the perception that consumers will differentiate on the basis of environmental assurance, has driven the development of certification schemes and a variety of management initiatives {Drielsma, 2002 #688}. Refer 'Certification & Eco-Assurances' below.

textbox2.pngEnergy & Greenhouse

Energy consumption in buildings and in the manufacture of materials is synonymous with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the past (including past versions of this note) the focus has been placed on operational and embodied energy.

However now with the critical focus of our time being Climate Change and greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs), the focus must change from embodied energy to measuring carbon based emissions (GGEs) and the potential of materials, products and processes to provide carbon sequestration (or sink) potential… because products with low GGEs and high carbon sink characteristics (such as timber) have the potential to provide a major solution to the overall GGE problem in mitigating climate change. Most carbon sink products are sourced from organic sources. Other carbon sink examples include:

  • Bamboo
  • Reeds
  • Thatch
  • Sisal
  • Hemp
  • Peat
  • Organically enriched soil

But here's the rub…if we increase dramatically our use of timber to reduce climate change….unless we harvest timber in a way that protects the immediate and bioregional ecology, specify species appropriately for their durability characteristics and use it in ways that allow its re-use, we risk the very integrity of the natural systems that support life….so we must tread carefully.

Using embodied energy as a metric is no longer appropriate as it is measure of all energy inputs whether they have GGEs associated with them or not, e.g. Weathertex weatherboard cladding has a high embodied energy, but zero GGEs because it uses GHG neutral biofuels from waste wood. The same effect would be noticed if a product was manufactured using predominantly solar thermal or photovoltaic sources, ie high embodied energy, but low to no carbon emissions. Embodied energy as a metric also does not recognise carbon sink potential, so completely misses the potential for wood-based materials to sequester carbon.

textbox3.pngThe preferred metric for measuring GGEs is KgCO2e/kg or kilograms of Carbon Dioxide equivalents per kilogram of material. Other gases besides CO2 (such as methane that is generated when wood rots) have climate change impacts and CO2e creates factors that relate all these other gases impacts back to Co2 as a standard. When an emission has an impact on climate change the metric KgCO2e/kg means there is an impact. A carbon sink material has a negative or - KgCO2e/kg figure (so in fact is a positive benefit!) i.e. when you use timber in buildings over long term periods, we are effectively locking up the embodied carbon dioxide for that period.

Hence we need to focus on KgCO2e/kg of GGEs as the metric to frame our discussions around materials and their impacts on Climate Change or risk losing all capability to measure the climate change benefits of products, especially timber and wood based products.

For buildings, GGEs from operational energy consumption generally outweighs the embodied GGEs from the sourcing of raw materials and manufacture within building structures.

However as buildings get progressively more efficient from an operational point of view the relative impact of embodied impacts becomes much higher.

Embodied GGEs of building becomes a significant, especially in highly efficient buildings. The as timber and wood products are generally carbon sinks, they can in fact reduce the overall GGE of a building overall. Furthermore timber provides potential further advantage where its insulative properties are of

Embodied carbon should also be considered in the context of end of life; timber has (in a worst case) the opportunity to release carbon through combustion, if it is placed in a moist environment without oxygen it can rot and generate methane (22 times the GHG impact of carbon dioxide), it can be used as a mulch, which when rotting in the presence of soil and moisture will tend to bind the carbon into the soil and allow it to be re-absorbed by plants or it can be recovered.


In timber milling, vast quantities of smaller section timbers and offcuts are not used or recycled as a result of a preference for larger sections, ensuring that smaller sizes have little or no value. In addition demand for larger section timbers and decreasing public-land supply ensures a ready market for trees to be cut on private land that may or may not have appropriate management controls in place.

Using small sizes of timber up front maximizes choice in species, performance and finish while optimising the design to utilise smaller-dimensioned timber from forests and plantations.

Specifying larger solid section sizes increasingly limits species choice, blows-out lead times, and increases costs as these sizes are less readily available and typically sourced only from older trees and forests. Larger solid sections (e.g. for boards over 140mm wide, beams over 300 deep) are not generally a characteristic of regrowth forests or plantations.

The selection of 'visual grade' is a key decision that is entirely in the hands of the specifier. The selection of 'clear' grades greatly increases the likelihood of waste or lower value wood utilisation, and greatly decreases the potential for the use of regrowth and plantation timbers as these timbers typically have higher levels of 'feature'. Visual grade often shows small natural blemishes that in fact adds to the character overall rather than detracting from it and should be considered in all projects.

In recovering timbers from projects under demolition, however larger sections are more likely to be able to be recovered intact and are therefore most suited to future re-use. Unfortunately, a large proportion of timber used today is used in small sections, often nailed or nailing plated together e.g. prefabricated wall and roof trusses, limiting their recovery.

textbox4.pngEngineered Wood and Timber Composites

An increasingly common solution that solves both problems is composite wood and hybrid wood/steel beam composites. When these are used in standardised sections of small or thin sections of timber from the mills is used to construct larger sections and lengths they become very strong either by lamination, or using the combined strength of steel and timber. These engineered wood and composite products have high strength, high resource efficiency, high recycling capacity (particularly if screw fixed into place) and typically still retain a degree of carbon sink or carbon neutral capacity.

Certification of Sustainability


What Standards, Certification and other Eco-Assurances exist and what do they mean?

What is Certification?

accc-green-marketing.pngCertification of timber was established as a means of protecting forests by promoting legal, responsible, ecologically sustainable forestry practices (as opposed to Sustainable Forestry which promotes a sustainable source of sawlogs rather than the ecology around and in the forests), with consumer demand as a driving factor. Technically, forest certification is 'the process by which the performance of on-the-ground forestry operations are assessed against a predetermined set of standards'.

Forms of certification

A useful approach to certification and other claims, is to consider who actually makes the claim, also known as first, second, or third party claims:

  • First party (or self declarations) indicates an internal assessment of a company's own systems and practices (the international standard covering the requirements for legal first party declarations is ISO 14021). The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) also published in 2009 its 'Green Marketing and the Trade Practices  Act' publication that includes requirements for company self declarations.


  • Second party assessment indicates assessment by a second party such as a customer or trade association who assess the company according to the customer's needs and any existing contractual obligations. This system maybe somewhat useful to the customer assessing the company, but is inappropriate for comparison with other companies and/or products.
  • Third party assessment requires an entirely separate accredited third party to assess the forest operation based on separately agreed standards. The International Organisation for Standards (ISO) defines a third party as a 'person or body that is recognised as being independent of the parties involved, as concerns the issue in question'. The international standard covering the requirements for legal first party declarations is ISO 14024)
  • Chain of Custody (CoC) Certification - this is a third party assurance process for "the path taken by raw materials, processed materials and products, from the forest to the consumer, including all successive stages of processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution". Through CoC the end user has assurance via an established 'paper trail' or linked certification, that the timber comes from where it says it comes from and was not, for example, mixed up in the timber yard or deliberately substituted. It is an essential component of any credible forest certification scheme.  The validity of a CoC certification number can be checked visiting the certifying bodies website and checking against its published certification number.

Third party certification schemes

Third party certification schemes are recognised as the most valuable tool in promoting sustainable forest management.  Third party certification schemes have the same main elements including Standards, Certification, Accreditation, Labelling and Chain of Custody. Approximately only 10% of the world's forests are certified by any recognised third party scheme.

textbox6.pngForest Management and Chain of Custody Certification are critical tools in stopping the illegal descruction of HCV forests globally. Any type of CoC Certification is better than none in the efforts to stop the plundering of our planet's most diverse ecosystems

However, they can be very different and achieve varying outcomes.  All third party certification schemes are based on standards that define the forest management practices of the scheme.

Third party schemes include 2 main Schemes:

a)     Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) with all its Nationally based member-schemes such as AFS (Australian Forestry Standard), CSA (Canadian Standards Association), MTCC (Malaysian Timber Certification Council), SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative).. PEFC accredited schemes. The Australian Forest Certification Scheme (AFCS or AFS) is the PEFC accredited scheme in Australia.

b)    Forest Stewardship Council standard (FSC) schemes. FSC International accredited schemes. FSC Australia is the Australian provider of FSC certification.

Both are widespread with Standards that claim to ensure high levels of environmental stewardship, and both will provide 'Chain of Custody'. In Australia AFS has approx. 27,000,000 ha and FSC 1,000,000. The ratio between PEFC and FSC internationally is now 60/40 (2016).

PEFC appears to be recognised at the same level as FSC in at a Governmental level in USA, Canada, UK, Japan, Australia and some European Countries.

However FSC is still generally the scheme preferred by organisations like, WWF and Greenpeace, although the World Green Building Council and the majority of its member countries including the US Green Building Council in their LEED Green Building Rating system as well as Ecospecifier have increased the recognition of AFS/PEFC in recent times as it has increased the robustness of its Standards and evidence of its credibility among field assessors has grown (see Table below for reasons).


Eco-Assurance Schemes

GreenPeace Eco-Timber

Greenpeace Australia Pacific actively supports ecoforestry projects in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Beautiful ecotimber is available to buy in Australia in small quantities. Ecoforestry allows local communities to earn money by harvesting timber and other products from the forest in a way that ensures the long-term integrity of the forest's biodiversity.

Figure 3 Ecoforestry.jpg

Figure 3: Ecoforestry Practices in Papua New Guinea: Portable Saw mills are used to mill timber where the tree is felled. (Source: Accessed 28/3/13 @ http://www.goodwoodguide.org.au/ecoforestry.php)

3 key foundations of ecoforestry:

  • community organisation
  • clear and undisputed land rights
  • a participatory land use plan

Ecotimber is in transition to FSC certification and expected to be fully certified in early 2011. Sources of Ecotimber can be found on ecospecifier and in Greenpeace's Good Wood Guide.

Greenpeace Good Wood Guide

The Good Wood Guide is an online tool developed by Greenpeace Australia Pacific. It helps consumers and professionals understand and rate the comparative sustainability of different  timber species and sources.

It colour codes species and products using a colour system of green, amber and red. Here is an extract from the Good Wood guide as to what these colour ratings mean according to Greenpeace:

Good Wood Guide Colour Ratings.jpgTo access the Good Wood species and product rating database see www.goodwoodguide.org.au/search.php

Green Building Council of Australia: recognised timber certification schemes

FSC schemes that are accredited by FSC International or PEFC are recognised by the GBCA as compliant with the GBCA Essential Criteria for evaluating forest certification schemes.

The Green Star 'Timber' credit seeks to ensure the use of legally sourced timber. Specifying timber that is sourced from a FSC or PEFC accredited scheme may contribute to the achievement of one point in the credit.

GBCA has yet to announce its criteria for the awarding of the second Sustainable Timber credit.

ecospecifier position on timber certification

ecospecifier believes it is essential that illegal forestry practices are stopped and the best way to accomplish this is to use forest management certification with CoC certification, in short, any certification is better than no certification.

Legal source certification: Furthermore, timber certification (or not) is the basis of the timber based product Biodiversity Sustainability Assessment Criteria in the GreenTagCert™ Standard. Consequently, ecospecifier recognises FSC schemes that are accredited by FSC International and PEFC (including AFS) schemes as preferred evidence of legal sourcing.

ecospecifier and Greentag™ recognise FSC as the preferred schemes for the preservation of ecology and biodiversity overall compared to PEFC schemes.

This position will remain under constant review and any change to this policy as a result of improving practices will be announced via our newsletter and website

References to all Timber Technical Notes

ABS (2001). Forestry production & Timber production Tasmania 1996-2000.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, (2002). Year Book Australia 2002: forestry and fishing wood and paper products.

Australian Forestry Standard Limited, (2007), AS 4708-2007: Forestry Standard, Standards Australia, Sydney

CSIRO Publishing (2001). Australia, state of the environment 2001.1 CD-ROM ;, http://www.ea.gov.au/soe/2001/.

Bone, K. (2002). Personal communication with Dominance Industries. A. Walker-Morison. Melbourne.

Briggs Veneers (2002). Wood Veneer Cutting Methods and Veneer Characteristics, http://www.briggs.com.au/tech_natural.php.

Brown, S. K. (2001). Building With Low Indoor Air Polluting Materials And Appliances. Melbourne, CSIRO.

fern.org (2001). The Australian Forestry Standard (AFS): another PEFC in disguise?, http://www.fern.org/node/715

Cadman, T. (2002). The Development of an Australian Forestry Standard:An Environmental NGO Perspective. Canberra, Conservation Council of Western Australia, Friends of the Earth, Native Forest Network, Rainforest Information Centre, West Australian Forest Alliance,.

Camden City Council (2003). Green Buildings Guide, http://www.camden.gov.uk/.

Carey, C. (2000). Biodiversity Robustness of Forest Certification: A preliminary assessment of forest management certification systems, IUCN, Economics Unit.

Clark, J. (1995). Australia's plantations: A report to the State Conservation Councils. Melbourne, Environment Victoria.

Commonwealth of Australia (2002). Your Home. Canberra, Australian Greenhouse Office.

Confederation of European Paper Industries (2000). Comparative Matrix of Forest Certification Schemes, Confederation of European Paper Industries.

Commonwealth Government of Australia (2003). Regional Forest Agreements (RFA's), http://www.daff.gov.au/forestry/policies/rfa

De Fegely, R., (2005), Overview of Illegal Logging, JP Management Consulting Pty Ltd for the Australian Dept Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, Canberra.

Drielsma, J. H. (2002). The Australian Forestry Standard: A new era for Sustainable Forest Management in Australia. Australian Forest Growers Conference, Albany, AFG.

Earthwatch Europe, IUCN, et al. (2002). Business & Biodiversity: The Handbook for Corporate Action. Geneva, IUCN.

ecoselect (2003). Introducing ecoselect, Publicity Brochure.

(2002). Myth of World Forest Cover Shattered http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/apr2002/2002-04-04-02.html.

(2001). Poisoned Playgrounds. http://www.ewg.org/research/poisoned-playgrounds.

Faculty of Forestry and the Forest Environment, Lakehead University (2003). Forest Management in Russia, http://www.borealforest.org/world/rus_mgmt.htm.

Fern (2001). Behind the logo: An Environmental and Social Assessment of Forest Certification Schemes. Moreton-in-Marsh, Fern.

Friends of the Earth UK (2003). Good Wood Guide, http://www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/biodiversity/resource/good_wood_guide/wood_timber_types_a_to_g.html.

Forest Stewardship Council. http://www.fsc.org/certification.html

Keenan, R., and Ryan, M., (2004), Old Growth Forests in Australia: Conservation status and significance for timber production, Australian Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra. www.environment.gov.au/soe/2006/publications/drs/pubs/338/lnd/ld_29_old_growth_forests.pdf

Kanowski, P. J., D. Sinclair, et al. (2000). Establishing comparability and equivalence amongst forest management certification schemes. Canberra, AFFA.

Mackey, B. G., R. G. Lesslie, et al. (1998). The Role of Wilderness in Nature Conservation: A report to The Australian and World Heritage Group Environment Australia. Canberra, The School of Resource Management and Environmental Science, The Australian National University.

New Scientist (2002). Accusations fly over 'green' timber. New Scientist.

Noss, R. F., E. T. LaRoe, et al. (1995). Endangered Ecosystems of the United States:A Preliminary Assessment of Loss and Degradation. Washington DC, USDI National Biological Service.

Nussbaum, R., S. Jennings, et al. (2002). Assessing forest certification schemes: a practical guide. London, UK Department for International Development.

Pears, A. (2003). Embodied Energy vs Operational Energy. A. Walker-Morison. Melbourne.

Rainforest Action Network (2003). What Not To Buy, http://ran.org/issues/forests/.

Sendzimir, J., G. Bradley Guy, et al. (2001). Construction Ecology: Nature as a Basis for Green Buildings, Spon Press.

State of the Environment Advisory Council (1996). Australia State of the Environment 1996. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia.

State of the Environment Advisory Council (2001). Australia State of the Environment 2001. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia.

University of Tasmania (2003). Environmental Certification of Timber, 2003http://oak.arch.utas.edu.au/tbia/view_article.asp?articleID=108.

University of Tasmania, (2003). Major International Forest Certification Schemes, http://oak.arch.utas.edu.au/tbia/view_article.asp?articleID=113.

Treloar, G. J., A. McCoubrie, et al. (1999). "Embodied energy analysis of fixtures, fittings and furniture in office buildings." Facilities 17(11): 403-409.

Walker-Morison, A. (2003). TIMBER & WOOD PRODUCTS: APPLICATIONS AND ESD DECISION MAKING. Environment Design Guide. Melbourne, Building Design Professionals Association. .

Wilderness Society, (2006), Certifying the Incredible, The Australian Forestry Standard Barely Legal and not Sustainable- Let the evidence speak for itself: a Response to AFS Ltd, Wilderness Society, Sydney at www.wilderness.org.au/pdf/TWS,%20Certifying%20the%20Incredible-responseto%20AFSLtdV1,%20Feb%202006.pdf


All websites last accessed in April 2014 unless otherwise stated.