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Dear Planet Green,
I am considering using teak hardwood for my floors. The store I'm looking at gets its teak from Costa Rica. What should I watch for to be sure I'm NOT choosing something that is harmful for the environment, or people? My internet research is leaving me confused as to whether or not I will be supporting sustainable forestry practices if I choose teak.
—Floored by Flooring
Great question! It's okay that you're a bit confused, as there's a lot of contradictory information out there. Teak has a long list of both positives and negatives associated with its harvesting and use, and both should be carefully considered before deciding whether or not to use it.
Pros and cons of using teak
On the plus side, it's a beautiful, durable wood that has a high resistance to decay and termite attack and a hardness that falls in between black cherry and black walnut. Its natural oils make it a popular choice for use in exposed locations, where it is durable even when not treated with oil or varnish.
On the minus side, two out of the three species of teak (Tectona hamiltoniana, or Dahat Teak, and Tectona philippinensis or Philippine Teak) are endangered, and all have been subjected to unsustainable forestry practices for decades. Its popularity has led to some unsavory practices to reclaim old teak, where old homes are unceremoniously demolished and replaced with Western-style brick or concrete ones. And that's not the worst of it.
Over at TreeHugger, we saw at least one instance where a designer claimed to offer "sustainable teak," but further investigation revealed that wasn't the case. Yep, greenwashing strikes again; as it turns out, the teak in question was on a US Department of Labor list of items for "which there is a reasonable basis to believe...may have been mined, produced or manufactured by forced or indentured child labor."
How do you know who to believe?
Given this, the only way you can be sure that your teak isn't sourced using shady environmental practices or with unpleasant social ideals is to get wood with a certification; when it comes to wood, the only certification we trust is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). They have very specific, stringent chain-of-custody restrictions on what qualifies as "sustainable," so when you find something with an FSC stamp on it, you can trust it.
Who can you trust for sustainable teak?
A company called East Teak has earned FSC certification (chain of custody number TT-COC-002289, in case you're keeping score at home) for their teak products, and so they'd offer a pretty good choice. Short of similar certifications elsewhere, it's very difficult to say whether or not a given supplier is following sustainable practices, no matter how flowery or boastful the language is on their website. We do know this: there is an awful lot of teak that comes into the U.S. that comes from environmentally-degraded, socially-questionable sources.
We'd also like to point out that there is lots of FSC-certified, sustainable wood that comes from right here in the States. No matter where your teak comes from—sustainable or otherwise—it's pretty well guaranteed to have traveled a long, long distance to get here. Most of the world's teak is grown in Indonesia, Myanmar and other various locales around southeast Asia (and some comes from Central and South America), so even if it comes from a sustainable source, it's going to have a huge carbon footprint.
As an alternative, if you aren't absolutely, positively sold on teak, FSC-certified hardwoods and other reclaimed woods from here in the U.S. will be beautiful, durable, and come with far fewer frequent flier miles. There are sources all over the country for these woods; EcoTimber's store locator is a good place to start.
So, to recap: don't go with teak unless it's FSC-certified, and, to increase the positive impact of the whole process, have a look at some sources closer to home. We guarantee that there's a greener option for any aesthetic, style and location out there.
Difficulty level: Moderate