Shopping for furniture has always involved a series of tough questions: Does it match? Will it fit? Can I afford it?
Now, as if those puzzlers aren't enough to make you curl up in your old lawn chair and forget about buying something new, there's another question to add to the list.
Is the furniture you're considering environmentally correct?
An increased awareness of the fragility of the earth's environment and the rapid depletion of her natural resources has caused "green" consumers to question the impact of all their buying decisions.
And today, furniture as a category is under increasing scrutiny -- especially pieces made from tropical woods, since those materials often come from endangered rain forest areas.
"Teak and mahogany are probably the two tropical hardwoods most familiar to the average consumer, along with rosewood and ebony," said Ivan Ussach, vice president of the New York-based Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit organization established for the conservation of the world's tropical rain forests.
A utility grade plywood called Philippine mahogany that's often used under veneers of other types of wood is the largest single category of tropical wood coming into the United States, added Mr. Ussach, who is director of the Rainforest Alliance's tropical timber project.
So should you buy that elegant mahogany dining table or the rustic teak garden furniture you've had your eye on?
Unfortunately, there's no simple answer.
The Rainforest Action Network, the San Francisco-based environmental group that led a nationwide boycott of Burger King until the chain stopped importing beef from tropical countries where rainforests were cut down to provide pasture, takes a firm stand on the issue.
"Don't buy tropical wood products," urges one of RAN's publications. "Skip the rosewood and mahogany furniture and paneling . . . don't buy plywood made from timber clearcut from rainforests. . . ."
Pamela Wellner, RAN's tropical timber campaign director, said although the group hasn't declared a blanket ban on tropical hardwoods, she believes that "99.9 percent of the tropical timber harvested today is done in a non-sustainable fashion and should be avoided."
"Our goal is to reduce wood consumption overall, or stick to domestic or temperate hardwoods that are not threatened," Ms. Wellner added.
PTC But the Rainforest Alliance leans more toward encouraging well-managed use of the world's rain forests -- including selectively cutting hardwood for manufacturing purposes -- because of the belief that such use often benefits the local economy and encourages conservation and reforestation efforts.
"Simply not buying these [tropical wood] products may seem like an easy solution," a Rainforest Alliance brochure reads, "but a boycott could actually do more harm than good if not well targeted."
The Rainforest Alliance recently instituted a program called Smart Wood, through which manufacturers and retailers request rating on their appropriate use of tropical woods.
Before a firm can earn the Smart Wood designation and label products with the program's logo, an audit is performed to verify the source of wood used, and then that source is evaluated according to maintenance of environmental functions, sustained yield production and impact on the communities where the wood is grown and harvested.
"So far we have a list of seven [Smart Wood] companies, and we're negotiating for more," Mr. Ussach said.
Among the companies who have earned across-the-board Smart Wood designations are a Frederick, Md., firm, Mahogany Craft; Kingsley-Bate Ltd., a wholesaler of outdoor teak and mahogany furniture; the Plow & Hearth, catalog retailers of teak outdoor furniture; and Latitude 16 Designs and Victorian Reproductions, two Honduran firms that wholesale garden and patio furniture. The Smith & Hawken catalog offers some items designated as Smart Wood products, as does Summit Furniture, a California manufacturer and wholesaler of teak and mahogany furniture.
"If people are interested in tropical wood furniture, we urge them to consider Smart Wood furniture," Mr. Ussach said.
RAN doesn't think Smart Wood criteria are stringent enough, Ms. Wellner said, and has recently begun meeting informally with other environmental groups and individuals to consider other possible rating standards.
Clay Kingsley, president of Kingsley-Bate Ltd., one of the Smart Wood-certified companies, said he sees increasing evidence that consumers want more information about wood products from environmentally sensitive areas of the world.
"I know the catalogs that sell this type of garden furniture get questions, and my dealers are asking me for more information today," Mr. Kingsley said. "The customer wants to know more now."
Kingsley-Bate manufactures its teak and mahogany garden furniture at a factory in Indonesia, using plantation-grown wood exclusively.
"We use only genuine teak and mahogany trees that were planted in groves by the Dutch in the mid-19th century," Mr. Kingsley said. "The government only cuts so much a year and reforests the same amount," he added.
"Actually, garden furniture manufacturing uses only a fraction of the teak that is cut each year -- boat-building is a much bigger consumer," Mr. Kingsley said.
"But this little industry has created the interest in saving teak," he said. "The thing is that this furniture has a sophistication to it -- the ones who buy it are generally wealthier and better educated people, and they are activists."
So is only plantation-grown tropical wood acceptable?
That's not such an easy question either.
The Rainforest Action Network says plantations are not the solution because primary forests often are cleared to make way for the managed groves.
"Reducing a complex tropical forest ecosystem to a monoculture of trees -- more closely resembling a corn field than a tropical forest -- usually results in an ecological disaster," a RAN publication states.
The Rainforest Alliance's Mr. Ussach agreed that cutting down a forest to create a plantation is not the answer.
"But if wood is coming from a plantation, that at least tells you it wasn't from a forest that was further damaged by logging operations," Mr. Ussach pointed out.
Plantations that have been in existence for many years generally are a good choice, he added, but there is still the question of whether or not the plantation is being properly managed for long-term sustainable production.
Among problems associated with plantation-grown woods, according to RAN's Ms. Wellner, are the appropriation of lands formerly used by local farmers and pesticide runoff that can harm the local water supply.
As things stand, the burden of making environmentally sound furniture choices remains firmly on the consumer's shoulders.
While the Smart Wood designation at least implies that the supplier has been checked out, a list of just seven companies is hardly enough to satisfy consumers' furniture needs.
"When there is no Smart Wood designation," Mr. Ussach suggested, "there are two key questions to be asked, by the consumer to the retailer and the retailer to the supplier. First, ask where does this wood come from? And then ask what evidence do we have that the woods were managed appropriately, and how good is that evidence?"
For more rain forest data
Recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization put the annual rate of destruction of the world's tropical rain forests at 1.2 percent -- a loss of 66,000 square miles of forest each year.
Conservation groups estimate that half the world's rain forests are already gone, and the remainder are disappearing twice as fast today as they were 10 years ago.
Public concern over the destruction of the rain forests focuses on the resulting depletion of the ozone layer, along with displacement of native populations; a loss of habitat for forest species; destruction of areas rich in foods, medicines and other natural products; soil erosion; and water supply changes.
For more information on the world's rain forests and what can be done to help protect them from further destruction, contact:
*Rainforest Action Network, 301 Broadway, Suite A, San Francisco, Calif. 94133; (415) 398-4404.
*Rainforest Alliance, 270 Lafayette St., Suite 512, New York, N.Y. 10012; (212) 941-1900.