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Wood As a Sustainable Building Material 
The Dangers of Improperly Sourcing Wood
Choosin Sustainable Wood


Sustainable Wood for Cities is a user-driven platform intended to be the most effective global guide to evaluating and procuring sustainable wood for use in the built environment. 

Key to effectiveness will be: 1) Accuracy and currency of the framework, 2) Diversity of “pathways” for realizing sustainable wood goals, 3) Quick results and incremental improvement through comparison of alternatives, 4) Capacity-building and knowledge gained by users, and 5) Long term change in procurement systems.  These values are a function of the Sustainable Wood for Cities mission to constantly improve as users apply it to real-world wood sourcing challenges.

During the first six months of the Cities4Forests initiative, data was collected from cities, architects, NGOs and other related initiatives (such as WRI’s own Sustainable Procurement of Wood Products). The research found that only a few city-level policies address sustainable wood, and even fewer resources exist for cities to support the creation or strengthening of such policies. Naturally, Pilot Projects stepped in to not only create this resource, but to build the case for the widespread adoption of sustainable wood in cities.

After approximately one year, which included an extended review process from our Wood at Work community of practice,  the Sustainable Wood for Cities Guide was born. Since its conception, there have been several rounds of testing and refinement with a variety of stakeholders and city representatives. Two cities – Portland (OR) and Georgetown (Guyana) – are using the guide in their sustainable wood procurement policy development, with a further two cities – Vancouver and Utrecht – using the resource to implement sustainable wood sourcing in zoning bylaws and influence future council mandates.


Additionally, cities have embraced the guide through arm’s-length municipal organizations, such as in Detroit through the Wright Museum and College for Creative Studies, and in Glasgow through the Glasgow City Heritage Commission. The continued work with these cities will deepen their engagement with sustainable wood over the coming months. 

  • The WRI Insights blog on sustainable wood is set to be published in early August 2022.

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Wood As a Sustainable Building Material 

Wood is emerging as a climate-friendly replacement for carbon-intensive materials like concrete, steel and aluminum for large urban buildings and smaller-scale infrastructure. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which remains stored in wood for as long as the material remains intact. Using sustainable, responsibly sourced wood can help to conserve forests, potentially producing massive climate and biodiversity benefits.

The Dangers of Improper Wood Sourcing 


Wood production can also drive deforestation and emit carbon if it is harvested unsustainably, used wastefully, disposed of improperly, or if its production causes forest degradation or permanent deforestation. For wood to be considered “sustainable” in terms of climate, biodiversity, and human well-being it should address four areas: forest impact, socioeconomic integrity, carbon storage, and life-cycle comparisons (Fig. 3). Engaging with the complete forest ecosystem and production system of wood products must be the foundation of a sustainable sourcing strategy.

Choosing Sustainable Wood

“Sustainable wood provides net benefits to the global climate, and supports long-term sustainability of the forest systems and social systems that supply the wood from forest to city. The term sustainable is used to bridge many other terms such as “climate-smart”, “responsible”, and “good”, which, while represented in the guide, are not differentiated.


For wood to be considered sustainable, it should address four areas of impact:
1. Wood that helps conserve forests, mitigate or reverse degradation and deforestation.
2. Wood that has net carbon storage benefits after all life cycle inputs are considered.
3. Wood that replaces more carbon-intensive materials on a life cycle basis (LCA).
4. Wood that reflects and supports sustainable economies, businesses, and communities.

Four pillars of sustainable wood.
Figure 1: The four pillars of sustainable wood

Strategic Wood Sourcing


Strategic sourcing is the key to the climate and environmental benefits of building with wood. Sustainable Wood for Cities combines the latest insights from research and practice to assist cities in choosing and sourcing wood products – through specifications, procurement criteria, and policies – that have a measurable impact on climate and forests. Cities can and should integrate the benefits of these choices into their larger environmental goals and climate action plans. 

The Sustainable Wood Pathways

Sustainable Wood “Pathways” represent the diverse approaches to sourcing sustainable wood, each with different methods, tools, criteria, and representatives. The eight Pathways can be used – independently, or layered together – as a qualitative framework for decision-making to create more powerful wood sourcing Strategies that match a city’s sustainability goals, and build capacity within agencies. Having city officials create holistic strategies using this guide is intended to help them integrate the latest knowledge, research and experience into stronger city policies and planning frameworks. The table below provides a high-level description of each pathway, with more information made available on the Pathways page. 




1. Forest Certification

Selecting wood that is certified under a third-party system such as FSC or PEFC. Forest certification systems offer a one-stop generalized approach to supporting Sustainable Forest Management (SFM).

2. Social Forestry

Sourcing wood that supports sustainable community livelihoods, community forest management, and conservation. Based on a business model that returns maximum value to the community and encourages local ownership and empowerment.

3. Species & Grade

Intentionally selecting and diversifying the choice of wood species and grades to improve forest outcomes. Allows consumers to become active partners in building markets for under-utilized species while reducing demand for over-harvested species.

4. Strategic Geography

Sourcing wood from specific places addressing sustainability & legality, i.e. jurisdictional approach and voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs)

5. Local & Urban Wood

Utilizing trees and forests inside or near cities that can be a source of timber while supporting local economies and innovation.

6. Reuse & Long Life

Specifying wood that has previously served a useful purpose and/or designing wood components specifically to serve a long life through reuse, upcycling, recycling, etc.

7. High Efficiency Production

Using sources that have optimized the efficiency of the wood production system, from harvest to manufacturing, to reduce waste and increase the percentage of wood yielded from a forest area that makes it into long-life applications.

8. Net Carbon Accounting / LCA

Conducting detailed and credible calculations of net carbon storage using both long and short term models which include: forest management, efficiency of production, life of wood products and construction LCA.

Strategic Wood Sourcing
Sustainble Wood Pathways
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