Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Conditional Love for a Local Wonder: The Wooden Duck

By Ron Sullivan
Friday November 23, 2007

I was hoping to pass along a wholehearted endorsement of one of my favorites in the odd category of “stores where I pretty much can’t afford anything but it’s all nice to look at”—I think of such a place as a museum if the staff is welcoming enough.  

As it turned out, though The Wooden Duck is absolutely perfect in that regard and also forwards the bright idea of making furniture out of salvaged teak, mostly from houses being torn down in Indonesia and China; salvaged Douglas fir from West Coast barns and such; and with lumber planed from dead or fallen trees more locally. Much of the last is in the form of great long tables, some with the edges unplaned and in their original wavy shape, to handsome effect.  

The garden furniture, though, is slightly less wonderful in origin: it’s all made of “plantation-grown teak.” This sounds like a good idea, and maybe is one, but one has to wonder what used to exist where these plantations are.  

There was nothing to document whether the teak for the garden furniture had been grown sustainably, and the salesperson had little information other than that the plantation grew shade coffee under the teak trees. 

What if the wood were certified? That’s still a matter of controversy. 

The Forest Stewardship Council, an international nongovernmental organization based in Germany, sets standards for sound forest management and accredits other groups to inspect and certify. 

After the timber is cut, its chain of custody from forest to consumer has to be documented. Some big names have signed on to one degree or another, including Home Depot, Lowe’s, and IKEA. And consumers have shown that, given a choice, they’ll opt for certified products even if they’re more expensive. 

One of the key players in the FSC, the Rainforest Alliance, audits forestry operations worldwide through its SmartWood program, covering everything from lumber to maple syrup. The Gibson guitarmaking company offers a line of Les Paul SmartWood guitars. 

Is it working? There are some apparent success stories. On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, small farmers have been certified by SmartWood as growing teak sustainably on small plots, as an alternative to illegal harvests. Their practices include continuous planting and intercropping teak with cocoa, coffee, cashews, pepper, and candlenut trees instead of putting all their eggs in a monocultural basket. 

The fact that a teak operation has been certified doesn’t guarantee that it still meets FSC standards, though. SmartWood gave its blessing to the Javanese state-owned plantation forestry operation Perum Perhutani in 1990. Eleven years later, SmartWood decertified Perhutani, an action affecting 36 companies that used the wood for teak garden furniture. Teak certifications have also been lifted in Panama.  

But even the most diversified teak plantation isn’t a rain forest. It’s a brutal simplification of the intricate complexities of tropical ecosystems. Shade coffee plantations in Central America offer some space for biodiversity; they do this by leaving some of the original forest canopy in place rather than replacing it with a crop that gets harvested periodically.