Albion Monitor /News

Rainforest Wood Used in Cheap Furniture

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

The Japanese throw away large volumes of furniture made from tropical timber

SLUG (IPS) TOKYO -- Much of the timber taken from Asia's shrinking rainforests is made into furniture for the Japanese market, but many of the wooden tables, chairs and shelves end up in the garbage dump after only a few years of use.

Research by the Sarawak Conservation Campaign (SCC), a grassroots environmental organization, has revealed that such wasteful consumption patterns in Japan are a major cause of the depletion of the region's tropical jungles.

"Our survey, conducted in 1994, has shown that the Japanese throw away large volumes of furniture that have been made from tropical timber imported from developing countries," says SCC head Kazuko Matsue.

According to the group's survey, 23.9 percent of imported hardwood and softwood is used by furniture makers. And cheap wooden furniture such as tables and dressers comprise almost 60 percent of the burnable trash collected by city authorities here.

"These findings prove that the Japanese buy and discard their furniture easily because the products are so cheap. This wasteful pattern devastates precious forests in other countries," says Matsue.

Discarding bulky possessions is common in big cities where families move, on an average, once every eight years. Matsue discovered that during each move people choose to throw away most of their large furniture to save on moving costs.

"It is cheaper to buy new furniture than to pay the movers. Japan's prohibitive labor costs also make it more economical to throw away damaged pieces than pay for repairs," she said.

More than 70 percent of the wood consumed by the Japanese is imported

Matsue's environmental group was set up to protect the fast disappearing rainforests in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, one of the world's biggest producers of tropical timber.

More than 80 percent of the tropical wood from Sarawak was exported to the Japanese market, which expanded rapidly in the 1980's.

The economic slump and increasing criticism from environmental groups have forced Japan to cut down its timber exports from Southeast Asia. But Japan remains heavily dependent on cheaper foreign wood, making the nation the world's largest timber importer.

More than 70 percent of the wood consumed by the Japanese is imported from Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, North America and Russia.

Despite a decline in timber exports from the Asia-Pacific in recent years, the region remains a major supplier of tropical timber for the Japanese market.

Asia-Pacific countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Solomon Islands now rank second to Russia in terms of timber exports, according to the Japan Lumber Importers Association.

Log imports from Southeast Asia dropped 12 percent from the first 11 months of 1994 to the same period last year. Plywood imports from the region, in contrast, more than doubled between 1988 and 1993, indicating Japan's voracious appetite for cheap wood remains strong as ever.

Plywood is now widely used in Japanese furniture production. Many furniture makers use the cheap alternative even for expensive pieces like dressers, tables and beds.

"Japan's furniture market now caters to a growing clientele of buyers who want cheap products. As a result, the market is dominated by large manufacturers who make huge profits by using cheap foreign plywood," says Kazuo Ando, a carpenter who refuses to use foreign wood.

A chest of drawers made of paulownia, one of the better known Japanese wood now in short supply, sells for around $10,000. The same product made of foreign timber, however, can be bought for $2,000.

Ando says he makes a living by catering only to individual customers. "It is very hard to make profits by making furniture from expensive Japanese timber. Many carpenters, like me, have given up their work," he explained.

Ando advocates a procedure that allows Japanese carpenters to import wood that have been harvested from sustainably managed forests.

"The way things are in Japan, it is very difficult to manage without cheaper foreign wood. The Japanese government must therefore help exporting countries manage their forests better, which will bring profits to both producers and buyers while protecting the environment," he says.

High labor costs in Japan have made Japanese timber one of the most expensive in the world. Seventy percent of Japanese forests are owned by individuals who cannot afford to hire workers to harvest timber.

Matsue is also spearheading a campaign to raise environmental awareness among Japanese consumers. She has been distributing information pamphlets and giving lectures on the link between environmental protection and trade.

"Japanese society is based on profits and money, nothing else," says Matsue. "But the lingering recession has forced people to rethink their lifestyle. This is a good opportunity to teach them their responsibilities in protecting the environment."

Albion Monitor January 31, 1996 (

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