Regulatory, economic and environmental perspectives.
The LGR-Project framed in a larger context
On this page:
- Regulatory situation
- Environmental initiatives
- Market impacts
- Possible environmental benefits of the LGR-Project in the long term
Guitar manufacturers and luthiers unanimously agree on the vital need to protect forest ecosystems, and many initiatives are being worked. However, the environmental focus of guitar manufacturers so far has been on the sustainability and management of forests to ensure a continuing supply of their current tonewoods for future generations.
Very little has been done to move away from the exotic woods commonly used today. What has been done on alternative woods has focused on electric guitars. Exotic tropical tonewoods remain the bedrock of high end acoustic guitars. The reason for this is that alternative woods just do not cut it for traditionalists. Tonal quality is inextricably linked in musicians’ heads with old growth exotic wood.
Increasing demand for exotic woods on global markets has led to the destructive and often illegal logging of the forests where these species are found. Global demand has driven many species to the point of commercial extinction and others are becoming increasingly scarce, with severe consequences for the climate, eco-systems and indigenous people. To help combat this a regulatory framework has been established over the last decades. Many exotic woods used in guitar production are now protected under international law.
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is an world wide agreement among governments that aims to ensure that international trade in species of plants and wild animals does not threaten their survival.
Species covered under CITES are afforded varying degrees of protection depending in which of three Appendices the species are listed:
Appendix 1 includes species threatened with extinction and prohibits commercial trade in these species. Brazilian rosewood has been listed under Appendix 1 since 1992 and international commercial trade in Brazilian rosewood harvested after that date, including guitars made from it, is prohibited
Appendix 2 includes species that although currently not threatened with extinction, may become so without trade restrictions and controls. This classification covers mahogany, particularly from Latin America
Appendix 3 includes species for which a country has requested CITES help to ensure effective control of international trade in that species. This classification covers Spanish cedar from many Latin American countries, ebony from Madagascar and rosewood from Madagascar and Honduras.
Additionally, the US has the Lacey Act. This is a conservation law dating from 1900 that was amended in 2008 to expand protection to a broader range of plants and plant products including exotic tone woods. It is now illegal to import, export, buy, sell or otherwise acquire any plant if it is in violation of US or any other international conservation law. The Gibson Guitar Company had previously (August 2012) been fined over $300,000 under the Lacey Act for using ebony from Madagascar. They also had their entire stocks of these woods confiscated.
Regulatory control is a major step forward, but alone is insufficient to stem deforestation. Many valuable efforts are also underway from environmental action groups to try to control and reverse the destruction of rainforests and the associated ecological, environmental and societal consequences. For example, Greenpeace is campaigning to end deforestation globally by 2020 through political lobbying, challenging industry practices and inspiring consumer action. The Rainforest foundation aims to protect both the bio-diversity of the rainforests and the integrity of the people who's lives and livelihoods depend on them, through direct financial support and hands-on training of indigenous communities. The Rainforest Alliance has similar aims, has introduced a certification system, and tries to influence industry practices and consumer purchasing behavior. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a multi-stakeholder non-profit organisation, promotes the environmentally and socially responsible, and economically viable, management of forests. Its main tools are standards setting and the certification and labeling of forest products. The FSC enjoys high levels of support across industry, governments and other environmental organisations. However, it has also received criticism for some questionable certification and forest management practices, and for criminal abuse of its logo and label.
Recently, the United Nations (UN) has also started taking action towards 'Zero Deforestation'. More than 150 governments, companies, civil society and indigenous peoples participating in the United Nations Climate Summit in New York (2014), pledged to cut the loss of forests in half by 2020 and, for the first time, to end it a decade later in 2030. It also calls for the restoration of more than 350 million hectares of forests and croplands, an area greater than the size of India, which would bring significant climate benefits and take pressure off primary forests. “Forests are not only a critical part of the climate solution, they hold multiple benefits for all members of society,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on the climate summit.
External link: UN / Governments, corporations pledge at UN summit to eliminate deforestation by 2030
A valuable initiative from one of the major guitar manufacturers is the work Taylor Guitars is leading to ensure the legal, sustainable and ethical harvesting of ebony. Taylor Guitars have formed a partnership with an international tonewood distributor and purchased an ebony mill in Cameroon. In doing so they have improved pay and working conditions for the local people and established legal and ethical practices in the sourcing of ebony. Importantly they are beginning to change guitar buyer's mindsets away from expecting pure black ebony fretboards (an unsustainable and almost extinct supply) to ebony with greater cosmetic diversity that can be sustainably harvested.
External link: Bob Taylor on the future of ebony
Independent guitar makers can also play their part. The European Guitar Builders (EGB) association was set up in 2013 with the goal of organising the community of independent luthiers across Europe to work together and meet the challenges of the guitar making profession over the next decades. A key element of the EGB philosophy is its stand for responsible conduct in regards to the environment and social fabric of communities to achieve a 'sustainable way of creating instruments of enduring value'.
As said above, the global demand for exotic woods has led, through destruction and, often, illegal logging of the rainforests, to the extinction of many species, and others are becoming increasingly scarce. This scarcity is exacerbated by the actions of governments and regulatory authorities. For example, many of the exotic tropical tone woods traditionally used in guitar making are now protected and their trade restricted under the CITES convention (see above). For the market place in tonewoods this means that these woods are becoming increasingly rare and, if available, are increasingly expensive and often from dubious (illegal) sources. World market demand for tropical woods has not abated, even during the recent economic crisis, a softening of demand within Europe has been offset with increasing demand from Asia, notably China. With improving global economic conditions demand is expected to increase again over the coming years.
Possible environmental benefits of the LGR Project
If the LGR project can show that locally grown sustainable non-tropical woods are a valid alternative to tropical woods for guitar making, then this will provide luthiers with a significantly broader range of tonewoods available for their use, and do so in an economically viable manner. Moreover this will begin, in a small way, to help soften demand for tropical woods. Clearly any move to local sustainable non-tropical woods has important environment benefits, through reducing unsustainable rainforest deforestation and by reducing carbon emissions via shorter transportation routes. Only a very small proportion of tropical woods are used for crafting guitars. The majority is used for furniture (e.g. mahogany, rosewood, maple); paper production (e.g. spruce) and for building materials (floors, doors, window frames, terraces etc). However, if guitar makers and musicians choose for sustainability, they can have a big impact on the whole instrument making industry, and tonewood suppliers. In turn this may help influence society to switch to alternative sustainable solutions for the wider range of wood products.
From the point of view of instrument makers, the increasing regulatory environment and pressure from environmental action groups will continue to decrease the availability of tropical woods, with consequent upward pressure on prices to meet demand. Criminal organizations will continue to attempt to meet demand through illegal logging, and luthiers will need to be vigilant to ensure that their tonewood supplies originate from reliable, certified sources. Against this background it is becoming increasingly important to search for and develop alternative woods for instrument making that allow the crafting off high quality guitars in an economically viable and ecologically sustainable way.