LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Sustaining the supply of natural materials isn't a new idea in the musical instrument industry, which depends on old-growth wood to achieve the best tonal quality.
"The paradox is that musicians as a group tend to be pretty progressive and ecologically savvy and concerned -- until it comes down to their guitar," C.F. Martin & Co. head of artist and public relations Dick Boak says. "They don't want to take the chance that they won't have the absolute best tone. It requires a little bit of education and it requires them to see the product."
Some of the most sought-after woods come from trees that can take hundreds of years to develop their acoustic characteristics. Through the years, instrument companies have developed everything from clarinets that can be ground up and recycled into new ones to Martin acoustic guitars and Gibson Les Pauls sourced from responsibly managed forests.
But a collective effort by Martin, Gibson, Fender, Taylor, Yamaha and others to preserve their supply of old-growth wood from clear-cutting -- in which all trees within a designated area are removed -- is beginning to bear fruit.
The industry heavyweights have partnered with Greenpeace on its Music Wood campaign, with an initial focus on Sitka spruce, a key material in guitar and piano soundboards.
After meeting with Greenpeace and the instrument makers last summer, Sitka spruce supplier Sealaska agreed to a preliminary audit of its logging practices. A full assessment by third parties accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council is set to take place in summer 2008, and if Alaska-based Sealaska decides to implement their recommended reforms and apply for full FSC certification, it will be on the road to more selective logging and consideration of surrounding habitats before it cuts.
Greenpeace started Music Wood after it traced clear-cutting of Alaskan spruce to a variety of industries, particularly home construction in Japan. "Instrument-making is a very small percentage of the problem," Greenpeace forest campaign director Scott Paul says. But the companies' leadership on the issue "can have really significant implications on the ground," since Music Wood supporters "are arguably the highest-end and highest-profile consumers of any (tree) species coming from this forest."
Paul says Sealaska's own numbers showed that, without significant changes, "they would be out of their old-growth within 15 years," and credits the company with showing "a lot of leadership and a lot of willingness to explore" sustainability solutions.
Boak puts the level of threat to old-growth woods like this: "If 1 is totally plentiful and 10 is completely unavailable, I think spruce is a 6, and I'd put mahogany at 7.5 and ebony at 8." Demand from China and political pressure within certain countries to restrict rare-wood exports after decades of mismanagement means "the price will go up and they will become rarer and rarer."
Natural Resources Defense Council senior resource specialist Debbie Hammel says that just a fraction -- less than 5 percent by some estimates -- of the continental United States' old-growth forest is still standing, forcing buyers of certain woods to look to other regions and countries such as Russia.
"We do believe that marketplace demand has a lot of potential for directing the market in a more sustainable direction," Hammel says.
Still, instrument makers say it isn't widespread consumer demand for green instruments that's been driving their eco-friendly measures. Martin's Boak says the company required all 750 authorized Martin dealers to stock its sustainable wood acoustic guitars after it found some dealers unwilling to take a risk on them.
Thirty percent of Martin's total manufactured units are made of high-pressure laminate, a material made of eucalyptus and fast-growing domestic woods. Yamaha once manufactured a popular snare drum and guitar from bamboo, which replenishes itself quickly. But the company that supplied the bamboo parts went out of business, Yamaha Drums product manager Jim Haler says.
Boston-based First Act, which built an environmentally friendly electric guitar for Guster's Adam Gardner, is rolling out its Bambusa line of electrics to instrument stores this year. The $399 guitar, currently available via firstact.com and at the company's retail store in Boston, is made of bamboo and covered with a water-based finish, rather than traditional polyurethane.
Rather than a reaction to diminishing wood supply, First Act marketing VP Jeff Walker says that "this is more of a charge led by our head of product development for guitars, who was seeking alternative ways to come out with an exciting new product."