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Some guitar makers in pursuit of sustainable manufacturing

  • Guitar manufacturers use a small volume of some of the rarest exotic woods, but have come under the most pressure to adopt sustainable practices because of their high profile.
  • Over the past decade, manufacturers like Czech-based Furch Guitars and Taylor Guitars in the U.S. have rolled out initiatives such as tree replanting and funding for forest communities in the areas they source their timber from.
  • Furch Guitars CEO Petr Furch says the sustainability drive is about more than just the material used to make the instruments, but also the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process.
  • The company says it has shifted to 100% renewable energy at its Velké Němčice plant, and reduced its carbon footprint by two-thirds in the process.

The acoustic guitar industry has made a few eco-friendly leaps in recent years, mainly in terms of manufacturing materials. For example, companies like Martin Guitar and Gibson are now using Richlite, a synthetic plastic with wood properties, as an alternative to ebony (Diospyros ebenum) for their fretboards.

Petr Furch’s personal mission is to lead the green guitar-making revolution — starting with his own company, Czech Republic-based Furch Guitars. In 2014, Furch took over as CEO of the guitar manufacturer that his father had founded, and since then has been finding creative ways to achieve this mission while looking for any opportunity to inspire other industry equals to do the same.

But while Furch knows that the material aspect of guitar making is important from an environmental perspective, he says it’s only one side of the coin.

The other side: most of the world’s guitar manufacturers still operate out of factories powered by natural gas or, in Furch’s case, coal.

But in 2020, Furch switched to green energy for 100% of his guitar manufacturing at the company’s Velké Němčice factory, and the Furch Guitars website declares this has reduced its carbon footprint by two-thirds. The website lists biogas and biomass as some of its renewable energy sources, although whether they’re “green” is currently the subject of much debate.

“In the production and the designing of the guitar it’s good just doing a quality kind of analysis of the steps you make,” Furch said in an interview. “So I looked at our energy consumption and looked at the best ways to reduce it. This approach led to reducing the carbon footprint and it is healthier and at the same time, sustainable in the long run.”

This is a dramatic undertaking in the Czech Republic, as almost half of the country’s power still comes from coal-fired power plants.

Furch’s shift to green energy aligns with a Czech Republic state commission’s recommendation that the country phase out coal power by 2038. In February, the Czech government postponed the decision to adopt this 2038 target.

“We have a lot of coal in the ground here,” Furch said. “So historically, that’s the way it’s been and it’s going to take a while to change this, but if we create a demand the companies will have to change to clean electricity. It’s not a complicated idea.”

This milestone is something Furch customers and anybody interested in guitar sustainability practices can see directly reflected on the company’s website. Every Furch guitar has an emerald green “Before and After 2020” bar, showing the reduction in carbon.

A screenshot of a sustainably-built guitar on the Furch website.

For example, the Red Master’s Choice model is now said to have a carbon footprint of 18.2 kilograms (40.1 pounds) compared to 45.6 kg (100.5 lb) before Furch Guitars’ green shift. For the Orange series, it’s 9.1 kg (20 lb) compared to 22.8 kg (50.3 lb) previously. For every guitar, the carbon output is cut by half or more, according to the company.

Furch says he believes more companies will make the change to clean energy in the years to come.

“With these bigger companies, everything takes longer and is part of a corporate political structure,” Furch said. “In electricity, I think the most important thing is to talk about it and create a sort of awareness. So other companies can start to think, ‘OK should we do it as well?’”

His decision to essentially disrupt mainstream guitar manufacturing echoes the spirit in which his father, František Furch, founded the guitar company.

The elder Furch started making guitars in secret in the late 1970s, when the country, then known as Czekoslovakia, was behind the Iron Curtain. His day job was metalworking, but at night, František Furch was a musician and discovered it was impossible to acquire high-quality instruments in then-socialist Czechoslovakia. Importing instruments was also too expensive, so he began crafting a DIY banjo from an old steel drum.

Soon after, he made his first guitar out of spruce (Picea spp.) from an old beat-up piano. Word among his musician friends spread, and Furch started taking commissions.

This was against the law under the socialist regime, but Furch had a passion and saw the demand for his instruments, according to company lore. Opening up a small one-man shop in 1981, he defied the authorities. His trademark, a stylized “F” logo, still adorns all Furch guitars to this day

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Furch expanded his guitar-manufacturing business and began to branch out globally.

Some guitar makers in pursuit of sustainable manufacturing
Petr Furch at his factory. Image courtesy of Furch Guitars.

Engineering experience meets tonewoods

Petr Furch joined the company in 2006 and applied his computer engineering skills to instrument manufacturing, cutting production time in half by programming machines to aid in guitar making.

“I’ve always had an engineering mind and I think that comes from my father. It again comes down to questioning everything you do and striving for perfection, from the kind of cuttings and tonewoods you use,” he says.

Tonewoods, the specific woods that are chosen for a guitar’s tonal qualities, are at the heart of the debate over the guitar industry’s environmental impact on old-growth exotic tree species.

In the last few decades, organizations like the Music Wood coalition and multilateral treaties like CITES have established standards for companies, especially guitar makers, including how much wood they can use, what kinds, and where it should come from.

“It’s funny that we [guitar manufacturers] are put on this pedestal as saviors or destroyers of the environment when the global guitar industry only uses one-tenth of 1% of every [global trade wood] species we use,” Scott Paul, director of natural resources and sustainability at Taylor Guitars, said in an interview. “But I get it. People see a guitar as something made of wood and they want a guitar hero … so whenever [guitar manufacturers are] in the news, we can be used as a platform for success in doing the right thing for sustainability.”

Paul previously ran Greenpeace’s forest campaign in the U.S., where he launched the Music Wood initiative alongside industry heavyweights such as Gibson, Fender, Yamaha, Taylor and Martin, among others.

Some guitar makers in pursuit of sustainable manufacturing
Furch Guitar factory in the Czech Republic. Image courtesy of Furch Guitars.

Unsustainable industrial logging is a problem that stretches far beyond the guitar industry, but Paul saw Music Wood as a “leadership platform” to encourage sustainable wood sourcing, noting its supporters were “arguably the highest-end and highest-profile consumers of any tree species.”

Music Wood focused on the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), a key component of piano and guitar soundboards, convincing a main supplier, Sealaska Timber Corporation, to agree to an audit of its logging practices and begin the work to become certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Starting with Gibson in 1996, guitars that have been awarded FSC certification are known as “sustainable guitars”; the FSC mark requires those associated with it to uphold stringent responsible forestry practices and only use “controlled wood.”

A necklace made from mpingo and another local hardwood. Mpingo’s dark, lustrous properties has made it one of the most valuable timbers in the world. Photo by Sophie Tremblay for Mongabay
A necklace made from mpingo and another local hardwood in Kenya. Mpingo’s dark, lustrous properties has made it one of the most valuable timbers in the world, widely used in musical instruments. Photo by Sophie Tremblay for Mongabay.

Legal realities

However, FSC-controlled wood is only subject to “risk assessment checks” for the possibility of illegally sourced wood entering a company’s supply chain. As far as an actual investigation into the source of wood, it’s up to each FSC-certified company to mitigate the risk of “illegally harvested forests; forests that were harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights; forests where high conservation values are threatened by management activities,” and other risks.

In the case of Gibson, two of its factories, in Memphis and Nashville, were raided in 2011 by federal agents “searching for ebony wood brought into the United States illegally.” The Memphis factory had been raided in 2009 for the same reason.

Rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) is another type of timber popular in the musical instrument industry. In 2017, CITES announced all manufacturing, selling, and moving of the wood needed a permit, posing a disruption to the guitar industry, where rosewood is a prized tonewood and key component in many guitars.

And while the restriction was aimed mostly the high-volume luxury Chinese hongmu furniture industry, it was the more prominent guitar industry that came under scrutiny. In 2019, CITES exempted musical instruments from the rosewood restriction.

“So you’ve got Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), which used to be like the standard back in the day and then that went to Appendix 1 of CITES in 1992 at the Earth Summit,” Paul says. “And that’s just been off the menu and Taylor hasn’t used it in years. But 99% of the rosewood that we use at Taylor is Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo), but again because we’re guitar makers we got a big part of that story even though the focus was on Hongmu.”

Similarly, Furch Guitars doesn’t use any species of wood listed under CITES Appendix 1 (the most endangered) for its guitars.

“Despite the fact you can actually legally obtain materials listed in Appendix 1 and greatly increase the value of the instrument, we do not use them for ethical reasons,” Petr Furch says.

Both Furch and Taylor have also committed to replanting the trees used in their instruments through projects or partnerships. In the past decade, both guitar makers have launched campaigns to foster and fund replanting efforts.

Taylor Guitars most notably purchased the Crelicam ebony mill in 2011 in Cameroon to cultivate a more sustainable future for the West African ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) that it uses in every guitar, through a scalable replanting program dubbed The Ebony Project.

Taylor Guitars co-founder Bob Taylor recruited Paul for the Ebony Project initiative, which included planting 15,000 trees in the Congo Basin.

They’ve since exceeded that target, Paul said, and will expand in the near future thanks to a $1.4 million boost from a “multilateral funding organization” that he wouldn’t name. He said it will be officially announced in June.

Taylor Guitars has published annual reports on the project’s progress on the Crelicam website.

“So we’re going to be operating in the coming years in 15, 16, or 17 different villages, planting ebony, planting fruit, and continuing to conduct basic ecological research to increase the region’s biodiversity,” Paul says.

Logs of mpingo piled near the Nanjirinji A village offices. The timber is widely used in the wood carving industry and in manufacturing of musical instruments like clarinets, oboes and bagpipes. Photo by Sophie Tremblay for Mongabay
Logs of mpingo piled near the Nanjirinji A village offices in Kenya. The timber is widely used in the wood carving industry and in manufacturing of musical instruments like clarinets, oboes and bagpipes. Photo by Sophie Tremblay for Mongabay.

Crucial partnerships

Taylor Guitars has recently also started the Urban Wood Initiative, as reported in Rolling Stone, a campaign working with the West Coast Arborists company to source wood from old city and highway trees that have to be removed for various reasons.

“I’ve been doing environmental policy and advocacy my entire working career and have 14 years at Greenpeace,” Paul says. “I’ve been to the Amazon and Siberia and Canadian Boreal and I have never once thought about urban trees. Bob Taylor asked me to look into it and it was like, you know, Alice, stepping through the looking glass. We’re starting in our home base of San Diego and learning from there.”

Furch, significantly smaller than Taylor, has a partnership with Planting Empowerment, an organization that works with community members in Panama to secure and fund the replenishment of the exotic woods they use in their guitars.

Since 2019, Furch Guitars has been funding families in the Indigenous Arimae community of Panama dedicated to the protection of tropical forests and the care of exotic wood plants.

“As part of the cooperation, we try to financially support the community in the care of four hectares of cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) trees and two hectares of mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla),” the Furch Guitars website says. This is also confirmed by Planting Empowerment, the agroforestry company working directly with the community in Panama.

Trees used i
Trees used in Furch guitars in Panama where a tree replanting partnership exists with the local community. Image courtesy Furch Guitars.

“We want to compensate nature and society for the majority of the volume of exotic woods that we consume in the production of our guitars,” Petr Furch said.

In 2021, Furch Guitars is seeking new organizations to partner with on reforestation efforts in other parts of the world.

“It’s tough because this is still so new and many organizations have no idea how to handle the request of replanting trees, especially in Africa,” Furch said.

Replanting efforts aside, Furch says he knows a complete green energy transition won’t happen overnight. But he says he believes exchanging knowledge with other guitar manufacturers is key. He already speaks with Bob Taylor and has been in a few other conversations about sustainability and green energy with other guitar company CEOs in the past.

“Like I said, it’s not that difficult and I just want to encourage all of them to do the same thing and learn about our story,” Furch says. “Bob Taylor’s decision for the Cameroon mill was quite inspiring for us so I would say to make a difference, we need more of a push and more of those stories.”

Banner image: Guitars in progress at the Furch Guitars factory in the Czech Republic. Image courtesy Furch Guitars.

Consumer Action, Consumption, Forest Products, Forests, Rainforests, Rosewood, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Sustainable Forest Management, Tropical Forests, Tropical hardwoods, wood

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