Chances are you have seen a Gibson guitar; the brand is synonymous with rock. The Les Paul model alone is or was the axe of choice for the “who’s who” of guitarists throughout the ages, from Eric Clapton to Slash. Besides the iconic shapes and styles of Gibson guitars, equally as praiseworthy and important is the sound of the instrument. Part of creating an instrument worthy of producing an exquisite tone is the type of wood used.
Guitar tone, much like the types of food we like and choose to eat, is all a matter of taste. Luthiers have for centuries turned to the same tonewoods for their musical and aesthetic qualities. Although the number of trees cut down to build instruments is proportionally low compared with other industries (such as construction), they have over time left a large dent. In addition, since the 1960s, the demand for wood has risen globally by 64%, so much so that some tree species are on the verge of extinction. Another factor to consider is that the most favored tonewoods, such as Mahogany and Ebony, typically grow alone, so many other trees are cut down to gain access to them. As you can imagine this is somewhat wasteful.
Naturally, in consideration of such circumstances, heavy environmental restrictions are put into place. Exotic wood imports are strictly monitored, with some countries banning the export of tree species which are severely endangered. These regulations are not to be taken lightly, as Gibson itself found out. The guitar manufacturer, based in Tennessee, USA, was raided twice by the Fish & Wildlife Services from 2009-2011 under the Lacey Act. The law was put into practice to prevent goods from being imported that violate the country of origins export laws. Gibson later admitted to having illegally imported Indian Rosewood, Ebony and Madagascan Ebony. Although not charged in a criminal court, they were fined $300,000 in penalties and had their illegally acquired tonewoods confiscated.
Ebony and rosewood are but two examples of tree species that have almost been logged into extinction. In a sincere video post, Bob Taylor, co-owner of Taylor Guitars, a rival of Gibson, laments the part guitar manufacturing has played in forest mismanagement.
He candidly addresses the issue at hand, and asserts that players and guitar builders alike must come to terms with accepting and developing more sustainable alternatives.
In an effort to preserve what little ebony is left in the world, the California based company has taken matters into its own hands, by purchasing the largest ebony mill in Cameroon (the last place in the world where it can be legally logged and exported). Taylor effectively is now the leading, legal supplier of ebony in the world. 75% of Cameroon’s ebony is logged and cut under the Taylor Guitar license. Yet what started as a good investment ended up becoming something much more. Bob Taylor describes the year he spent in Cameroon, while his company was acquiring the mill as an “eye-opening experience”. This was due, in part, to discovering the sourcing practices that were occurring at the root of his supply chain.
Only about 10% of ebony trees have a completely black heartwood, which for some time has been the industry standard of ebony for players and manufacturers alike. In reality, there is no acoustic difference between the “streaked” variety and the “traditional” type, merely an aesthetic preference. In years gone by, as Bob Taylor discovered during his time in Cameroon, loggers would simply leave a cut down ebony tree if the heartwood was not uniformly black, as it earned them a fraction of the price compared to the more sought after variety. It was at this point, Taylor realized there was in reality, ten times as much ebony left. In addition, to preserve what was left, his company, along with the other guitar manufacturers he was now supplying, would need to accept and support using the more common type of ebony.
Taylor can be commended for making socially responsible decisions on behalf of the guitar making industry, but is there a way to almost forego cutting down endangered, exotic trees altogether? Flaxwood is a Finnish guitar company with an unusual and rather innovative approach to guitar building, through creating its own tonewood. The brand makes its guitars through injection molding a mix primarily consisting of spruce combined with a special polymer to create a fully formed guitar. Flaxwood (also the name of the synthetically produced material itself) is 100% recyclable. Reviews for the guitars have so far praised the instruments’ sound and playability.
The guitar industry serves as a good example of an industry beginning to come to terms with its inefficiencies. On the one hand we have the conscious decision to manage a resource more carefully and responsibly, and on the other to use what new technologies have developed, and introducing and innovating fresh and creative manufacturing techniques.
What other supply chain practices have you observed that perhaps need some sustainable updating? Are they being demanded by consumers or are companies and industries taking the initiative?