10/03/2007 08:00 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Remodeler's Dilemma

San Francisco, CA -- My roof deck needs replacing. The big redwood planks that the previous owner installed thirty years ago got really spongy last winter. I went to my local lumber yard in January to find appropriate replacement materials, put the job out to bid, pulled permits, and finally my contractor got going a few weeks ago. Some things are much easier than they used to be -- a green roof on the rest of the area is now a cinch. But what wood to use has turned into a real challenge. Two days ago my contractor, who didn't like the aesthetics of the teak pallets I had selected, checked into whether they were still sustainable. Turns out that between January and now, the source had changed, such that what was OK then, is not OK today. Thankfully, there is FSC-certified lumber available -- both redwood and ironwood (Ipe). Ultimately, I'll find one I like, and help support an honest, sustainable forester.

In the end, it took a few hours to get to the bottom of what was truly ethical to buy, and I have, well, a lot more access to information than most consumers. Just two nights ago, I introduced some wonderful forest activists from Indonesia, Peru, and Papua New Guinea who helped, once again, to put a human face on the reality of the illegal timber trade. I talked about how outraged we would all be if someone came into a garden in San Francisco armed with an automatic rifle, and dug up all the roses and fruit trees using workers who were enslaved at gun point, then trucked the plants from San Francisco to Oakland and sold them legally (because they had crossed a county line) at Home Depot. That's exactly what happens in international logging -- goods stolen at gun point, with slave labor, are sold legally in the US, because they crossed a national boundary. More than 80 percent of the mahogany the US imports from Peru, in fact, is logged in this fashion -- illegally.

If I hadn't had that face-to-face encounter with activists like Julio Cusurichi, would I still have persevered in the search for sustainable, legal, options? Well, sure; it's my job after all. But certainly I was more motivated to find the right solution because I knew the people who paid the price if I didn't bother.