Wood Cuts - December 2010
By Ed Korczak
There is no doubt that we now live in a global economy. Trade among countries is happening at a frantic pace, and the wood flooring industry is no exception. However, with an abundance of hardwood in the United States, why do manufacturers and distributors purchase from abroad?
During the past few decades or so, imports of exotic wood species into the United States have risen dramatically. In 1992, imported species represented about 2.3% of the value of U.S. wood flooring sales and about 3.5% of U.S. wood flooring volume. In 2010, imported species are estimated to represent about 31.1% of the value of U.S. wood flooring sales and about 37.5% of U.S. wood flooring volume.
What do these figures represent in terms of real dollars and square feet? In 1992, wood flooring imports represented about $15 million and 15.8 million square feet. In 2010, wood flooring imports are estimated at about $547.9 million and 285.5 million square feet.
This represents a significant increase and has changed the way that wood flooring manufacturers do business worldwide. Competition to fulfill consumer demand for unique products is the key influence in this dramatic growth. Manufacturers in China have led this trend.
In 2004, wood flooring imports from China represented $129 million, which was about 32% of the total imports. By 2008, that value had increased to $271 million, or about 51% of the total imports.
Other countries that contributed to this growth of imports include Brazil and Canada. In 2004, wood flooring species imported from Brazil represented $66 million, which was about 16% of the total imports. By 2008, that value had increased to $119 million, about 22% of the total imports. For Canada, in 2004, wood flooring species imported represented $47 million, which was about 12% of the total imports. By 2008, that value had increased to $66 million, or about 12% of the total imports.
So what has fueled this growth in foreign-sourced wood flooring? One factor has been price, driven by inexpensive hardwoods, largely from China, and the other has been demand for unique looks from higher priced exotic species. However, in recent years, prices between domestic and imported hardwoods have aligned more closely due to a number of issues, including Chinese tariffs, the weakening U.S. dollar, a drop in U.S. lumber prices and a decline in the U.S. housing market.
In terms of exotics, the Lacey Act amendment banning the sale of illegally logged wood from entering the U.S. market has had an impact. Lacey Act legislation requires importers to verify that the wood they purchase is logged legally from the country of origin and requires detailed documentation to prove a chain of custody for the material from its originating source. On top of this legislation, the International Trade Commission and Customs have developed Harmonized Tariff codes in order to more effectively collect tariffs on imported wood flooring, which has helped to close this pricing gap as well.
In essence, the main thrust for the increase in imported wood flooring is consumer demand. Foreign-sourced wood flooring provides unique color palettes that are not available with domestically grown wood. Bubinga, from Africa, can appear pink, red or reddish brown with purple streaks or veins. Australian cypress ranges from a cream-colored sapwood to a honey-gold heartwood, with dark brown knots throughout. Santos mahogany, from South America, is a dark reddish brown. Purpleheart, which originates in Mexico, has a brown heartwood that will age to a deep purple or purplish brown. Burmese teak, from Asia, varies from a yellowish brown to a dark golden brown. Wenge, which originates in Africa, will age to a very deep brown, almost black, color. There are literally hundreds of wood species available today that can accommodate any decorating style and price range, and while the trend during the past few decades has been toward imported species, good old North American oak remains the market leader in the United States.
In 2002, red oak represented 49% of the U.S. wood flooring market. White oak followed with 24%, other exotics at 14%, maple at 11%, other domestics at 5%, Brazilian cherry at 4%, and heart pine at 2%. In 2008, red oak and white oak still dominated the wood flooring market, though now with only a combined 58% marketshare. This was followed by other exotics at 14%, maple at 11%, other domestics at 9%, Brazilian cherry at 7%, and heart pine at 1%.
Whether sourcing materials domestically or from foreign providers, wood flooring offers many benefits. It is the most environmentally friendly flooring option available because the raw materials can be renewed time and time again. Wood floors can last in excess of 100 years, when maintained properly, and it takes 40 to 60 years for a hardwood tree to mature. Therefore, lumber needed to replenish the supply harvested today will not be needed for another 40 to 60 years after it is planted.
Wood floors also offer real value. Because they are more durable than many other flooring options and can last for multiple generations, they have fewer replacement costs than other flooring materials. If they start to look dull or worn out, a simple pad and recoat of the finish can restore their luster and beauty. If needed, wood floors can also be sanded many times during their service life to refresh them and make them look new again.
For allergy sufferers, wood floors do not harbor allergens and other microscopic organisms that contribute to reduced indoor air quality.
Finally, wood floors offer function and beauty that can adapt to many different decorating styles. They are as at home in ultra-modern urban settings, as they are in traditional and formal settings, and can accommodate many decorating changes throughout their service life.
Though oak and other domestics will likely maintain a strong foothold in the U.S. market, the beauty and variety of the world’s hardwoods ensure that importing will continue. Regardless of where the raw materials originate, domestically or from foreign lands, wood floors offer consumers timeless value and beauty.
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