Columns | March 05, 2010 17:13

Save the rainforest - buy a sustainable chess set

Endangered ParrotsChess players love wooden chess sets for their massive, easy-playing pieces, their obvious superiority over cheap plastic stuff and their distinguished classical look. But what about their sustainability?

I got interested in this question after seeing an advertisement for a truly magnificent chess set called the 'Endangered Parrots of the World Chess Set'. Created by Grant Dawson Collections in the United States, it is "hand made from certified sustainable North American hardwoods (walnut and maple), food safe natural finishes with recycled glass ball feet, and features 32 lead-free pewter playing pieces finished in 24k gold or sterling silver."

The set is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, but it's not exactly cheap: if you're interested, you can buy it here for the nice sum of $5000. It'll buy you this:

Endangered Parrots of the World Chess Set

That's much more expensive, for instance, than the slightly less serious Freshwater vs. Saltwater Fish Chess Set or the various Animal Chess Sets that are sold on the internet. ("Endangered species will live on, healthy and free, in your own controlled temperature living room. Beware if you lose a piece or you could be in trouble with the Feds.")

This is all good fun, of course (in fact, I can't help mentioning a marvellous - if not really environmentally 'correct' - Through the Looking-Glass chess set, with pieces vanishing as soon as they are captured!) - but what about regular, Staunton-style chess sets?

I personally became interested in deforestation and sustainability issues after a visit a few years ago to Easter Island (which was completely deforested by its original people) and after reading Jared Diamond's influential book Collapse (2005) about the collapse of great civilizations in the past and present, which deals about deforestation in great detail. As Diamond writes:

More than half of the world's original area of forest has already been converted to other uses, and at present conversion rates one-quarter of the forests that remain will become converted within the next half-century. Those losses of forests represent losses for us humans, especially because forests provide us with timber and other raw materials, and because they provide us with so-called ecosystem services such as protecting our watersheds, protecting soil against erosion, constituting essential steps in the water cycle that generates much of our rainfall, and providing habitat for most terrestial plant and animal species. Deforestation was a or the major factor in all the collapses of past societies described in this book.

I tried searching for the word 'sustainable' on a couple of well-known chess vendor sites such as The House of Staunton and the online shop of the London Chess Centre, but got a No products matched your search criteria in all cases. (One of the very few hits I got at all on Google was for a recyced chess set on Cool Pretty cool indeed, but hardly useful for even the smallest-sized chess tournament.)

I looked for more information online on the type of wood that's used in chess sets. Again, it's not easy finding out about this. On one site, I learned that "rosewood is a very popular type of wood used for chess men." This would be bad news, since rosewood is in fact a tropical hardwood which is hugely overexploited. Still, a quick look at some retailer's sites show that this is indeed one of the most commonly used wood for chess sets. According to the BBC,

The most reliable way to choose environmentally friendly timber and wooden products is to look out for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo. The FSC is a charity which certifies wood, paper and other tree products that have come from sustainability managed forests. (...) Wood from trees native to Europe, such as pine, oak, beech and birch, pose lower environment risks than those from tropical and subtropical trees such as mahogany, teak, rosewood and ebony.

The widely-used Digital DGT wooden boards are made of rosewood. On the website of the USCF Shop, too, most chess sets (both pieces and boards, and both 'tournament' and 'luxury' sets) seem to be made from rosewood, ebony or mahogany. And on this site, too, the word 'sustainable' doesn't return any pages. (There are ecologically sustainable types of rosewood, such as Santos Palisander, but again it is unclear (at best) whether this palisander type is used for the chess boards advertised on these websites.) In fact, one of the very few websites that explicity features 'sustainable chess sets' is the English ShopWiki, which links the so-called Negiel Decorative Staunton Wooden Chess Set:

Folding wooden chess set by Negiel, comprising of an ornate stained wooden chess board and traditional Staunton style weighted chess pieces. Quality product made in Europe from carefully selected high quality sustainable wood.

The sustainable Negiel Staunton chess set doesn't look so bad, does it? (Apart from the wrongly placed king and queen, that is.)

It's also quite cheap (certainly compared to the Endangered Parrots one!): £44.99, and it will be in stock from April this year on. But again, on the above-mentioned online shops, you'll search in vain for the Negiel chess set, as far as I can tell.

I phoned Joris van Vuure of Chess and Go Shop Het Paard in Amsterdam, one of the largest chess equipment sellers in The Netherlands, to ask him what, if anything, he knew about sustainable chess sets. "Well, to be honest I've never thought about it," Joris van Vuure told me. "Our customers - including the Dutch Chess Federation - simply never ask for it. They are obviously interested in the price and quality of the chess sets, but not their sustainability. Our top-selling chess sets are mostly made of mahogany, palissander or boxwood. Boxwood pieces are usually painted, which you can easily recognize because the black pieces are really black, whereas the others have a natural dark wood colour. I personally thought boxwood is sustainable, but I'm not sure."

In fact, the sustainability of boxwood (or buxus as it says on the chess sets) is questionable. It's an extremely hard type of wood which makes it very suitable for many things, including chess pieces, but it's often overexploited and its sustainability really depends on where the plant was cultivated. Even if some boxwood would deserve to get the benefit of the doubt (Het Paard sells a lot of them, which is a good thing!), rosewood, mahogany and other tropical hardwoods wouldn't.

Van Vuure says their shop would be interested in marketing explicitly sustainable chess sets, possibly even with an FSC logo, but he doubts whether customers would want to pay more for them. "In fact, many of our customers explicitly say they want nice wooden products rather than plastic ones, which obviously look cheap and actually have a bad image environmentally speaking. It's a complicated issue, but if we could market it in a good way, without confusing customers, why not?"

Exactly how bad is it that we chess players mostly use unsustainable wooden chess sets, and what can be done about it? To quickly answer the first question: I have no idea - but it certainly doesn't help. As often with these things, it's clearly better in any case to be part of the solution, instead of the problem. Besides, I'm pretty sure more chess sets are being sold each day than expensive musical instruments made of the same materials, so there's another clue. Finally, while unsustainble furniture at least looks really nice, I really wouldn't be able to spot the difference between a maple chess set and a boxwood one. Nor would I much care: as long are the pieces are heavy (which can be achieved in other ways as well) and they don't look too distracting, it's all perfectly fine by me.

The second question seems tougher. I can advice you to buy a sustainable chess set next time, and you can tell your chess-playing friends, but even if you'd be willing to follow my advice, when will that be? And how effective will that be in the grand scheme of things anyway? It'll also look decidedly pedantic to complain with your local club staff about the nice sets they just bought to please their club members: gee, thanks for the support!

This is an example of what marine scientist Jennifer Jacquet, who studies the overfishing problem, calls horizontal agitation:

Horizontal agitation is peer pressure combined with a pejorative element of what is socially or environmentally unacceptable. One friend lambasts me if she sees me with a disposable coffee cup. Another one does when I drive instead of walk. A British colleague in fisheries told me he could no longer bear dinner with his "middle-class friends" because they would pester him about the hypocrisy of his seafood consumption.

Although horizontal agitation can be beneficial, as studies have shown, Jacquet thinks there's a better way: vertical agitation.

Choosing a MSC-certified fish over another is not going to relieve overfishing -- not when one trawler today can remove 60 tonnes of fish from the ocean in a single haul. The way to get big changes quickly and maximize the effect of our scrutiny is with vertical agitation.

Vertical agitation means working higher in the demand chain. Rather than consumers hassling consumers, vertical agitation implies consumers hassle mega-consumers (chefs, managers, retailers, universities) or government. Today's conservation movement, like the industries it seeks to revolutionize, must make big changes quickly. It can do this best with vertical agitation. (...) [A] colleague, Claire Nouvian, managed to arrange a meeting with President Sarkozy and vertically agitated him into supporting a CITES listing of bluefin tuna.


Jennifer Jacquet talking about the problems sustainable fisheries face against the big companies, and what can be done about it.

In terms of chess sets, the problem is obviously not as big as, say, slavery or the extinction of the bluefish tuna. Nor will buying sustainable chess sets alone save the world's rainforests. But, as Joris van Vuure says, why not give it a try? At least unsustainable chess sets are not subsidized by FIDE! Chess organizers and federations could use nicely made plastic chess sets only (there are nice plastic sets, I've seen them myself!) or they could ask retailers about sustainable wooden sets. They might even be subsidized because of it!

Retailers, especially small ones already offering that little 'something extra' to customers, should in my view seriously consider importing (and marketing) more sustainable wooden chess sets made of, for instance, oak or beech, even if perhaps they don't always look as posh as some of the tropical of subtropical hardwood products. After all, in no-nonsense tournament chess, nobody ever really looks at the pieces for their beauty, do they? As long as they're not distracting, surely it's the chess that matters, not the board and pieces?

Finally, FIDE (Gens una sumus) itself should also be listening closely. Since they seem to have a liking for introducing weird new rules, here's a suggestion for them: order all FIDE-rated tournaments to play with plastic or sustainable wooden chess sets. And they shouldn't just do it because they like new rules, either. Like most 'sustainability' initiatives, it could actually save them real money in the long run. What with all the financial troubles of our dear World Chess Federation, might this not be music to their ears?

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


unknown's picture

Holland should be ashamed of Geert Wilders!

Arne Moll's picture

You're quite right, unknown, but I don't see what it has to do with sustainability?

iLane's picture

This is a joke, right? I don't know how many chess sets are sold yearly but since it's a product for a lifetime I guess that even chess players don't buy them regularly and non-chess players even less frequently. (I'm not sure about the chess set vs. musical instrument comparison either) Even if they do, a chess set is ridiculously small, a few trees in your backyard would cover the chess set need of your city for a few decades. OK, I'm not against alternative solutions but this "sustainable" argument just stinks...

Arne Moll's picture

iLane, just to clarify: the term 'sustainable' doesn't refer to the product itself (in this case the chess sets, which indeed could last a lifetime), but instead pertains to the material that was used to produce them and especially the method by which this was done. In the case of tropical hardwoods, for instance, no matter how little wood is used for a single chess set, the fact that these trees are hugely overharvested and exploited beyond their capacity to restore or retain the natural balance, makes them 'unsustainable'. (Cf. overfishing: it's not the fish - not primarily, at least - but how it is being caught, that decides its sustainability.)

JM's picture

I'm with iLane. I'm not really sure what to think about this article. I agree with Arne that usage of sustainable wood in chess sets would be preferable, but I don't think it makes much difference. Oh well, every tiny bit may help?! Anyway, I do believe that there's much more wood being used for musical instruments than for chess sets, by far. Guess how many chessboards you could make out of a single grand piano...

althus's picture

Hm, interesting article--a perspective I hadn't thought of, and NO it's definitely not a joke. There is all kinds of illegal logging of rare mahogany going on in, for instance, Cambodia and it's a BIG problem in that region. It's southeast asia's version of the diamond curse, I guess.

Consider that most chessmen come from India. And how many forests do you think are left in India just waiting to be cut down? Which makes me suspect that the woods come from Burma, which means chess is complicit (one again, sigh) with a filthy, corrupt government and businessmen, who will think nothing of cutting down the rarest and most endangered of trees because they can.

Zee's picture

I like heavy plastic pieces myself. Mine are the:

The chessboard could be anything. Don't think it matters as long as the contrast is there and it doesn't reflect light. I prefer green and cream squares. Plastic works fine for this. Heavy roll up plastic.

I do have this chess clock that claims to be made from airplane grade aluminum.

Mark De Smedt's picture

Great article, Arne !

I don't agree with iLANE: chess is practised around the globe, and for every club player there are dozens of occasional players and people who buy a chess set as decoration. Of course the issue of sustainable chess sets is quite trivial compared to that of sustainable furniture, but it can still make a small material difference and also influence peoples' mindsets.

A few years ago when you asked for FSC certified wood in furniture shops, the vendors wouldn't even know what it was. But already last year 50% of garden furniture sold in Belgium was FSC certified (admittedly, often from so-called 'mixt sources'), and some big retailers are now ONLY selling FSC certified wood. I don't expect this too soon in India or China, but eventually any big company will decide it hurts their image and business to keep allowing (or even participate in) the destruction of forests.

Between now and a couple of years I'm going to buy an FSC certified set (as a kid I lost 2 pieces of my first set, and the second one is worn out from usage and transportation; that's without counting several decorative sets). I wouldn't mind paying double the price of a non-sustainable set (by the way, I prefer yellowish and brown wooden pieces which are much more quiet to the eye than white and black ones, and they shouldn't be too light, nor too heavy because both are unpractical when you have to move real quick).

Anyway, nowadays FSC certified wood isn't that expensive anymore, so I think it's just a matter of time until mass production will make it easier for most consumers to opt for sustainable chess sets. As for the 500$ set, it should be mentioned that even a few grams of gold or silver are very unsustainable (unfortunately mining in itself cannot be sustainable), but I'd want to see when consumers will be ready to accept that fact ánd act accordingly...

Bob's picture

I can't see the sense of putting plastic and sustainable in the same sentence. I believe that most plastics are in fact oil-based and even so-called bio-plastics can be made from corn grown in Brazil where the trees you are talking about were once grown.

test's picture

Deforestation is an economical and political problem. As long as there are tropical woods available on the market, they will be used, be it for chess sets or something else.

This goes for pretty much all environmental issues. The consumer does not care for the environment. Policies need to be enforced to protect the environment, it's not gonna happen by consumers changing their behavior voluntarily.

Al Gore's picture

The real answer is to stop playing chess, for the good of the planet.

noyb's picture

Well, this article certainly gave me pause for thought. I have about 20 wooden chess sets, of varying quality wood, and I never stopped to consider the deforestation aspect. There is a great book called "A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in The Development of Civilization" by John Perlin which I highly recommend (ISBN 0-393-02667-1). Having read that and now Arne's article, I believe I'll be sticking to plastic from now on. Many of them are just as attractive and certainly are more than adquately utilitarian. That's a personal choice of course, and to some extent supply and demand will affect the price of the wooden sets; there are many advertised that are well over $1,000.00 USD. I doubt there will be many trees cut for those! But, point well taken Arne, you keep educating and we'll keeping thinking!

Rob Brown's picture

Your article mentions the MSC vis-a-vis commercial fisheries. Your readers should know that the MSC or Marine Certification Council is driven by a large environment foundation and Lever Brothers, the largest fish packing company in the world. Its certification criteria is suspect. As proof I offer the fact that the Council recently certified the Fraser River salmon fishery as sustainable when, in fact, many of salmon stocks, like Cultus Lake Sockeye and Thompson River steelhead, are critically depleted, the last species numbering in the hundreds. Though the idea of certification is a good, one needs to dig deeper than their seal of approval it seems.

On the subject of plastic sets, we hear of perils of plastic on almost a daily basis. Bisphenol-A messes up our endocrine system. Coke in plastic bottles creates benzine, a potent carcinogen. Manufacturing vinyl (PVCs) has caused serious pollution problems and is hazardous to those involved in its manufacture. So, using a petroleum based plastic men doesn't appear to be environmentally sensitive either.

Rob Brown's picture

Maybe the solution to the what-set-to-use quandary is to use a set like the one pictured in my avatar. It's carved of environmentally friendly mammoth tusk. It's a little pricey of course, and the supply is limited.

noyb's picture

Well Rob brings up some good points also. Wow. Out of what material do we make sets? I'm tempted to say let's all play via PCs, but I used to work in Semiconductors and we don't even want to go into the labyrinth of toxic nastiness required to manufacture memory, processors, PCB's etc.

Guess we'll all have to learn to play blindfold! That ought to be good; "No, I said I put the piece on the this square 10 moves ago, not that square!" I wouldn't want to have to TD that tournament! lol

Bartleby's picture

Interesting article, I think the general line of thinking is quite right. It probably would be easy enough for vendors to provide the choice of sustainable wood for pieces, boards, boxes, maybe even clocks.
Is there any reason why tropical woods are preferred right now? Are they better suited for heavy use?
I don't think plastic does make sense environmentally. It adds up on both ends, its production is based on unsustainable oil, and there's no good option how to dispose it.

Felix Kling's picture

It's rather ridiculous to take that article serious :)

The amount of wood used for chessboards and pieces is soooo low :) Anyone who considers to do something really useful should care about buying furniture and so on. it's like those guys who try to safe power by using less light and buying energy saving lamps, but have those ultra large fridges running the whole day :)

Btw., I'm happy FIDE doesn't allow those ugly animal piece sets above ;)

money formula review's picture

What's up every one, here every person is sharing such experience, so it's good to read this weblog, and I used to go to see this web site everyday.

Arne Moll's picture

@Rob Brown: If you're interested in the effectiveness of the MSC and other eco-labels, I'd highly recommend Jennifer Jacquet's excellent recent article in Oryx 'Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts', which deals with the issues of bluewashing in great detail. You can download it in pdf here.

Wim Nijenhuis's picture

Plastic pieces to become mandatory??
I feel so old, i feel so sad.
Sustainable wood ok.
There is feel, the loving touch, the idea of wood, of growth, of life.
But plastic?
Lets make them of clay!! Like 3000 years ago!
That's sustainable life!!

test's picture

Yeah. At least wood recycles. Plastic ca.

test's picture

Plastic stays around forever.

justis's picture

That is the problem with plastic. It stays around forever. If thrown out and ends up in land fill and is made up of nasty chems that aid in the pollution of our soil. Chess Clubs, Federations and organizations should really just ban plastic. As a world culture over-consumption is the biggest problem and every bit helps. Great article. I stumbled on this while looking for a nice family Chess set to "use", not for decoration, and came upon this article. Thanks,

Rob Brown's picture

Thanks so much, Arne. I am quite knowledgeable about sustainable fisheries, but the citations you give are very useful.

Much appreciated.

Bill Mankin's picture

This is an exceptionally well-written examination of a very important issue. Every wood or paper product that originates from a living source should be taken from a forest managed to the highest possible environmental and social standards. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides the most reliable and trustworthy system for ensuring that. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the FSC has transformed the entire international forest policy debate and forced even the most stubborn timber companies to take notice. Rather than debate how much or how little the world of chess can contribute to making the world more sustainable, it seems more reasonable to simply decide that chess players should be on the winning side. Incidentally, there is no agreement in the forest policy world on the definition of “sustainable” forest management, which is why the FSC intentionally avoids using that term in its standards, policies and claims. While it may be a convenient catch-all term in popular discussion, it is still used by many timber companies and wood sellers, not to mention FSC’s rivals, to green-wash their products and mislead consumers into thinking they are being environmentally responsible. So just look, and ask for, the FSC label. Checkmate.

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