Save the rainforest - buy a sustainable chess set

| 1 | Chess Event Coverage
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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