By Liz Higginbottom
You would be forgiven for thinking that furniture labelled rattan is made from a natural product. In fact, you should be correct – but increasingly these days this is not the case. While natural rattan furniture is still made today it is largely for indoor use and the garden furniture which is rapidly overtaking all others as the garden furniture of choice, is made from a synthetic product.
First, a definition of terms:
What is natural rattan?
What we tend to understand as rattan furniture originally came under the name of wicker. Wicker denotes any product which is woven from a plant fibre. Rattan is one such plant and owing to its superior qualities it became the most popular choice. The plant itself is a type of palm which is vine-like. Unlike bamboo it needs a structure to cling to and tends to grow up or over existing vegetation.
Largely native to Indonesia, the Philippines and other Far Eastern countries, its commercial properties in the furniture market have long been recognised. Since Victorian times wicker furniture has been popular for its lightness and its casual aspect and also its inexpensive price.
What is synthetic rattan?
Building on the principles qualities of the natural product, synthetic rattan is made of High Density Polyethylene. This is a man-made resin fibre which derives from wax. Its increasing popularity is due to the fact that it retains the look of the original while offering added benefits, not least of which is that it is weatherproof and can be left outside all the year round.
Interestingly both rattan and synthetic rattan have been considered to some extent to be environmentally friendly products. Originally rattan was considered a sound choice as its growing habit meant that it was easier for the indigenous population to harvest the rattan rather than cutting down the trees which supported it. Its exploitation was seen as a way of preserving the rainforest and its fast growing habit meant that renewal times were economically much shorter than for trees.
Over-exploitation and premature harvesting of young shoots have however changed the prevailing views. Synthetic rattan, may not be threatening a precious natural resource like the rainforest, but it is nevertheless a plastic made from a chemical process. Retailers will trumpet its natural credentials but fail to point out that natural though its derivation may be, it still requires additional processing to become a usable product to rival its natural cousin.
The economies of many Indonesian villages depend totally on furniture production. Streets are lined with workshops and factories and in the forest fringes individual artisans pursue their craft. They may be using synthetic rattan or the natural product, as the manufacture of synthetic rattan furniture is as rooted in the Far East as its older counterpart. This is largely owing to the expertise of the workforce. Whether synthetic or natural, rattan furniture is hand woven and requires skilled craftsmen.
The loss of the raw materials to produce the furniture their livelihood depends upon would be catastrophic to many Far Eastern communities, so synthetic rattan has thrown them a lifeline which will ensure the survival of their craft.
The way forward
The WWF have a project which is supporting sustainable rattan in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This project is improving the sustainable harvesting of the raw material while maximising the incomes of the villagers in these areas.
The demand for rattan garden furniture whether natural or synthetic is growing and it would seem that as sustainability is an issue there is an equally valid place for synthetic rattan as there is for the natural alternative. As an increasing proportion of the market is persuaded to buy synthetic rattan this should allow the natural product harvesting areas time to recover. So synthetic rattan could have its own role to play in slowing down the deforestation of rattan forests
Room for both?
In Britain we will probably always favour the synthetic version for outdoor use purely because of our fickle weather, however in hotter climes and for indoors the choice is less clear cut. Many high end designers are specialising in the natural product, whereas in countries with more predictable weather sustainably sourced natural rattan could be a wise choice.
What is sure is that the far eastern economies need both to survive and keep jobs. So there is no clear cut environmentally friendly winner here. Your choice it would seem can at least be based on your individual requirements and preferences rather than ecological or ethical concerns.