Your Favorite Guitar Could Be Killing the Environment

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August 24th, 2011, 8:45 am CDT.

Federal agents raid Gibson Guitar facilities in Nashville and Memphis and seize several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars.

Workers were sent home while armed agents completed the seizures, based on four separate warrants.  “Gibson has complied with foreign laws and believes it is innocent of ANY wrongdoing,” the company emphatically stated.  “We will fight aggressively to prove our innocence.”

The finest guitars often used aged and rare woods, and you can definitely hear the difference. But you can also hear the sound of precious, sometimes endangered trees falling, which puts mega-manufacturers like Guitar Center in a sticky situation. The company had its plants raided based on violations related to precious imported timber.

Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz says this is all based on arcane, over-detailed interpretations of international law, specifically those of India (where the wood in question originated).  Juszkiewicz said the company is playing by the rules – international or otherwise – and making sure that environmental rules are obeyed.  “Gibson has a long history of supporting sustainable and responsible sources of wood and has worked diligently with entities such as the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace to secure Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified supplies,” Juszkiewicz said.  “The wood seized on August 24th satisfied FSC standards.”

Gibson has been locked in a contentious debate with the Justice Department for years.  In 2009, Gibson faced seizures that included ebony fingerboards from Madagascar, though the company also claims no wrongdoing in that episode.  “Gibson has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government,” the company said, while complaining that materials remain unreturned.

Others, including ebony and rosewood expert Peter Lowry, have a different take.  “This is the equivalent of Africa’s blood diamonds,” Lowry told the Wall Street Journal this week.

The updated “three sides to every story” adage probably applies to these fights, though Gibson is ardently defending its innocence.  But even if they are absolutely compliant, the broader question is whether it makes sense to craft instruments with rare, endangered materials like ebony and long-aged wood.  Grab a crappy, plywood-and-plastic guitar, and the sound quality suffers.  But that begs the question: is that warm wood glow with ebony fingerboards really worth the footprint?