In 1974, Bob Taylor entered the American high-end acoustic guitar market. By doing so, he ruffled a few feathers.
At the time, there were two key players in the flattop game; C.F. Martin, with their legacy that went back to before the civil war, and Gibson, with their eye-catching and iconic designs.
Back in the ‘70s, the idea that anyone could go toe-to-toe with Martin and Gibson seemed farfetched. Today, however, Taylor has made the American acoustic guitar market a three-horse-race. In no small part, it’s because of innovative design practices.
It’s not just Taylor’s instruments that win them accolades, though. In the past twenty years, the company has led the charge when it comes to making sustainable guitars. Today, we’re going to find out how they changed the sustainability game by changing the way they sourced their woods.
When it comes to building a sustainable and ethical guitar, the first and most obvious thing you need to do is use materials that meet those sustainability and ethics standards.
Sourcing woods that adhere to the Lacey Act (which prohibits the trade of endangered natural materials) seems like the way to do that. But the process isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.
As Scott Paul, Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability notes: “for a company that buys wood from often-faraway places all over the world,” verifying that wood’s legal status can be a tricky business.
“…illegal logging is the most profitable natural resource crime and accounts for 10 to 30 percent of the global trade in timber products, and 50 to 90 percent in some tropical countries.”
So how do you navigate the minefield of sustainable wood sourcing? Taylor’s solution was to buy the mill where that wood was processed. In 2011, the company became co-owners of Crelicam, an ebony mill in Cameroon (the only company where it is legal to harvest ebony).
In the short term, the plan was to ensure that Taylor had access to above-board ebony (Cameroon is the only country in the world where it is legal to harvest the wood). In the long term, it was to turn Crelicam into a facility that could supply the company with sustainable ebony for years to come.
In no small part, that meant updating the facilities and giving employees a continued incentive to work for Taylor (and not turn to illegal logging). As Conscious Connection notes, since taking over Crelicam, Taylor has “installed current machinery, has provided education and training, has doubled wages, and has enabled the mill to add value to the wood by further processing it into instrument parts before it is shipped.”
Taylor also discovered that, when it came to ebony, wastage was a huge issue. Ninety percent of ebony trees harvested in Cameroon were rejected because of perceived “imperfect coloration.”
As Bob Taylor notes, “B grade” Ebony, which features blond and brown colored streaks (unlike the pure black coloring of the “A grade” material) was worth one fifth of its A grade equivalent, in spite of its purely cosmetic differences. This meant that loggers were leaving 90% of the ebony they cut down on the forest floor because it wasn’t financially worthwhile for them to harvest it.
Taylor made the decision to pay loggers equally for the “A grade” and “B grade” ebony and started using both types of in its guitar necks, affecting a change across the entire guitar industry.
In today’s market, sustainability in guitar building is a more pressing issue than ever. As Scott Paul told Forbes in 2019, “we are atthe precipice of a fundamentally changing time in the history of musical instrument manufacturing.”
“There needs to be a realization that legally, and also ethically and morally, the world is changing very fast,” he continues. “And an acoustic guitar builder is really the canary in the coal mine for the health of the global forest estate.”
Here at Thalia, we salute Taylor for their trailblazing approach towards sustainability.