Furniture is everywhere in our daily lives. We live with it and on it all day and night, but what effect do these everyday objects have on our health and on the planet?
I dug into this question while working with several top furniture brands. They were surprisingly unaware of the full supply chain, material, and production impacts of the furniture industry. While trying to influence these industry leaders toward cleaner, greener, socially responsible production, I learned that: A) it isn’t as simple or cheap to make sustainable, non-toxic furniture (not surprising), and B) there are some furniture companies that have figured out how to do it, with a healthy profit margin. And C) it's not super easy to find truly sustainable, well designed furniture. So, if you're in the market for new furniture, I humbly present The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly, Ethical Furniture.
This guide demystifies the process of sourcing beautiful furnishings that are eco-friendly, ethical, and non-toxic. It’s especially important the furniture in our lives isn't made of unhealthy materials since we spend more time with it than with any other consumer product—with the possible exception of personal tech devices.
There is a lot of research out there to slog through, but the good news is, I did it for you. The essentials are captured in a few key principles about materials, production methods, and life cycle impacts. Following these will lead you to low impact sofas, tables, cabinets and chairs you'll love bringing into your home.
What Makes Furniture Sustainable? The Essentials...
- Materials: Low or no environmental impact in terms of sourcing. Are the raw materials renewable, recyclable, nontoxic? Does their processing create toxic pollution? Have they been 3rd party certified?
- Production methods: Small carbon footprint, positive or neutral social impact (fair trade, fair made)
- Finishes: Low or nontoxic ingredients, minimal or no off-gassing of harmful fumes
- Life cycle: Product creates a low impact from cradle to grave, end of life. Is it reusable, recyclable, biodegradable? Better yet, is it a cradle-to-cradle product that can be reused or repurposed at the end of its first life?
- Durability: The design is enduring. Are the esthetic, materials and construction durable?
- Third Party Certified: Reputable, independent certifying organizations verify environmental claims, health, and social impacts of products. Why not save time and energy by checking for FSC, GOTS, Oeko-Tex, GOLS and Declare certifications? Read on for more on all of these...
Living Room Furniture: Sofas & Other Upholstered Seating
A home's central chill zone is the living room, so we can dive in here. Let’s start with the sofa, usually a living room’s pièce de résistance and focal point. Most of us like to find cushy comfort here—meaning upholstered furniture. To get the soft padding used in upholstery, we’re looking at cushions or foam wrapped in fabric or leather. The main issues here are:
The most common inner cushion material is polyurethane foam, a plastic polymer containing the toxic chemicals methyloxirane (aka propylene oxide) and toluene, both carcinogenic. These are released through off-gassing, which can go on polluting your indoor air for years. Best to avoid. You may have heard of soy-based foam as an eco-alternative, but it typically only contains a maximum of 20% soy, the rest being polyurethane. Soy brings with it a host of other problems too, such as pesticide use, genetically modified crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.
Better to opt for a natural rubber foam cushion, made of natural latex, a renewable, sustainable resource harvested from the rubber tree. Ask for Dunlop latex to assure there are no synthetic chemicals added. You can even find Global Organic Latex Standard certified (GOLS) for the cleanest option.
Other materials used in cushions create varying degrees of softness and give. These include inner coils, down, batting and more foam. Coils can be made of recycled metal. Batting or padding exists in a range of natural, time-proven materials including wool, coconut fiber (aka coir), kapok, bamboo, or cotton (preferably organic). Lyocell is a newer alternative made from cellulose, but requires chemically intensive processing, and is also linked to deforestation (see this rayon/viscose post for details), so better to pass on that.
Down adds an extra inviting softness, however, there are troubling ethical issues around down production in terms of animal welfare and lack of regulations. It’s also high maintenance, needing frequent plumping and fluffing to retain its shape and loft. So unless you have a housekeeper or love the Zen act of fluffing, you may want to skip this one, too.
Whenever possible, choose natural fabrics like wool, organic cotton or linen and avoid synthetics like petroleum-based polyester, unless it’s made from recycled bottles or fiber. Also steer clear of vinyl (PVC) which is produced with highly toxic dioxin. Plus it has the icky, sticky habit of adhering to the backs of your legs when sat upon.
Ask for untreated fabrics, since stain and fire resistant chemicals are linked to a slew of health and environmental risks. To scratch the surface, so to speak, they can cause fatal hyperthyroidism in cats, cancer in humans (especially children}, and are toxic to other life forms when they enter the environment. By seeking out GOTS or Oeko-Tex certified fabrics, you can avoid these toxic culprits and negative social impacts too. Better yet, choose Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified, a complete life cycle standard requiring fabrics to be upcyclable to another use.
If you’re vegan, needless to say, this is simply a no-go. Though it is an animal product, leather is a very durable upholstery material. Be aware that conventional leather production employs chromium and other toxic chemicals in the tanning and dying processes, and often uses child labor. Vegetable tanned, chromium-free leathers are preferable, but be prepared to deal with stiffer leather that may need to be broken in. There are also eco certifications for leather, like Oeko-tex’s or the European Naturtextil IVN certification, assuring low impact production and protection of worker’s health. Buying used or vintage is an excellent compromise, since you’re extending the life of the leather.
Look for Forest Stewardship Council certified (FSC), reclaimed (e.g. from old barns), or salvaged wood (e.g. from fallen trees); or recycled steel. Frames should be designed for longevity, and ideally, to be easily dissembled for recycling.
Cabinets, Storage & Occasional Furniture
Next let’s consider case goods – TV/media cabinets, shelving and storage. These essential pieces are found not just in the living room, but throughout the home to help keep us organized and sane.
Most cabinetry and storage is made of wood. Source salvaged, reclaimed or FSC-certified. Some conscious manufacturers use glues, paints and finishes that are low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) or no-VOC, meaning they release minimal or no unstable toxic chemicals into your home. And who wants an unstable, toxic home? Check labels and ask salespeople whether the finishes are low VOC or water based, the latter being the safest type.
You may also want (or at least need) a workstation at home. Desks and work chairs pose the same material and finish issues outlined. I’d recommend checking for Greenguard certification, and looking at companies like Steelcase and Knoll, as well as second hand resellers (craigslist, eBay and local second hand shops).
For coffee or side tables, you may come across some irresistible 70’s or other vintage plastic/plexi options, but sticking with metal or wood—recycled, salvaged, or vintage—with or without a glass top, is a more rewarding way to go. Plastic from any era tends to damage easily, while ironically taking hundreds of years to degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of persistently polluting plastic bits.
As the sofa is our focal point in the living room, the dining table is the centerpiece of the dining room. This is where I especially recommend going with “pre-loved” or vintage furniture. You can find superior craftsmanship and wood, along with more character and distinctive styles for reasonable prices.
If buying new, again, avoid plastics such as polyethylene, polyacrylates, and polycarbonates. Even if they’re made from recycled plastic or are theoretically recyclable, plastic furniture is typically not accepted by recycling facilities. The mantra is, plastics aren’t durable and are virtually impossible to repair or recycle. Choose glass, certified or salvaged wood. Glass tops can be polished and replaced fairly easily. Metal can be a good choice too, but preferably not chrome–finished metal, because that's made with highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (sorry, I know; its a sleek look but the downside is real). Prioritize solid construction especially when choosing dining chairs, since they get a lot of wear and tear through daily use and the occasional raucous dinner party.
I favor platform beds with built in storage for a minimal approach, and you can save money too by buying fewer pieces. Multifunctional pieces can even include desk, dresser and bed all in one. The most important bedroom element to invest in, and to vet for toxicity, is the mattress. Afterall, about 1/3 of our lives is spent sleeping. A round up of my mattress picks is in the works, but meanwhile, here is a good guide to check out.
Dressers are an ideal piece to introduce character and an esthetic twist. Opt for vintage or consider splurging on a well-made contemporary piece. (If I see one more busted-up IKEA dresser on the curb, I think I’ll scream!)
Side tables provide a great opportunity to get creative. Consider wine crates, salvaged wood tree trunks, hand carved African stools, small steamer trunks or other found objects with an even surface that inspire dreams.
How to Buy Sustainable Furniture
First, check in with family or friends. Maybe your parents are downsizing, or your friends are redecorating. Let them know you’re in the market, and you may score quality pieces inexpensively or even free if they’re feeling generous. If that isn’t fruitful, go to resellers—online and off. Check your local Goodwill or used furniture dealer for affordable finds. There are often gems mixed in with the crap, and at excellent prices. Online, top sites to tap include 1stdibs, Apt Deco, Viyet, and of course eBay. Keep in mind there’s a bigger carbon footprint if you buy a sofa that is shipped thousands of miles than if you find one locally, but that is still a lower impact than buying new!
Sustainable and New
There are not many bigger furniture brands that are really sustainable, but a lot of them that have a diluted or partial commitment to sustainability. I decided to favor smaller companies that use verifiably sustainable materials and production methods. My selections are ranked by how committed they are, as best I could determine.
Eco Balanza: crème de la crème in terms of meeting sustainability criteria and having certifications to prove it. They’re about to become the only furniture company to receive the Declare certification, the most stringent one available.
Mio: high design occasional pieces, room dividers, storage
The Joinery: wood & upholstered furniture, certified B Corporation.
Haiku Designs: includes bamboo furniture and other more unusual pieces.
CISCO Home “inside Green” line: high end, wide range for every room in the home, pricier than they probably should be. NY showroom inside ABC Carpet & Home.
Viesso: especially strong in sofa offerings, mid-range prices.
ABC Carpet & Home: various brands, including their in-house line, graded with their own sustainability rating system. Definitely furniture as an investment but high quality, and well curated for one-stop shopping. NY showroom, or order online.
Urban Green: specializes in storage beds, children’s furniture, and custom made designs. NY showroom.
VivaTerre: stylish, very affordable sofas.
Clei: minimal and sleek multifunctional, transforming furniture.
Materia: trendy and high quality for reasonable price.
West Elm: not the most sustainable overall, but they do offer salvaged, reclaimed, and FSC-certified wood furniture at good prices.
IKEA: the go-to giant for cheap, decent design. Scores low on durability, but they do use better than average materials and production methods and have a commitment to using 100% renewable energy by 2020 – saving themselves lots of money too. This one is complex, so stay tuned for a separate, in-depth post on “to Ikea or not to Ikea”.
It’s worth noting that while the Sustainable Furnishings Council sounds like the premier US source for the industry, they don’t have the best reputation for stringency in terms of which companies they accept as members.
Overall, some of the best advice for sustainable furniture shopping is to go slowly. Allow time for your interior environment to come together with serendipity and intention so that used, affordable, and esthetically perfect designs can find their way into your home.
Good luck, and happy home-making!