Some people obsess over furniture. Others hardly even notice it's there. One way or the other, making environmentally savvy choices in furnishing your home or office can make a big difference in your impact on the planet and your health. The modern sustainability movement has attracted such a large number of innovative designers that it's hard to know where to start.
In this article we won't be listing every green furniture company or designer under the sun but rather give a rundown of basic concepts that might guide your search. Of the specific products and brands we do mention, not all will be budget-friendly for everyone--at this point, a lot of the green design is still specialty stuff, and thus pretty high-end. But don't worry. There are always cost effective ways to go green. Keep reading to learn more about the best ways to go green with your furniture.
Top Green Furniture Tips
- Certified sustainable wood
Whether a piece of furniture is made from wood, cloth, metal, plastic, or whatever else, there are earth-friendly options. When cave people realized that boulders weren't the most comfortable things to sit on, wood was almost certainly where they looked, so let's start there. The world needs more trees, not less, so practices that lead to deforestation aren't any good. Not only do trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, they keep the surface of the planet cool, they hold soil together so it can stay rich, and they provide the habitat that animals, insects, birds, and other plants call home, not to mention they support many people's livelihood. Simply put, don't mess with the trees. There are sustainable ways to harvest wood, however. Wood from sustainably harvested forests, sustainably harvested tree farms, and reclaimed wood are the main sources. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a great standard of certification that controls clear-cutting and promotes good working conditions.
- Furniture made with reclaimed materials
If wood is taken care of, and sometimes even if it isn't, it can last a really, really long time. So shouldn't we be able to make good use of all the wood that's already out there? A lot of designers think so and are doing just that. Reclaimed wood usually comes from old furniture, houses, or other built things that are ready for some friendly reincarnation, from flawed wood, or from scraps from a factory that makes other stuff. Some reclaimed wood even comes from logs that sunk to the bottom of rivers as they were being floated downstream to the sawmill, or from the bottom of man-made reservoirs (check out the Sawfish). Either way, furniture made from reclaimed wood is a great example of resource efficiency, but usually comes in shorter supply. The Rainforest Alliance has a Rediscovered Wood Certification label to look for.
You've probably heard by this point that bamboo isn't a tree at all, but a grass. Bamboo represents a family of grasses that range in size from tiny to huge, and in color from lime green to maroon stripes. It is incredibly fast-growing and versatile and has become the unofficial poster material of environmental designers and builders. Bamboo can be flattened into flooring, molded into furniture, pressed into veneers, sliced up to make window blinds, or hey, you can just build your whole house out of it. Using bamboo in buildings can earn architects and builders LEED points if they are careful about where they source it from. Most bamboo comes from China and is grown with few or no pesticides. Because it is so fast growing, it is much easier to maintain healthy bamboo forests. This also means it uses a lot of water, however, and harvesting too fast can deplete soil fertility. Some growers do use pesticides and other chemical inputs, however, so keep that in mind. Another thing to be wary of is that bamboo products are pieced together with glue - which can contain formaldehyde, depending on the supplier. The fact is we still don't know how green bamboo furniture is.
- Recycled metal and plastic
More and more furniture is being made from recycled plastics and metals as well, like the recycled aluminum Icon Chair. Recycled materials require less processing and fewer resources, and help support the market for recycled materials. Technologies are always improving, meaning that recycled plastics and metals are always going up in quality. It's not all about materials, though, so here are some basic guiding principles to keep in mind when looking for furniture.
There are lots of things that claim to be recyclable; it is a meaningless and loaded word. Everything is recyclable if you are willing to spend the money to do it; that's why coffee pod manufacturers are spending money to take back their pods and turn them into lawn chairs and garden compost; it makes people feel good. Making things out of virgin materials and calling it recyclable is marketing, nothing more.
There are exceptions. Products certified Cradle to Cradle (C2C) like certified office chairs from Herman Miller and Steelcase, can be easily taken apart, sorted into their constituent parts, and recycled at the end of their useful lives. They may start with virgin material but it is designed to be recyclable. When buying furniture, stay away from "monstrous hybrids", pieces that are an inseparable amalgam of materials. If they can't be taken apart it's probably a sign that they can't be repaired very well either.
- Recyclable and disassemblable
Good eco-friendly furniture should lend itself to easy repair, disassemblage, and recycling. Products certified by MBDC's C2C (Cradle 2 Cradle) product regimen are a perfect example, like certified office chairs from Herman Miller and Steelcase. These products can be easily taken apart, sorted into their constituent parts, and recycled at the end of their useful lives. When buying furniture, stay away from "monstrous hybrids", pieces that are an inseparable amalgam of materials. If they can't be taken apart it's probably a sign that they can't be repaired very well either.
- Look for furniture that's durable and fixable
One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of green products (and this definitely goes for furniture) is durability. If something is tough and/or can be readily repaired, this lessens the chance that it'll end up in the landfill, and could easily save you money in the long run, even if it's initially more expensive. Even recyclable materials if they break (and can't be fixed) require energy and other resources to reprocess and then replace. Durable goods that will last a long time can be passed on from person to person. Even if your style changes and that kitchen table isn't your thing anymore, a good strong table will almost always be appealing to someone else, while a broken (and unfixable) one probably won't. When it's time to part with your possessions, think of Craigslist, Freecycle, or eBay, and find it a new home.
- Buy flexible and think small
Grandma's sofa was huge and heavy; it costs more to hire a truck or a mover than to buy a new one at IKEA. In these days when everyone is talking about living with less, think about smaller, lighter and folding furniture that you can put away when you don't need it. Dining room tables can have drop leaves so that you can fold them down when dining alone. Transformer furniture changes from a coffee table to a dining table when you need one.
- Low-toxicity furniture
When you buy a piece of furniture, bring it home, and set it down in a room, it doesn't just sit there. No matter what it's made out of, chances are, it's offgassing (or releasing substances into the air). Almost everything offgasses, which isn't necessarily bad, but synthetic materials or those treated with synthetic substances can offgas chemicals which are toxic. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are the most common family of chemicals that are offgassed and have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption, and cancer. Flame retardants and formaldehyde are common VOCs offgassed by furniture. Especially if your home or office is well-insulated (which it should be for energy purposes) toxins can't get out easily. In fact, studies have shown that air quality inside your house (or car) is often worse than outside. Everyone should be conscious of the kinds of chemicals they bring home, but especially if you have kids, pets, or other family members who are low to the ground and prone to licking things. There are some good ways to help maintain good indoor air quality when it comes to furniture choices. Greenguard is a certification which ensures furniture is low toxicity. Herman Miller, Haworth, Knoll, and Izzydesign all offer Greenguard certified furniture options. Also, look for furniture that is untreated or treated with natural substances, like natural wood finishes, or naturally tanned leather. Organic cotton is also less likely to be treated with toxic stuff. Another great way to dodge toxic chemicals is to buy furniture that is vintage or second-hand and has already done most of its offgassing (just make sure it doesn't carry anything worse, like lead paint). You can tell intuitively that new things offgas more actively-just think of that new car smell.
- Avoid flame retardants
Flame retardants are powders, so they don't offgass like other chemicals. Instead, they fall out of upholstery and mix in with the dust around the house. The problem is that the bromine industry, which makes flame retardants, is huge so they want to keep their market going even though the risk of fire has drastically decreased across the US due to the decline in smokers. But flame retardants aren't actually that effective at slowing down fires - once the upholstery is lit, it burns just as fast and releases a host of toxic chemicals. When looking into new furniture, check with the manufacturer that there aren't any flame retardants. You could also avoid products with foam in favor of wool cotton or down, which generally don't have flame retardants added to them and which are less toxic when they burn.
- Buy vintage
With all the slick, mod, "eco" brands jumping into the market it can be hard to keep in mind that pre-owned goods can be the most green purchase of all. Vintage and second-hand and furniture requires no additional resources to manufacture, is often locally sourced (cutting down on transportation), is pre-offgassed and eases the load on the landfill. Quality vintage furniture can also have excellent resale value (sometimes selling for the same price it was bought) which certainly can't be said for most new furniture, green or otherwise.
- Buy local
Just like the food on the dinner plate, we might be amazed how many miles the constituent parts of a piece of furniture might have had to travel in order to reach us. If possible, source furniture close to home. This will support the local economy, small craftspeople, and decrease the environmental cost of shipping (not to mention the other kind of cost).
- What to do with it when you're over it
We can't promise we're going to like something forever or that our furnishing needs won't change. When it's time to bid a chair, table, bed, or dresser farewell, make sure it goes to a good home. Sell it on Craigslist, eBay, or the local paper, give it away via Freecycle, or include it in your next yard sale. Putting it safely on the curb with a "free" sign on it can also do the trick. If you are the crafty type, lots of furniture can be repurposed into new functions or just freshened up with new paint or finish. No sturdy artifact should have to live out eternity in the landfill. If it's your mission to get deeper into the green furniture space, put on your designer's smock and start tinkering. Think about refurbishing old furniture or entirely repurposing other objects, like this bathtub turned arm chair. In this design, a clever individual designed a top-notch chair from heavy-duty fabric-covered cardboard tubes, aluminum rings, and wood. Heavy-duty cardboard can be fashioned to interlock in creative ways. If you've got fertile ground and some time to spare you can even grow your own furniture to suit. The Spanish group Drap-Art has a reuse festival that is ripe with ideas.
Green Furniture: By the Numbers
- 3 to 4: The length, in feet, some species of bamboo can grow in a day, in good soil and climate conditions.
- 100 times higher: The concentration of volatile organic compounds and particulates in indoor spaces vs. outdoors.
- 90 percent: The amount of time an average person spends indoors.
- 50 percent: Percentage of U.S. manufactured office furniture that went to Canada in 2006.
- $34.1: Billions of dollars spent on furniture, bedding and accessories made in the U.S. in 2013.
- 300: Amount of furniture stores throughout the U.K. that provide publicly donated furniture to people in need.
- $9.99: Cost of a disposable bedside table from IKEA.
Green Furniture: Getting Techie
FSC Certified Wood
If wood is FSC certified, this means that the forest it was cut from is managed in a way that allows the natural ecosystem to maintain itself--in other words, it stays a forest. In theory, a well-managed forest can continue to produce wood indefinitely. This is the opposite of clear-cutting, where whole forests are leveled at once and the ecosystem is demolished (unless you consider the opposite of clear-cutting to be not cutting at all). Look for FSC certified wood.
Question your wood
There are two sides to every coin, however. Sustainable forestry does still have an impact on the forest, and still has the potential to damage the ecosystem and habitats within. Tree farms can be monocultures devoid of biodiversity, and can be treated with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, just like non-organic food crops. They can also be genetically modified, which creates the risk of altered trees invading natural ecosystems in the wild. It's always good to ask questions about where your wood comes from, but answers can sometimes be hard to come by.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): In the words of Environmental Building News: "Carbon-based substances that occir as gases under typical ambient air temperature and pressure. For the purposes of regulating air pollutants, EPA and other agencies include only compounds that contribute to smog in the definition of VOCs. For indoor air quality purposes the definition is not limited in that way. There are also semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs) that don't become gaseous as readily but are still found in indoor air. Those most commonly identified as chemicals of concern are pesticides, flame retardants, and phthalates. Finally, microbial VOCs are generated and released as a result of microbial growth." (EBN Vol. 15, No. 9, 2005)
The main groups offering air quality certification for indoor furnishings are:
With reporting by Manon Verchot