Environmentally Friendly Furniture
How to feather your nest without fouling your air
Whether you live in a house, apartment, or dorm room, you’ll need furniture to provide a place to sit, eat, and store your stuff. You’ll naturally consider materials, color, quality, and cost. You may also want to use furniture to express your personal style. But what if (as evidenced by your coming to this site) it’s your style to create a healthy home that’s contributing to a healthy planet? Well, then you’ll want to do some research. You’ll need to think about the entire life cycle of the piece, taking into account the resources used to make it, the energy costs associated with transporting it, and the ease of disposal. You’ll want to know whether it’s going to pollute your indoor air.
We don’t recommend that you try to do this research while standing in the middle of a furniture store. But green furniture is a fast-growing retail segment. If you know the lingo and the basics principles of green design before you go to the store, you’ll be able to make good choices with a minimum of head scratching.
- Reuse. In your effort to go green, you may be tempted to throw out your existing furniture. But keep in mind that every new couch, bookshelf, or table takes a toll on the environment, from the resources used to make it to the energy consumed to transport it. So, before you buy new, reuse what you’ve got. Be creative. Can you repaint using a low- or zero-VOC paint? Can you cut off legs or re-upholster? Can a dresser become a baby changing table?
- Recycle. If you are going to part with some existing furniture, don’t just dump it in a landfill. Sell it or give it away. If you don’t know anybody who wants it, try websites such as Craigslist or Freecycle.
When shopping, look for
- Certified wood. If you are buying new furniture, look for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). That’s an assurance that it came from forestry operations that meet strong environmental, social, and economic performance standards.
- Other eco-friendly options. Some bamboo processing options are less environmentally friendly than others, but, on the whole, bamboo is considered one of the greenest materials because it’s fast growing and doesn’t require pesticides. Other eco-friendly options include metal and glass.
- Reclaimed or recycled materials. Lately, furniture is being made of reclaimed wood, recycled metal, and recycled plastic. Keep in mind, however, that furniture made before 1978 may have lead-based paint or finishes. And, polyurethane foam may emit more flame retardants and other chemicals as it ages, so an older piece of foam may have higher emissions.
- Go local. Do your best to find materials that weren’t transported long distances.
- Low or no VOCs. Furniture can taint your indoor air through toxic finishes or adhesives. Choose paints, stains, and other finishes that are water based, with the lowest possible volatile organic compounds (VOC). And look for formaldehyde-free composite wood. A single piece of high-emitting furniture can elevate formaldehyde levels enough to cause eye, nose, throat, or skin irritation or headaches, fatigue, and respiratory problems. Placing a piece of furniture outside when you first get it can minimize the fumes, since emissions are generally highest right after furniture is manufactured. But the emissions may continue at low levels for a couple of years.
- Certification. Several organizations offer air-quality certifications for furnishings. Greenguard is the most widely recognized.
- Inside your soft furnishings, including padded wood chairs, is often foam that has been treated with flame retardants. Usually, one of the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is used, although other flame retardants are on the market. PBDEs escape from foam and can be found in household dust. North Americans have concentrations of PBDEs in their bodies that are 40 times higher than those in Europe. The chemical can disrupt thyroid hormone levels and slow brain development, among other health effects.
- Another important factor is fabric. Conventional cotton is heavily treated with pesticides. Heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are often used to treat and color the fabric. Plus, some fabrics are treated with stain repellants, usually perfluorochemicals, which can cause adverse health effects. Choose untreated natural fibers with eco-friendly dyes.
- Before you buy, consider how you will dispose of the furniture down the road. Materials that can be recycled are the best choice.
…to your health
Choosing furniture that will not taint your indoor air with noxious chemicals will improve your health.
…to your wallet
Green furniture has come down significantly in price, with options at almost any price point. If you go the reuse or recycled route, you’ll save even more.
…to the Earth
Choosing green furniture protects forests and reduces the amount of toxic chemicals used in manufacturing. Using recycled or reclaimed materials saves resources and requires less energy for processing.
Buying into flame retardants. Sales staff will often tell customers that chemical flame retardants must be used to meet federal and state regulations. Not true. Yes, federal and state standards exist to prevent the ignition and spread of fires, but brominated and chlorinated flame retardants are not required. Other systems can be used to meet the standards.
Figure out what you need in terms of function, and then choose the type of material. Then it’s time to research what green options are available.