When people shopped for furniture in the past, the main decision points were usually around color, style and price. Nowadays, more and more consumers are looking at a piece of furniture’s environmental impact before they buy, and the materials play a huge role in furniture’s carbon footprint. So what exactly is the greenest stuff to make furniture with – do you know? Let’s take a look at 3 materials that furniture is most commonly made from – wood, metal, and plastic – and explore how each stacks up in terms of health, environmental impact and durability.
Health and safety should be a top concern when it comes to the furniture we buy for ourselves and our families. Since our average time indoors can be 90% of the day, good air quality is a must. Poor indoor air quality is often related to toxins in furnitures, and can cause all sorts of health problems like emphysema, asthma, headaches and fatigue. The two biggest culprits found in furniture that could foul up the air in our homes are VOC’s from glues, paints, varnishes and adhesives and PVC from finish materials. A good general rule of thumb here is that the cheaper the product is, the more toxic it most likely is. Check out Green Guard for more information.
- Look for: Solid wood or metal with no VOC finishes are the best options here
- Avoid: Paints, finishes, and fabrics with VOCs and any wood composite materials (plywood, particleboard, MDF) which is not explicitly labelled as ‘non-toxic’ or ‘low-VOC’ (they likely contain toxic adhesives).
LIFECYCLE, REUSE & RECYCLABILITY
Where does your furniture come from and where is it going to end up? Forward-thinking furniture companies have taken the consumer’s growing concern about recyclability to heart and endeavor to design and build their products to be reused or recycled at the end of their life span. If you want to make sure that the pieces you’re buying are truly responsible, look for the cradle to cradle label.
- Look for: Metal furniture is often a great bet in terms of recyclability and steel and aluminum furniture is likely already made of recycled content. Plastics are also often reusable, but check labels to make sure. Some companies even allow you to return pieces directly to them to be recycled when you’re ready to move on.
- Wood often isn’t as easy to recycle, but it can easily be reused. Also, since it is so durable and timeless, you may not ever want to get rid of it anyways!
Where we get our raw materials is crucial when we consider that some sources may be depleted in our lifetimes if we abuse them! Sourcing wood responsibly is especially critical for the state of our biosphere, and the most trusted certification system in the U.S. for responsible wood sourcing is the Forest Stewardship Council or FSC. The FSC certifies responsible management of forests, and has a proven track record for keeping our thirst for wood from endangering the land it is harvested from. If you see an ‘FSC’ label on a product, this is a great sign of eco-consciousness in your material supplier, but since less than 12% of global forestry is part of any certification scheme, it is not yet a definitive standard. There are plenty of sources of responsibly managed wood that are not certified by the FSC or any other forest management organization. When seeking renewable materials, rapidly renewable products made from bamboo, cork or agriboards are another great option.
- Look for: Wood is the low impact leader if wisely harvested.
- Avoid: Plastics are made from petroleum, which can hardly be considered a sustainable source. However, pieces made from recycled plastic get a thumbs up.
QUALITY & DURABILITY
Build quality is the real sustainable choice in the end – it’s more than “you get what you pay for,” it’s about your acknowledgement that there is no away in throw away and that what you fill your life with is a reflection of the quality of the life you want to live. Celebrate quality materials and design as a way of keeping yourself connected with your immediate and larger environments.
- Look for: Great design and craftsmanship is the greenest solution of all. The more you love a piece of furniture, the more likely you are to keep it forever and pass it on to future generations.
- Avoid: Shoddily constructed furniture may seem like a great cheap, temporary solution, but spending a little more to begin with will get you more bang for your buck and save you the annoyance of having to dispose of cheapo pieces when they break and buy new ones.
Founded by cabinet makers in London in the early 1960s, Wharfside Furniture Co. still prides itself on creating the finest designs out of solid woods which will last – and look good – for generations. Projects can be handled world-wide.