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.
[...] to both head and heart from many perspectives. This includes considering everything from how materials meet and interact with each other to social and environmental aspects of their production, which is [...]
SFI is absolutely not a credible certification standard. It is a timber industry greenwashing scheme designed to thwart the growing popularity of FSC certification. Unfortunately, it is largely succeeding (perhaps because they can afford to pay people to spam blog comments). Read more: http://heartofgreen.typepad.com/heart_of_green/2008/05/fsc-vs-sfi.html http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/fsc-vs-fsi.php
What style of furniture today is the greenest? One of the oldest styles there is, the papasan. The rattan now days is grown on plantations and not harvested from the jungles It is not only a renewable resource but is one of the most durable woods out there. I have seen papasan chairs that are over 50 years old still in use today. The cushions used to be filled with crush foam rubber, not a very green product for sure. But today's cushions are stuffed with crushed polyester made from recycled plastic bottles. It is one chair that can always be updated without little impact on the environment.
As you can see this is not a black and white issue. Metal can be recycled indefinitely, albeit with an energy footprint.Producing wood products can also have a significant energy footprint. The current debate over sustainable harvested wood is very intense but the FSC is the most reliable source for low impact harvesting thus far. We see too much furniture today built with a very short usable life span and with materials that can significantly affect indoor IAQ. Furniture that does not pose these risks are not the cheapest options in the short run but will have a significantly longer lifespan. We do not imply that price is the best measure of 'green' furniture but it is often and indicator.
Thanks for your effort, this is top stuff. I am myself running a small furniture shop and understand that higher prices are not always green. Rgds anhmhc www.noithatminhha.com
Another credible forest certification standard is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). SFI is fully independent and has a rigorous standard grounded in science, research and regional expertise. The SFI label can be found on many products, and it is backed by strict requirements that give consumers confidence that their purchased goods come from well-managed forests. To find more information, please visit SFI’s website at sfiprogram.org.
Are you sure you know how metals are produced? Maybe they're better than plastics, but can they beat plywood for an instance? Even particle boards and MDF have few "sustainable" issues. The higher price doesn't always mean "Green". Good design should be available for everyone. By the way most of the "primitive" groups of people are much more concerned on Earth's "health" than the civilized western societies. Think about it. Buying less and using less helps.
[...] options is the most environmentally friendly one? Unsure? Then your best bet is to check out our materials smackdown, where we pin wood, metal and plastic against one another to see how each stacks up in terms of [...]