Dear EarthTalk: Are there certain brands or retail stores where sustainable furniture options can be had? And what should I look for when shopping for greener furniture?
— W. Cary, Trenton, NJ
While we now opt often for greener cars, appliances, household cleaners and food to up the sustainability quotient of our lifestyles, the furniture we spend all day and night in close contact with is often far from eco-friendly. The vast majority of sofas, chairs, beds and other upholstered furniture we love to lounge on contain potentially carcinogenic formaldehyde and/or toxic flame retardants and stain resistors that have been linked to developmental and hormonal maladies. And much of the wood used in desks, chairs, tables and the like (as well as in the frames of upholstered furniture) comes from unsustainably harvested lumber which contributes to the deforestation of tropical rainforests.
But today, thanks to increased consumer awareness and demand, there are more “green” choices in furniture available than ever before. A good place to start the search for that perfect couch or chair is the website of the Sustainable Furniture Council (SFC), a non-profit formed in 2006 to help develop solid standards and certification processes within the home furnishings industry. The organization has become a leading information source and network of some 400 “green” furniture makers and related retailers, suppliers and designers as well as other non-profits. Consumers looking for greener furniture can browse SFC’s membership list which features contact information and website links accordingly. Buyers beware: Just because a furniture maker is listed with SFC doesn’t mean it eschews all chemicals or unsustainably harvested wood entirely, but only that it is making strides in that direction. Consumers should still be knowledgeable about which green features they are looking for and/or which kinds of materials to avoid.
Of course, with something like furniture you really need to see and feel it in order to decide whether it will work in your space. Eco-conscious consumers making the rounds at local furniture stores should keep a few key questions in mind for salespersons. Does the piece in question contain formaldehyde, flame retardants or stain resistant sprays? Is the fabric used certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard program (GOTS, which mandates that at least 70 percent of fibers are derived from organic sources and do not contain chemical dyes or other additives)? Is the wood used certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as sustainably harvested? Does the piece contain any parts or pieces that come from bamboo or reclaimed wood or recycled metal or plastic? And is it easy to disassemble into reusable or recyclable parts if it needs to be replaced down the line?
If the salesperson doesn’t know the answers, chances are the piece does not pass environmental muster. Limiting your search to brick-and-mortar and Internet-based retailers that specialize in green products is one way to reduce the amount of research and self-education needed, especially because salespersons in such stores are usually up-to-speed on the latest and greatest in sustainable furnishings. Some leading national furniture chains that carry a sizeable inventory of sustainable goods include Crate and Barrel, Room and Board and West Elm, but many more single store eco-friendly furniture stores exist across the country. Some leading online green furniture retailers include Eco-Friendly Modern Living, Furnature, InMod, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, SmartDeco, Southcone and Viesso.