If you were to dissect a typical living room couch, you’d likely find an environmental disaster: a frame made of unsustainably harvested wood treated with formaldehyde and varnishes that can pollute indoor air; unrecyclable foam cushions dosed with flame-retardant chemicals that accumulate in fish when released into the environment; and upholstery colored with chlorine-based dyes and tacked on with toxic glues.
In fact, toxic materials are used throughout the traditional furniture-making process. The paints, varnishes and waxes commonly employed can release the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are known to decrease indoor air quality. One of the most common VOCs is formaldehyde, which is used in glues for particleboard. It is also added to paints as a preservative and to upholstery to give it a permanent-press quality. Formaldehyde emissions can cause eye and throat irritation, allergic reactions, and possibly cancer, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“Traditional furniture can off-gas for years,” says Tom Heerman, co-founder of Baltix Furniture, a four-year-old office furniture manufacturer in Minnesota. Heerman says his company only uses finishes that don’t contain formaldehyde. Instead, Baltix dries products with an ultraviolet process that prevents off-gassing.
San Rafael, California-based Tamalpais NatureWorks also uses toxic-free finishes on its clean-lined furniture. The company uses paints, stains and waxes from BioShield, which makes its products out of citrus peel extracts, essential oils, tree resins, bee waxes and natural pigments. Many natural products experts also recommend that people use water-based finishes, and apply paints as powder coatings to minimize VOCs.
Furniture and bedding is a $66 billion industry in the U.S., and the vast majority of those products are still constructed in the conventional way—from declining natural resources. However, a handful of furniture makers are blazing a more sustainable path. “We’re at the boutique stage now with “green” furniture, with the exception of Ikea,” says Keith Winn of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). While furniture that doesn’t contain harmful chemicals or is made from environmentally friendly resources is readily available online, most conventional retailers don’t offer it in their show rooms.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Wood is still the primary component of most furniture. In the face of devastation caused by widespread deforestation, some furniture makers are turning to alternative sources of lumber. “While sustainably harvested wood has been available for some years, recycled, reclaimed and urban wood products are just beginning to enter the market,” explains William Callahan, founder of Tamalpais NatureWorks. Reclaimed, recycled and salvaged are terms that describe wood collected from such sources as old buildings, boats and fallen trees, as well as from lakes and streams. Urban wood usually refers to logs milled from city trees that have fallen because of storms and age. Employee-owned Tamalpais makes some of its distinctive furniture from wood salvaged from an 1888 timber mill.
Portland, Oregon-based Resource Revival started making coffee and end tables from the salvaged fir beams of old houses in 2003. “I see what we do as more like resourceful subsistence than an extension of the industrial economy, except that we scavenge from the latter rather than from the natural environment,” says founder Graham Bergh. Resource Revival also uses recycled bike components in a range of unique products, including eye-catching tables (see photo at left).
The keystone component of Tamalpais furniture is actually recycled steel and brass fasteners. The parts can be ordered separately so you can build your own piece, ensuring easy disassembly down the road, and allowing you to use local wood, which reduces shipping and transportation costs.
For products made with new wood, look for a label from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Although the FSC has approved a few controversial certifications, the overall program is a good indicator of commitment to sustainability (see “Behind the Label,” Currents, January/ February 2003). If you don’t see a label, ask, as many companies don’t necessarily advertise their use of certified wood. Swedish furniture maker Ikea, for example, uses FSC-certified material in some of its products, but doesn’t use the label because not all of its suppliers qualify.
Heerman of Baltix argues that wood is not the greenest option for building. “Because wood takes a tree 10 years or more to replenish, recycling post-consumer waste is the greenest method of making furniture—it stops materials from going into a landfill,” he says. Baltix creates attractive bookshelves, tables and desks out of “sunflower boards,” which are made from the shells left over from sunflower seed processing (see photo previous page).
The company also uses recycled plastic, newsprint, cork, wheat straw and linoleum, a natural product of linseed. Baltix designs products for easy disassembly, which makes repair and recycling easy. Products can be sent back to the company at the end of their use instead of to a landfill.
Keeping Things Covered
Massachusetts-based Furnature is one of a handful of companies using organic upholstery. The company started making furniture for chemically sensitive people 12 years ago. “It was not our intention to make all-organic furniture, but we found that it worked best for people with chemical sensitivities,” says co-founder Barry Shapiro.
Fifty percent of the toxic insecticides used in the U.S. are applied to conventional cotton, argues Rebecca Zellmer of online retailer The Green Culture, which offers a wide selection of eco-friendly beds and mattresses, nightstands, tables, dressers and armoires.
Sandra Marquardt of the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Fiber Council says that while certification for organic cotton already exists, her organization is also in the final stages of developing organic fiber processing standards to cover treatment and dyeing. “The most harmful component in traditional dyes is chlorine,” says Zellmer. While organic fabric is generally found in earth tones, more colors of natural dyes are on the horizon, she says.
Hemp, a durable fiber that requires low pesticide use, is also occasionally employed in green furniture. Bean Products of Chicago uses hemp upholstery on chairs (photo above), ottomans, couches and beds. “Hemp has been around forever, although it is illegal to grow in the U.S.,” says Bean’s Isabella Samovsky. “People associate it with marijuana and burlap. We’ve come a long way though—the hemp we use looks nothing like burlap.” Hemp is six times stronger than cotton, says Samovsky. Bean Products uses an air-blasting process to soften the fabric.
Climatex Lifecycle, made by Swiss company Rohner Textil, is fabric made of pesticide-free wool and organically grown ramie (a natural linen-like fiber). The material will decompose in the right composting system.
The eco-furniture of the future will have “health-giving” attributes, predicts Winn. “Instead of off-gassing toxic fumes, furniture will give off something beneficial like vitamin C.”
CONTACTS: Baltix Furniture, (763) 210-0155, www.baltix.com; Bean Products, (800) 726-8365, www.beanproducts.com; Furniture, (800) 326-4895, www.furnature.com; Resource Revival, (800) 866-8823, www.resourcerevival.com; Tamalpais NatureWorks, (415) 454-9948; www.tamalpais; USGBC, (202) 828-7422, www.usgbc.org