What Makes Furniture Green?
by Pamela Portwood
Stretching out on a comfy sofa to read a book doesn't feel dangerous. It's not as though the sofa is going to throw you to ground and jump up on its ball-and-claw feet to be transformed into a saber-wielding Ninja. Even so, furniture can be hazardous to your health and the environment's health.
The tip-off is the "new furniture" smell that is strongest with upholstered furniture: sofas, loveseats and chairs.
What's behind the unpleasant aroma? The furniture is off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that evaporate easily into the air. They are the major component of smog. Some VOCs are known carcinogens, and they can cause other health problems, which means you don't want them in your home.
Where do you find the VOCs in furniture with standard construction? Foam seat cushions are petroleum products, so they off-gas the same way gasoline does. The glues and stains on upholstered and wood furniture off-gas VOCs, too. Plywood and pressed board used under furniture veneers can off-gas formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen, for years.
In upholstery, polyester and many other man-made fabrics are petroleum products that off-gas. From an environmental perspective, they all use oil. Cotton fabric is a natural product, but tons of pesticides and insecticides are used in cotton production.
Yikes. If this sounds like a furniture nightmare, it doesn't have to be.
Four years ago, buying a completely "green" upholstered sofa cost a fortune, and there weren't many to be had. In the last year, green furniture has spread from specialty production to larger manufacturers, and now there are more affordable options.
So what does a green sofa look like? Let's start with something I haven't talked about: the wood. There are several ways to see that your furniture is eco-friendly and doesn't contribute to deforestation.
The wood can come from forests that are sustainably managed so that trees will be preserved for the future. Check to see if the furniture has been certified. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides the best certification because it is given by a third-party organization.
Some manufacturers certify their woods using the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which was created by the American Forest & Paper Association. Many environmentalists have labeled SFI certification as industry greenwashing, but the preliminary report from a study commissioned by the U.S. Green Building Council suggests that the current SFI program addresses most of the issues that the FSC do
Furniture made from reclaimed wood is a good choice, but consider the wood's source. If the wood came from Asia, then its level of embodied energy (the energy invested in manufacturing and transportation) is high. Selecting used or antique furniture locally is a great option.
Buying high-quality furniture that lasts a long time is important. Soy- or vegetable-blend cushions reduce off-gassing as do water-based glues and stains. Green fabric options include hemp, organic cotton and recycled polyester.
Where can you find green furniture? With four lines of eco-friendly furniture, Contents Interiors (contentsinteriors.com), a locally owned store and member of the Sustainable Furniture Council, is the best place to shop in Tucson.
Crate & Barrel (crateandbarrel.com) now uses certified wood and vegetable-based cushions in most of its furniture. California Design Center (californiadesigncenter.com) carries some green furniture.
In Scottsdale, Natural Territory (naturalterritory.com) is a wonderful, all-green store with furniture, mattresses and more. Of course, there's always online shopping.
So go forth and green your home with healthy, sustainable furniture.
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Article is reprinted courtesy of The New Southwest (formerly Tucson Green Times).