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What is Sustainable Furniture & Flooring, Anyway?

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

By Susan Inglis

When people first hear of our organization, they often ask, “What is sustainable furniture, anyway?” I usually explain that there are many different possible answers to the question, and I am happy to take as much time as they have in elaborating! But time is precious. In a nutshell, it is likely that whatever pops into your head as a possible answer is right. Sustainability is an umbrella term, and it is a wide umbrella, with many different issues coming under it, many of them related: global warming, deforestation, extinction of species, toxic waste pollution, poor indoor air quality, water pollution, overcrowding of landfills, exploitation of workers, exploitation of indigenous people, care for local economies, etc.

The furniture industry relates directly too many of these issues. It is a global manufacturing industry, so uses a lot of electricity and has a large transportation footprint causing a lot of carbon dioxide pollution. It is also one of the largest consumers of wood and actually provides the most in added value to the raw material. Practically all furnishings products have a finish, so frequently arrive at the consumers’ home emitting volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that pollute our indoor environments, causing particular problems for people who suffer from respiratory diseases. And practically all furnishings arrive packaged, which leads to a great deal of packaging waste.

Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) is helping the industry address these and other problems so as to reduce the environmental footprint, encouraging suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and design firms to make choices that will sustain a healthy future. The choices consumers make are also very significant, in their own homes and with implications for the future. To be helpful, SFC provides a “finder” at sustainablefurnishings.org and also offers a variety of resources to guide consumers in making choices to address specific issues.

Here is an overview of some of the choices you might consider the next time you go shopping for furnishings, starting with simple questions about what it is made of and where it comes from.

Buy as locally as possible. Domestic manufacture not only ensures a smaller transportation footprint and so reduced CO2 emissions, but also remember, we have pretty good laws for controlling other air and water pollution, and for workers’ rights, and pretty good compliance. In addition, of course, you are supporting your local economy.

Learn where the wood comes from. If your furniture and flooring is made in North America of North American wood, you can feel less concerned about it. Certification of the source is important, especially when the wood is not North American. Forest Stewardship Council certification, for instance, provides excellent assurance that the wood comes from well-managed forests, and that the people involved in managing the forest, harvesting the wood, and milling the lumber are treated fairly. It is also assurance that the wood was grown and harvested without harmful chemical inputs. Caring for our forests is especially important because we all depend on them to absorb carbon dioxide emissions and filter water, as well as for the wood used in making that fine furniture and flooring. A shopping guide to find FSC-approved retailers, products, and brands can be found at http://bit.ly/FSC-ShoppingGuide. A builders guides to find FSC-certified wood suppliers is at https://advocate.us.fsc.org/construction. 

Avoid harmful chemicals. Furniture is complex! It is often made of many different materials, in many different processes. Some of the harmful chemicals used in production may still be present when the furniture comes home with you. Asking will help you avoid a few chemicals that may be particularly harmful. The most common in furnishings are VOC’s in the finishes and adhesives; flame retardant chemicals in the foam and the fabric; fluorinated stain treatments on the fabric; anti-microbials in the mattresses; and PVC or vinyl in faux leather or fabric. Asking questions is important for getting to the bottom of “What’s it made of?” but there are certifications you can look for, such as Greenguard, which ensures low or no VOC’s.

Choose natural fibers. Natural fabrics often require fewer chemical inputs in production than synthetic fabrics, and many natural fiber fabrics are inherently fire resistant. Fabrics that are made of organically grown fibers are a good choice, because organic cultivation saves the use of large quantities of toxic inputs from fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. Low-impact dyes reduce the environmental impact of leather and fabric production. OekoTex and GOTS certifications are effective assurance that a fabric has been produced without toxic waste pollution.

Shop SFC Member Companies. Establishing credible, meaningful standards and being vigilant in continually improving them remains the primary goal of Sustainable Furnishings Council. The organization is recognized by the EPA for providing a credible eco-label for furniture, so you can look for Silver or Gold Exemplary tags as you shop.

But since sustainability is such a wide umbrella, we know that you will be shopping with your own priorities. Since sticking to the budget is a priority for most of us, I want to conclude by assuring you that many best choices for sustainability do not add to cost.

Shop SFC Members in Vermont such as Copeland Furniture (156 Industrial Drive, Bradford, VT) and Burlington Furniture (747 Pine St., Burlington, VT).

Susan Inglis is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council.

Many thanks to our sponsor:

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