Making environmentally smart choices for the furnishing of your home or office can make a big difference to your impact on the planet as well as your health.
This article provides an outline of the basic concepts that will help you make good decisions. New, eco-friendly furniture can be expensive but there are always cost effective options too.
Sustainable furniture choices
Certified sustainable wood
Furniture is made from all sorts of materials – some sustainable, some not. Wood is a renewable resource and it’s excellent for making furniture. However the wood should be from sustainably harvested forests. The world needs more trees, not less, so practices that lead to deforestation aren’t any good. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, they keep the surface of the planet cool, they hold soil together and enrich it, and they provide a habitat for animals, insects, birds and other plants.
Sustainable forest management is defined as: management of an area of plantation forest so that the forest can continue to provide forest products in perpetuity while at the same time maintaining the health of the ecological systems of the land on which it is planted, including protection of soil, water and biodiversity.
Recycled wood usually comes from old furniture, houses and buildings and sometimes from scraps from a factory that makes other stuff. New Kauri furniture, for example, will be made from recycled wood. Some wood even comes from logs that sunk to the bottom of swamps like Swamp Totara.
Bamboo is actually a type of grass and is incredibly fast-growing. It is a versatile material and is used often by environmental designers and builders. Bamboo can be flattened into flooring, molded into furniture, pressed into veneers, sliced up to make window blinds, you could even build a whole house out of it. Using bamboo in buildings earns architects and builders LEED points. Most bamboo comes from China and is generally grown without pesticides.
Recycled/recyclable metal and plastic
More and more furniture is being made from recycled plastics and metals as well. Recycled materials require less processing and fewer resources, and help support the market for recycled materials. Technologies are always improving, meaning that recycled plastics and metals are always going up in quality.
2. Design and manufacture
Recyclable and disassemblable
Good eco-friendly furniture should lend itself to easy repair, disassembly, and recycling. When buying furniture, stay away from pieces that are an inseparable amalgam of materials. If they can’t be taken apart it’s probably a sign that they can’t be repaired very well either.
Look for furniture that’s durable and fixable
One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of green products (and this definitely goes for furniture) is durability. If something is tough and/or can be readily repaired, this lessens the chance that it’ll end up in the landfill, and could easily save you money in the long run, even if it’s initially more expensive. Even if your style changes and that kitchen table isn’t your thing anymore, a good strong table will almost always be appealing to someone else, while a broken (and unfixable) one probably won’t. When it’s time to part with your possessions think TradeMe and find it a new home.
All furniture, no matter what it’s made out of, is probably releasing substances into the air. This isn’t necessarily bad, but synthetic materials or those treated with synthetic substances can offgas chemicals which are toxic. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are the most common family of chemicals that are offgassed and have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption, and cancer. Flame retardants and formaldehyde are common VOCs offgassed by furniture. Studies have shown that air quality inside your house is usually worse than outside. Everyone should be conscious of the kinds of chemicals they bring home, but especially if you have kids, pets, or other family members who are low to the ground and prone to licking things. There are some good ways to help maintain good indoor air quality when it comes to furniture choices.
Look for furniture that is untreated or treated with natural substances, like natural wood finishes, or naturally tanned leather. Organic cotton is also less likely to be treated with toxic stuff. Another great way to dodge toxic chemicals is to buy furniture that is vintage or second-hand and has already done most of its offgassing (just make sure it doesn’t carry anything worse, like lead paint).
With all the eco-brands jumping into the market it can be hard to keep in mind that pre-owned goods can be the most green purchase of all. Second-hand furniture requires no additional resources to manufacture, is often locally sourced, is pre-offgassed and eases the load on the landfill. Good quality classic furniture can also have excellent resale.
3. Buying and selling
Just like the food on the dinner plate, we might be amazed how many miles the constituent parts of a piece of furniture might have had to travel in order to reach us. If possible, source furniture close to home. This will support the local economy, small craftspeople, and decrease the environmental cost of shipping.
Don’t trash it
Have you ever rented a skip and filled it up with rubbish and junk only to find that passing neighbours and others have ‘pilferred’ from it. The fact is that your junk is another person’s windfall.
If you look after and maintain your furniture when it’s time to bid farewell to a chair, table, bed or dresser, you can make sure it goes to a good home. Sell it on TradeMe, through the local paper or garage sale. Give it to the Salvation Army or you could put it on the footpath with a “free” sign on it!