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Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture waste each year, as the Environmental Protection Agency measured in a 2018 study. While some of that waste is combusted for energy recovery, about 80% remains in landfills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“All of the purchases that we make have the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions, no matter how small,” says Chris Hellstern, architect and Living Building Challenge services director.
Perhaps you’re planning a big move and want to buy new furniture for your new space. Or maybe you’re interested in becoming a more conscious consumer. Either way, buying sustainable furniture can reduce waste, conserve resources, and add positive health benefits to your home and the environment.
What Is Sustainable Furniture?
According to the U.S. General Services Administration, the goal of sustainable design and construction is to improve buildings by reducing negative environmental impact and decreasing discomfort and health hazards for occupants. Shopping sustainably includes considering the entire life cycle of an item, from how it’s made to how it arrives at your door. Each step of production can add to or reduce your carbon footprint.
Hellstern advises choosing furniture made with natural materials, such as reclaimed wood, and avoiding carbon-intense materials, such as concrete and steel. “Sourcing distance can also play a role in driving emission, so the more local you can obtain your pieces, the better,” he says.
“The term ‘sustainability’ is often overused and fails to address how products are made,” says Phillip Raub, CEO of Model No., an Oakland-based furniture brand that combines 3D printing with responsibly sourced material to reduce production waste and emissions.
“For example, the covers on your sofa could be made from recycled materials, but those fabrics are often recycled petroleum products with an off-gassing effect. Or a brand claims to use FSC-certified products, but they manufacture those products in a factory 5,000 miles away, with a heavy carbon footprint,” explains Raub.
Sustainably made furniture focuses on environmental impact. But it also affects your home environment, specifically your indoor air quality. Materials and chemicals used to construct furniture, like adhesives, paint, and wood preservatives, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
These VOCs are emitted as a gas (off-gassed) and contaminate indoor air quality with two to five times a higher concentration than outdoors, as found by EPA’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology Study. Sustainable furniture can limit your exposure to VOCs and help you breathe easier.
6 Things to Look for When Shopping for Sustainable Furniture
As Raub mentioned, the word “sustainability” is often overused. To find truly sustainable furniture, keep the following six tips in mind.
Purchase Furniture Made with Sustainable Materials
Renewable and nontoxic materials like bamboo, natural fibers, responsibly sourced or reclaimed wood, cork, and recycled materials are good choices when shopping for furniture. Avoid buying furniture from non-renewable resources, such as endangered tree species.
Buying second-hand or vintage furniture is also a sustainable practice because no new materials are being used. You prevent these pieces from becoming waste by giving them another life. Another upside to buying quality-made older furniture is that it emits little to no VOCs since the heaviest off-gassing typically happens in the months directly following construction.
Look for Durable Design
Select durable, well-built furniture that’s designed to last. Quality craftsmanship and sturdy design reduce the time and money spent on repairs or replacement while producing less waste. This creates less demand overall rather than encouraging the production of short-lived “fast-furniture.”
Choose Furniture That Can Be Recycled
Before purchasing furniture, consider if all or any part of it can be recycled, upcycled, or is biodegradable.
When furniture is upcycled, it contributes to a circular economy. That means the consumption and production system extends the product’s life cycle and benefits businesses, people, and the environment.
Find the Material Source
How materials are sourced is a prominent factor in evaluating their true sustainability. Some materials will be more sustainable than others; these criteria will help you choose materials with the least environmental impact.
Ideally, materials are easily extracted from a local or reasonably close location and can be recycled or repurposed. If shopping internationally, research the manufacturing country’s green laws and building practices.
Vet Ethical Supply Chains
Seek companies that are transparent with their methods of ethical sourcing and supporting local communities. Rather than cutting costs by outsourcing to foreign locations, environmentally conscious design companies keep production closer to home.
In turn, this allows a company to have more say in material selection and extraction. Local sourcing also creates shorter supply chains that reduce carbon emissions and energy usage.
Consider Packaging Materials
Packaging used to ship products can be just as important of a consideration. Materials like styrofoam and single-use plastic often can’t be reused or recycled—contributing to landfill and ocean pollution.
Better choices include minimal or eco-friendly packaging and lightweight, biodegradable packaging, which can also lessen energy waste during transportation.
What Are the Best Sustainable Furniture Choices?
According to the EPA, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. Investing in sustainable, eco-friendly furniture can help ensure your time at home is toxin-free.
Organically grown vegetable fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo, rattan, and wicker are nontoxic options for furniture and upholstery. Other natural options include animal fibers, such as wool and silk.
Wood is the base for many home furniture designs, so it is critical to check that it’s sourced from responsibly managed forests. Check for Forest Stewardship Council labels to verify any wood products aren’t contributing to deforestation.
You can check the Sustainable Furnishing Council’s database of manufacturers committed to sustainable practices.
Look for These Green Furniture Certifications and Labels
There’s a range of product certifications and labels with sustainability claims. It’s important to make sure labels are legitimate and to verify the organization abides by its claims. Here are eight recommended green furniture certifications and terms to look for when shopping for sustainable home furniture.
ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard – LEVEL certified
This standard is internationally adopted based on market definitions and performance criteria for a sustainable future. The LEVEL sustainability certification program was introduced in 2009 to attest that the product, the company, and the manufacturing facility have been evaluated against the standard.
The program evaluates three performance tiers based on a product meeting or exceeding social and environmental impact requirements. Level 3 is the highest ranking.
Cradle to Cradle (C2C)
Cradle to Cradle (C2C) embraces a design philosophy based on upcycling, in which raw materials aren’t thrown away but rather reused indefinitely to create other products. For a product to be C2C certified, it must meet five standards:
- Ensure materials prioritize health for humans and the environment.
- Enable a circular economy through intentional design.
- Generate clean energy and protect the environment.
- Safeguard watershed and soil ecosystems.
- Uphold safe, fair, and equitable labor practices.
Forest Stewardship Council
When it comes to wood materials, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a leader in sustainable forestry management. FSC-labeled furniture and materials come from a responsibly managed forest certified with zero deforestation, meaning no net loss to the overall forest area. The organization also supports fair wages and work environments, community rights, and conservation to protect forest animals and plant life.
Good Environmental Choice Australia
Products can be certified under the Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) program’s Furniture, Fittings, Foam, and Mattresses (Level A) standard. Items that meet this standard have been verified to meet the organization’s environmental, human health, and social impact criteria. Requirements include these:
- Avoiding illegally harvested raw materials
- Reducing substances harmful to the environment or human health
- Encouraging reuse, recycling, and responsible disposal of products and packaging
- Ensuring fair pay, equal opportunity, and a safe environment for workers
This label indicates low-pollutant and low-emission products designed for indoor spaces. Its focus is on toxicological and emissions testing (outgassing), which helps consumers make smart furniture choices that contribute to the health and safety of indoor air quality. Compounds are also analyzed according to product groups for heavy metals, pesticides, and organic halogen compounds.
International Living Future Institute: Living Product Challenge
This organization certifies that products benefit both people and the environment by being healthy, free of toxins, socially responsible, and net positive rather than “less bad.” All manufacturing stages—labor practices, material health optimization, and energy consumption—are evaluated through on-site certification audits. This label also certifies a product is free from perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).
TÜV Rheinland – Green Product Mark
A Green Product Mark verifies accurate environmental information during the production and consumption stages of a product’s life cycle by testing product safety, social audit, and carbon footprint, as well as using recycled materials during production and consumption. To be certified, a product must meet three pillars of certification: pollution prevention, sustainable use of resources, and climate change mitigation.
Greenguard ensures your home’s safe air quality by certifying products with low chemical emissions. There are two tiers of certification: Greenguard and Greenguard Gold. Both include rigorous testing to identify the presence of more than 10,000 chemicals and to measure VOC emissions. Greenguard Gold-certified products are tested for additional chemicals and emit lower VOCs.
3 Sustainable Furniture Companies to Watch in 2023
As eco-conscious living grows in popularity, more companies are emerging to fuel the movement. These furniture companies are redefining craftsmanship with sustainability in mind.
A family-operated venture, Made Trade is a one-stop online destination for all things sustainable and stylish. The company promotes responsible consumerism with both furniture and wardrobe items. The shop partners with more than 150 other small businesses and artisans to offer products that align with its core values, including sustainable sourcing and fair labor practices.
Its furniture selection includes all the basics you need for your indoor and outdoor living spaces, and we particularly enjoyed the colorful details on the Amador Manila Rocking Chair, which is handcrafted in Nicaragua using sustainably harvested Teak hardwood.
The Futon Shop
The Futon Shop has you covered for stylish and sustainable futons, sofas, mattresses, and more. We like that the shop includes a page dedicated to explaining and listing its multiple certifications for its organic materials.
The company’s sofa line includes organic modular sofas that are easy to customize in your living space and made with certified organic materials. The Futon Shop even has your furry friend covered with customizable pet beds made using organic cotton.
ZZ Driggs isn’t your typical furniture store. Committed to both sustainability and beautiful aesthetics, the company offers a library of contemporary and collectible furniture. You can shop online by room, function, or style, and you then choose to rent or buy the items that catch your eye.
When purchasing sustainable furniture, consider the environmental impact of sourcing materials, supply chain emissions, the length of a product’s life cycle, and potential VOCs in your home. Avoid greenwashing claims and verify any product labels and certifications.
Buying sustainable furniture may require more up-front effort than driving to your closest furniture store. But making an investment that benefits your home, your health, and the environment is worth it.