Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for new furniture. What should I look for in natural furniture and where do I find it?—Debbie Fine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
EarthTalk: Along with replacing your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and driving your car less, upgrading to greener furniture is one of the healthiest things you can do for your family and the planet. Most furniture is made with wood from the tropics, so the chair you are now sitting in may have played a role in rainforest deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat, even global warming (cutting forests releases carbon dioxide). Also, furniture is often full of chemicals that release unhealthy fumes into your home.
So what’s a green-minded couch potato to do? Looking for furniture made of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a good place to start. Founded in 1992, FSC establishes standards for sustainable forestry around the world, and certifies timber operations that follow its guidelines. A growing number of furniture makers are availing themselves of FSC-certified wood in order to meet increasing demand for greener products. Local furniture stores usually stock some FSC-certified products (the best way to find out is to call and ask), and many manufacturers now showcase and sell FSC products online.
Beyond wood, bamboo furniture is strong and resilient and usually harvested from sustainable sources. Stainless steel, most of which is recycled, is also a good eco-friendly furniture framing choice. Also, many cutting edge furniture designers are making use of reclaimed timber and other recycled materials in their products, breathing new life into old wood and sparing live trees in the process.
The other major issue with traditional furniture is the pollution from all the noxious synthetic chemicals used to produce it. One leading culprit is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen found in furniture made from pressed wood and particle board and in many of the glues and resins used to bind furniture frames, padding and upholstery together. Another villain is synthetic flame-retardant, commonly added to foam filler materials and linked to human nervous system and reproductive disorders (accordingly, it has been banned by the states of Washington and California, as well as the European Union).
Luckily, a large number of non-toxic alternatives are now available to manufacturers. Water-based glues, for example, do not contain formaldehyde or synthetic chemicals. Also, designs such as tongue and groove joinery eliminate the need for adhesives altogether. And a handful of natural materials, such as wool batting, can work well as flame-retardants while providing ample padding.
Furniture makers committed to non-toxic and/or recycled materials and FSC-certified or reclaimed wood include Vivanti, the Joinery, Woodshanti, Furnature, Pacific Rim Woodworking, Berkeley Mills, Steckley Woodcrafts, and Urban Hardwoods, among many others. Many of these producers specialize in higher end custom orders but also offer readymade items. For a quick fix, browse the aisles of Ikea, which besides being committed to less toxic materials, is also a big buyer of FSC-certified wood.
Related Story: Greener Lifestyle Through Chemical-free Furniture