Susan Inglis, Executive Director of Sustainable Furnishings Council, on What Sustainable Furniture IS, and Why It Is ImportantNov 29, 2021 11:48AM ● By Susan Inglis
What is Sustainable Furniture, Anyway?
When folks 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 falling 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 to 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 your home emitting volatile organic compounds, or VOC's, 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 is helping the industry address these and other problems so as to reduce environmental footprint, encouraging suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and design firms to make choices that will sustain a healthy future. The choices we make as consumers are also very significant, in our own homes and with implications for the future. To be helpful, SFC provides a "finder" at sustainablefurnishings.org, and also offers a Quick Buying Guide that helps you make 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 local 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 is made in North America of North American wood, you can feel pretty good 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.
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. It is also important to note that there are MANY sources of harmful chemicals, so the point should be to limit your exposure as much as possible, even if complete avoidance is currently impossible.
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. Members of Sustainable Furnishings Council have made their own corporate commitment to sustainability, and also committed to transparency and to continuous improvement. This assures you that they will be able to answer questions you ask, such as “What’s it made of?”
Sustainability includes many inter-related issues. Your starting point may be your family’s health, or it may be the health of global ecosystems. Whatever your priorities are, your choices will make a difference. 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 Member stores in North Carolina!
· Atelier Maison, Asheville
· Badcock & More Home Furnishings, Durham; Siler City
· Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Asheville
· Palette & Parlor, Chapel Hill
· Pottery Barn, Charlotte; Durham; Greensboro; Raleigh, Wilmington
Susan Inglis is Executive Director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and resident expert with the organization she helped found in 2006. She is founder and owner of From The Mountain, a company that imports hand spun cashmere yarn from Afghanistan, providing safe income for over 100 women there. Inglis serves on the Board of the American Sustainable Business Council and was awarded a 2017 Visionary Leadership award by the NC Business Council. For more information and to contact Inglis, visit www.SustainableFurnishings.org or email [email protected]