A Buyer's Guide to Healthy Home Furnishings

Organic lifestyle expert Eliza Sarasohn — author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living — tackles your questions on the ins and outs of living la vida organica. This week, Sarasohn parses the particulars of where to source organic home furnishings.

Furniture used to be organic by definition — it was created from good, old fashioned materials like solid hardwoods, padded with pillows and cushions crafted from and stuffed with natural fibers, and finished with nontoxic stains and polishes. Unfortunately, while you can still find some manufacturers using traditional materials, most of the furniture made today is far from this natural ideal.

That cheap-o futon and frame set you picked up for the guest room? Probably built from wood products held together with formaldehyde and stuffed with foam laced with at least a couple of toxic chemicals. That cute inflatable kiddie chair? It’s most likely made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) with toxic phthalates added to it to make it more flexible.

When it comes to creating organic surroundings, it only makes sense to go the pure and natural route with your furniture, too. Doing so not only cuts down on the harmful chemicals in your home, but it’s far easier on your home planet, as well.

You won’t find furniture labeled as organic because the designation doesn’t exist in this category. But the fabrics and filling used might be labeled as organic.

Organic furniture products to look for include:

  • Mattresses. Organic cotton, organic wool, and natural latex are all good alternatives to the materials used to create conventional mattresses. Most organic mattresses have latex cores and are wrapped in wool (which is naturally fire retardant) or cotton or a combination of both; some are conventional innersprings wrapped in combinations of these materials. Names to look for here include RoyalPedic, Green Sleep, Obasan, and Naturaworld. NaturePedic makes organic cotton baby and children’s mattresses, from cradle to full size.
  • Futons. Organic mattresses are pricey, there’s no question about it. Futons can be a cost-effective alternative, and you don’t have to use them on those funky, tough-to-sit-on folding frames; there are platforms and flat frames available, too. As with mattresses, you’ll need a doctor’s prescription to purchase futons made of all cotton.
  • Upholstered furniture. Greener Lifestyles is just one company that offers chairs and sofas covered in organic fabrics and stuffed with natural latex foam. Others to look for include Furnature, Q Collection, Gaiam and Bean Products. As the name suggests, soft furniture (e.g., bean bags) is the emphasis at this last site, but there’s other furniture to look at there as well.

There’s also an eco-friendly certification to consider when you’re shopping for wood furniture. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit that encourages sustainable forestry, offers FSC certification to companies that harvest wood in accordance to FSC’s requirements. Products made from FSC-certified wood can also carry the FSC label.

Buy Local/Artisan

Buying from the source works as well with furniture as it does with organic food. Local newspapers and resource directories are a logical starting point. So too are craft fairs; look for artisanal furniture made from salvaged wood and metal, organic wool and cotton, and recycled fabrics.

Shop for Vintage

Vintage and antique furniture are two of the most eco-friendly choices you can make for furnishing a home. If it’s second-hand, it’s not racking up any additional energy, water, or other costs related to manufacturing. And it’s already offgassed as much as it’s going to.

DIY

If you’re handy or know someone who is, why not make your own furniture from scratch or have it made for you? You can buy FSC-certified lumber as well as reclaimed and recycled products. When you’re working with wood that’s been recovered from other sources — rivers, lakes, reservoirs, old buildings — you’re working with wood that has a history, which can make these pieces even more special.

Organic upholstery materials and notions are getting easier to find and a number of manufacturers and retailers are now offering them. Just a few of the sources for organic and eco-friendly fabrics include Green Sage, Furnature, and Heart of Vermont.

Recycle/Reclaim/Repurpose

Call it salvage-chic or dumpster-chic, creatively reusing or reimagining everyday objects into things completely different from what they started out being is not only a great way to come up with furniture and accessories that are truly one-of-a-kind items, it can reduce landfill deposits, which is always a good thing — according to the American Society of Interior Designers, 90 percent of everything manufactured in the United States ends up in landfills less than a year after production.

There’s even a magazine devoted to creative reuse. Check out ReadyMade, in print or at www.Readymademag.com.

What to Avoid

If the above choices are not an option, and you absolutely must buy conventional furniture, then keep an eye out for products made from or containing the following, and avoid them if at all possible:

  • Furniture upholstery marked as stain resistant. Teflon is the product most often used to make fabrics stain resistant. Teflon contains perflurorchemicals (PFCs), which can break down into a toxic blood contaminant called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. There’s been some back and forth about whether fabric treatments and the like release a dangerous amount of PFOA, but in the research done on this substance, Enviroblog, a project of EWG’s Action Fund, reports that over 90 percent of Americans are showing PFOA in their blood, making it a prudent choice to limit your exposure to PFOA as much as possible.
  • Inflatable furniture, artificial leather, and vinyl furniture covers. All can contain phthalate-based PVC.
  • Furniture made from manufactured wood products — particleboard, fiberboard, plywood — all of which can contain formaldehyde glues.

 

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.

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