Guide to Buying Eco-Friendly Furniture

The "organic" designation doesn’t exist in the furniture category in the same way it's used in labeling food and clothing. While some items will have the word organic in the product name or description, organic alone isn’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to furnishing your home with eco-friendly materials.

Start with this guide to what’s out there in eco-friendly furniture, décor and furnishings, from organic fabrics and fills to certified ecologically harvested wood, bamboo, nontoxic finishes, fair trade, local, artisan-crafted or reclaimed finds.

Opt for organic in upholstered or filled pieces

Let's start with home furnishings you will find with the word organic on the label or in the product description.

  • Upholstered furniture: Look for chairs and sofas covered in organic fabrics and stuffed with natural latex foam.
  • 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. You'll want an organic cotton or organic wool mattress pad too. Here's a video on what to look for in eco-friendly, health-friendly bedding from top to bottom.
  • 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.

Look for the FSC logo on wood furniture

There’s also an eco-friendly certification to consider when you’re shopping for wood furniture. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit 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 a piece of furniture made from FSC-certified wood and you’ll actually be able to trace the wood to where it was harvested, as these products have to go through a chain-of-custody certification process in order to carry the FSC stamp. And if it’s polished with a no-VOC finish and upholstered with organic fabrics — wool, cotton and the like — you’ll have a piece of furniture that’s as close to being organic as you can get.

Check the Forest Certification Resource Center and the Forest Stewardship Council or the Buying Guides section at Green Building Resource Guide for lists of FSC-certified furniture manufacturers and look for the one on wood furniture.

Consider bamboo

Also consider furniture made from bamboo. Although technically not a wood (it’s a grass), it looks like wood, and it is typically grown with few to no pesticides. And, because it grows so fast, sustainability isn’t much of a concern.

Steer clear of toxic materials and finishes

The simplest way to avoid toxins like formaldehyde and PBDEs is to buy furniture made from materials that don’t contain them.

Pieces made from metal or glass carry few concerns, as both are inert materials which don’t offgas. Solid wood furniture ranks right up there, too. However, keep in mind that the products used to paint or finish wood and metal can contain VOCs. As such, wood, metal and glass furniture is not necessarily completely problem-free. (They would be, though, if you finished them yourself with toxin-free stain, paint or finishes.)

When shopping, keep an eye out for products made from or containing the following, and avoid them if at all possible:

  • 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.

Buy local/artisan

Buying from the source works as well with furniture as it does with organic food. Look for locally produced and artisan furniture in local newspapers and classified ad sites, and at craft fairs. Look for artisanal furniture made from salvaged wood and metal, organic wool and cotton, and recycled fabrics.

If you can’t find furniture at places like craft fairs, look for people who work with wood in any size or shape. They might also make larger pieces or know others who do.

Shop for vintage

Vintage and antique furniture are two of the most eco-friendly choices you can make for furnishing a home. There’s no hard and fast distinction for when furniture becomes vintage; to some people anything that’s old is vintage; others argue that items need to be at least 20 years old.

Antique furniture is technically anything made 100 years before the point when you buy it. Most people simply consider it to be furniture made around the turn of the 20th century and before. Either way, if it’s old, 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.

If you go the vintage/antique route, keep the following in mind:

  • Cribs should meet current safety standards.
  • Vintage painted furniture produced before 1978 might contain lead. Older antiques — from the 19th century and earlier —most likely do not. Lead paint is an issue if it’s chipping off; you can seal it, but doing so can affect the appearance and the value of the piece. If you have small children around, you might want to think twice about these pieces or save their purchase for when your children are older.
  • Refinishing or restoring antiques is also usually best left to the experts. If you’re thinking about refinishing or repainting 20th-century pieces yourself, the safest approach is to assume that any paint you encounter contains lead and take the appropriate cautions when working with them.

Recycle, reclaim or repurpose

Call it salvage-chic or dumpster-chic. Creatively reusing or reimagining everyday objects into completely different things is a great way to come up with furniture and accessories that are truly one-of-a-kind items. It can also reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills. 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.

Make your own

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.

Organic Living

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss. Copyright © 2009 Alpha Books. Republished with permission.

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