With so many people going green these days, it’s gotten easier to find home furnishings labeled “sustainable.” But reading beyond the labels isn’t always easy.
“Just because you start out with an organic fiber doesn’t mean you have a sustainable fabric,” says Daryl Wakeley, owner of Bungalow Homewares Gallery in Alexandria. Those fibers could be treated with toxic dyes or durability-enhancing chemicals. The manufacturer may use energy inefficiently or dump waste into waterways. Glues may contain harmful formaldehyde, and finishes can “off-gas” volatile organic compounds into your home. The Environmental Protection Agency cites this form of indoor air pollution as one of the top five hazards to human health.
“The perfect eco-friendly product does not exist,” says Wakeley. “It’s always a matter of compromises.” A table made from bamboo, a renewable resource, may require the burning of fossil fuel to be shipped from China.
Finding the right sofa can be hard enough without sorting through such complicated calculations. The good news is that a growing number of organizations do some of that for you by certifying environmentally friendly products.
Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, says to check for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stamp on wood furniture. This is the gold standard for wood that’s from responsibly managed forests or legitimately reclaimed. Other materials may be certified by organizations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard. (For more certifying bodies, see page 144.)
Inglis says these agencies are necessary because some companies engage in “greenwashing,” the use of unfounded eco-friendly claims.
“Some of it is appalling,” she says, pointing to the use of “recyclable,” a misleading term: “Anything can be recycled if you put your mind to it.”
What matters is how much of a product is made from recycled material, particularly glass and metal because they take so much energy to produce. Some labels will indicate the percentage of recycled content as well as whether the piece is made from pre- or post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste is generated by the manufacturer—for example, scraps and other byproducts. “Post-consumer” refers to what happens to an item after a consumer is done with it.
Sometimes how furniture is manufactured makes a difference. Wakeley carries the G. Romano line in part because it’s made from sustainable materials, such as soy-based padding. The chairs and sofas also use sinuous spring systems rather than “hand-tied” springs because they’re longer-lasting and can be repaired without using new materials. Such details can add to the cost, but Wakeley says he tries to keep his prices moderate because customers “consider them a nice extra, but they’re not willing to pay a huge premium.”
The compromise Wakeley makes is in shipping, because G. Romano is a Canadian firm. It can take more fuel to truck goods across the country than to ship them from overseas. It’s always best to buy locally because of shorter shipping, but also because the United States has more-stringent environmental standards than some other countries, particularly in the developing world.
Another often overlooked element is how eco-friendly the retailer is. “Are they using efficient lighting and heating?” asks Inglis. Ikea, for instance, builds some of its US stores to meet LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—standards and aims for the most environmentally sound packaging.
The Sustainable Furnishings Council can steer consumers to the greenest retailers in our area. There are plenty, but Wakeley admits that style selections can be limited. “The designers interested in these issues tend to be younger, so you get a more contemporary style,” he says. “It’s hard to find sustainable pieces in traditional styles.”
Wakeley has found a few exceptions, such as a Greenington bamboo table with a Frank Lloyd Wright look. Those with traditional tastes can also opt for the real thing—antiques are 100 percent recycled.