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Sustainable Furnishings Guide: Eco Friendly Materials
By: Seth Berman

A lot of discussion has been centered on materials that should be able to be called "Green".  Below in an overview and discussion on most materials that may be considered more sustainable and are used in the home furnishings industry.

Wood has been the most common construction material for home furnishings for thousands of years.  And it is green.  Not only is wood renewable, but properly managed forests also help reduce green house gas emissions.  The key is to find sustainable wood suppliers.  Luckily over the last few years, the Forest Stewardship Council has put together a fantastic all-inclusive programs that is now being used in more than 80 countries.  

These suppliers are audited by the FSC or another accredited 3rd party on the ground using a comprehensive framework that ensures that the forest, animals and humans harvesting the forest will thrive in the future.  After the forest and supplier have been certified, they are able to sell their wood to suppliers as FSC certified.  However, not only does the forest need to be certified, but if a manufacturer wants to put the FSC certified logo onto products then they will also need to become certified by the FSC.  They will audit the factory, and ensure that there is a proper chain of custody system in place to ensure products that are made with FSC woods and are going to be marked as such are not mixed with any products that may have non FSC woods.  In my mind the FSC is the premier certification and a top notch organization who is doing a great job.

There are other eco friendly certifications available for wood.  SFI and CSA are the largest 2 in North America.  SFI was developed by the American Lumber Industry, as their own version of the FSC.  This is a decent system, but there is no 3rd party audit required.  Wood suppliers will conduct self-audits and review the guidelines on their own.  The CSA is in Canada and follows a similar procedure.  And while it is not as strict as FSC certification, they still do a good job.  North American forests have done very well over the last 20 years.

Two other types of wood also deserve mention.  Mango wood, and rubber wood.  These grow in plantations and both loose productivity after around 12 years, these trees are then replaced and often sold very cheaply to locals.  While not eligible and not as green as FSC woods, they are very renewable and should be praised and used over most other options.

Finally, reclaimed woods are by far the best option.  They are taken from old homes and buildings, and reused instead of being put into trash dumps.  Some smaller manufacturers have been doing this for a long time, but as I saw in India, there is a lot of old wood out there, and some creative people are selling great value green products.

Another category of materials is rapid renewables.  These are plants that grow very quickly, and require very little support to grow.  Bamboo is the leader in rapid renewables. It is a type of grass and has been know to grow up to 12” in a single day.  It is very fibrous, and its strength is still being used as scaffolding in high-rise construction in India.  

There is a hidden downside to bamboo, which has raised a lot of debate this last year.  In order to make flooring or wood like materials, it needs to be dried then split in half.  After its split in half, its compressed flat and depending on the desired output, re-cut and glued back together.  These glues often contain formaldehydes and VOCs, not to mention being petroleum based.  Bamboo in its natural state is one of the most green materials that can be found, but even if it has been processed, this is still a much more sustainable option when compared to using mdf and venirs.

Another rapid renewable is water hyacinth and other grasses.  These can be dried and made into beautiful decorative accents and even furniture.

On to cushion options for the sofa people here.  Almost 1/3 of the polyurethane foams produced in the world are used in the furniture industry.  Since these are made from petroleum based chemicals and not renewable at all, they are not considered environmentally friendly.  But there are some options out there that are more renewable.

Latex cushions are a more expensive option, but the latex is from a natural plant, and being harvested, thus its been considered a green option.

Even more recently, a hybrid foam made from both soy based materials and petroleum is being considered as a “more” sustainable material than all petroleum based foams.  Currently only 10 – 15% soy foams are available, but they are working to get it up to 30% soon.  So, supporting a more renewable material is better than nothing at all, and should be considered a step forward.

Last and certainly not least, down and other natural filling for cushions are long time favorites for environmentally safe furnishings.

One known issue to be aware of is land use for latex plantations.  One of the side effects of latex being more sustainable is that its demand has been increasing and the plantations have been cutting into more pristine forests.  The FSC is fighting this in wood harvesting, but latex users have not.

Now that we covered cushioning, the coverings to go with them are also important if you are selling sustainable furnishings.  

We’ll start out with leather.  The biggest problems here is the cromium salts used for tanning leather and the amount of toxic waste that is produced.  The SFC suggests if you are trying to make your company sustainable and you want leather, to try and use vegetable tanned leather as a better option.  But this is not nearly as uniform a finish and will show lots of defects, so the product would need to be specifically designed with this in mind.  If you must use chromium tanned leathers, environmentally product certifications companies will not consider this green.  But, one thing you can do is to try to cut down on transportation.  Using a leather source close to your factory, avoiding shipping hides from Australia to Europe to tan and then from Europe to Asia for production is at least, a positive step.

Natural textiles used for bedding, decoration, seating and rugs should not make use of pesticides.  The most common green materials include linens, hemp, abaca, wool and bamboo.

Some know issues:  Currently non-organic Cotton consumes 10% of all herbicides, 25% of all pesticides, and 3% of all fresh water.  Organic cotton also uses a lot of water, which is why bamboo is still included as a sustainable material since it grows so rapidly, although to make textiles with it requires a lot of processing.  But hemp is not widely available and other sustainable materials are not as luxurious.

Most petroleum based materials are not considered sustainable unless they have been made using some recycled materials.  Blue sign certification gets into this in great details, and does suggest better synthetic materials and processes to use.

The other major textile certifications to be aware of is Global Organic Textile Standard who certifies processes and materials from growing through manufacturing.

In Window Treatments, Blinds made of bamboo and reeds are the most sustainable.

For Drapery, again, bamboo and organics fabrics are recommended.  And the use of synthetic fabrics are not because they do not hold as up well in sunlight.

Flooring recommendations are based on longevity and material base.  Bamboo and FSC wood flooring are strong green choices.  Cork has also been hot lately, since it is a tree bark and can be removed without damaging trees.  Other choices include Ceramic Tiles, linoleum, and concrete because they last so long.  For Carpeting and rugs, they do break down faster, but using natural materials, such as wool with natural dyes, sisal, and jute are better options, also try to look for carpets and rugs with natural backings.

Paints and Finishes are a key area to pay attention to.  Especially important due to the fact that almost all of the products we buy use finishes of sorts.  Again, Volatile Organic Chemicals are an important factor. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum number of VOCs to be 350 parts per million.  Lately, there have been a number of paint companies selling low VOC paints.  The LEED standard to go by for buying low voc paints is below 150 ppm for non-flat paints, and 50 ppm for flat paints.  These paints are better for workers and will help reduce the amount of indoor air pollution in peoples homes.  There are also no VOC paints being produced.

Other paint options include water based paints, natural paints made from clays, milk, and natural materials, but most of these still use Volatile Organic Chemicals to keep them stable.  

Please note that environmentally safe product certification companies prefer water based paints to petroleum or latex based as they are much less harmful to the environment.  Water based paints are a bit more expensive, but the larger issue with them is that switching requires a factory to restructure their finishing systems.

Glass products that are made from recycled materials should be considered a better option.  And since glass can be recycled, it is a decent option.  One thing to watch out for with glass is heavy metals which are often used in art glass to get the great colors.

Ceramic is touted by Ikea as a green material because it can be put back into the earth with low impact on the environment compared to resins and is made from clay.  Again, buyers need to be aware that some glazes used contain heavy metals.

Metals are used in a lot of products and the great thing is that they can be recycled.  The bad thing is that many processes to finish metals use very toxic chemicals.  So, lets talk about them.

Aluminum is one of the better metals, due to its lightweight and the fact that 95% of the worlds available aluminum already has a percentage of recycled material in it.  Pretty much airline grade aluminum is the only pure non-recycled aluminum.  Actually aluminum is one of the biggest success stories in recycling.  The amount of energy needed to recycle aluminum vs take it from the ground and refine is a 95% energy savings.  They figured this out a long time ago and it has actively been recycled for decades.

Steel and Iron you may be surprised to know that are both are often also recycled.  I actually visited a plant in China doing cast iron fence parts that was melting down old engine blocks.  They did not even consider this to be recycling, they were saving money in their mind.  So, see if you can find steel and iron parts with a higher recycled content and paint them with low voc paints.  If you want to pass a product certification, you’ll need to carefully look at your metal finish options.  Most Chrome and Brass Finishes are highly toxic processes, and will not pass environmentally safe product certifications.

Papers made from recycled materials, tree barks or other natural materials that can be peeled off without damaging trees and papers made from FSC forests are great options for lamp shades, wall décor and other gift and decorative accents.

Plastics with a high recycle content are being used right now by Herman Miller, their highly acclaimed Aeorn chair has just passed Cradle to Cradle certification by using 64% recycled content and 96% of it can be recycled again.  They are also using painted steel with a high recycled content.

Packaging Materials are another great place to save on waste.  Many box manufacturers in China offer recycled cardboard materials at lower prices because they are often not as strong as non-recycled boxes.  Now you have an excuse to save money, but obviously making sure the cartons meet your shipping requirements is the first priority.  Also, using recycled cardboard or plastic materials instead of foam is a good option.  A well designed cardboard or molded plastic inner suspension can often perform as well as Styrofoam and reduce manufacturing costs and material waste.  Also, for retailers there are new recycling technologies that can even shrink down foam and sell it again.

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