Consider the environment in your furniture choices

Furniture may have dropped in price in recent years, mostly thanks to cheap imports, but the environment has paid dearly for it. Modern furniture may also contain highly toxic substances; poisonous to us and the planet.

Looking around my office, over half of the furniture I have contains particle board – my desk, a chest of drawers and some cupboards. Some of it has wooden veneer, the type of wood used I have no idea. I really wasn’t thinking too much about the environment when making these purchases; more about my wallet and quick fix solutions to my furnishing needs.

Particle board usually contains formaldehyde in the resin used to bind the wood chips – it’s a known carcinogen and environmental toxin. As for the wood used for the chips and the veneer – that’s anyone’s guess. It may be from plantation timber, but it could possibly come from old growth forests. The point is in my case I simply don’t know.

Modern furniture cushioning and coverings tend to be made from all sorts of nasty materials such as PVC (more formaldehyde) and polyurethane which contains chemicals such as acetone, methylene chloride and fluorocarbons.

Solid wood furniture is also of great concern. While most Western countries now have tight controls on the type and origin of raw wood materials that can be imported in order to protect natural habitats overseas; much of the cheaper furniture around these days comes from countries such as China – and that can be a problem.

China is now the world’s leading exporter of wood furniture, plywood and flooring. While China is not directly responsible for the felling of protected forests; their demand for materials is fueling the black market trade for wood in other countries. Many Chinese furniture companies are somewhat lacking in their checks to ensure that the materials they buy aren’t from old growth and tropical forests.

China itself has very few wood resources – their own readily available natural stocks were used up some years ago and much of what remains is protected. The materials used for furniture production have to come from elsewhere. This article from Planet Ark provides a more detailed overview of the problem.

While China has become everyone’s favority scapegoat for a variety of environmental woes; it’s important to bear in mind what is driving their economy – us; our demand for cheap goods. It’s another example of how we have attempted to outsource environmental degradation to other countries; then pointing the finger at those countries when our excesses have been exposed.

Cheap furniture tends not to last; so it needs to be replaced more regularly and therefore may not be cheaper in the long run. I still kick myself for buying an entertainment center made from particle board with a wood veneer. If I had paid a couple of hundred dollars extra, I could have had a unit made from chunky plantation pine that would likely still be around and in use a hundred years from now.

With these issues in mind; here’s some tips for buying earth friendly furniture.

  • Do you really need new furniture? A restorer may be able to work wonders with your current furniture; giving it a fresh new look using earth friendly materials.
  • Steer clear of furniture containing particle board or plywood 
  • If the sales person can’t guarantee the wood having come from sustainable plantations; don’t buy it
  • Look for furniture with labels certifying them as sustainable. In the USA, the most common certification is from the The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  • Consider furniture as an investment rather than an expense. What you buy today is an antique or heirloom of tomorrow. Paying more now can also save you money in the long term.
  • Consider furnishing made from more sustainable raw materials such as bamboo
  • Avoid tropical hardwood based furniture, or if you really want something made from wood such as mahogany or teak, consider buying second-hand pieces.
  • There’s a popular trend among furniture makers who use reclaimed hardwoods. They take pilons and beams from buildings being demolished and turn them into beautiful pieces. The wood is incredibly strong having been aged for decades.
  • If price is a major concern, check out recycled plastic wood furniture options
  • Flea markets can be great sources for cheap furniture made from quality timbers which may just need a little TLC from a furniture restorer or perhaps turn restoration into a hobby for yourself.
  • Look for natural or recycled fabric coverings
  • Cushioning should be made from natural latex foam
  • Buy locally made furniture if possible as this means that less fuel has been used in shipping the item.

I grew up in a house full of antique furnishings and grew to appreciate the craftsmanship in each piece. You could see the care and attention to detail in each item. While the wood used in these pieces may not have been sustainably harvested, it wasn’t such an issue at the time those trees were felled – some of the items were over 150 years old and are still likely to be in use a hundred years from now if given the proper care.

As for my particle board, formaldehyde ridden, melamine coated desk I’m typing on now; I don’t think it will ever share such distinction, appreciation or useful longevity. Where I could be typing this out on a solid piece of furniture that will survive generations, I’m instead doing so on a toxic waste dump that will poison the earth for the same length of time; perhaps longer.