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We are very used now to check on the content of our food, and identify its components. It is high time we did the same with our furniture. From the outside, we still tend to think of furniture as made of wood, glass, textile, and maybe a couple of metal elements to hold the whole together.
But since the 1950ties and with the advent of plastic, furniture firms use a multitude of composite materials to lower their production costs. For example chipboard or MDF (medium density fibreboard) have replaced simple wood in many places. Also, surfaces are often coated in plastic or resin, which is cheaper than a natural treatment and masks defects of the prime material. The inside of upholstered furniture is made of polyurethane foam more often than not. Textiles may contain plastic fibres. As a rule of thumb, the more processed and complex the materials, the more energy is needed to manufacture, process and recycle them. Look for pure materials wherever you can. Try to avoid Chipboard, MDF and polyurethane foams.
It is very interesting to understand where materials come from, but hard to do so, especially when it comes to big furniture producers. They often outsource the production of their pieces and the decision on the sourcing of prime materials is made by the sub-producers. Wherever possible, look for sources of wood, fibres and also where and how they are produced.
Labels to look for:
FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)
PEFC (Forest Certification Recognition Program)
Blauer Engel (multi-certification of the german government)
At a time when we spend more than 90% of our time in a confined space (WHO study), we must be aware of indoor air pollution. There is of course dust and smoking, cleaning products and building materials, but furniture is another possible source.
Glues and adhesives: They are omnipresent to compound wood chips to composite panels. Most common is formaldehyde, that is released in all stages of the life cycle of a piece of furniture and particularly in wooden ones.
Flame retardants: Another very controversial subject, they are mandatory for materials used in public spaces, such as hotels and offices, even though their real efficiency in preventing fires has been questions. They coat fibres and surfaces, and when these eventually break down, become part of the household dust and are breathed in. Carcinogenic, overexposure can also lead to neurological complications and sensitivity to thyroid disease. These flame retardants are known endocrine disrupters and can also delay puberty in adolescents.
Varnishes: All furniture is generally varnished and oiled, and these chemical products release into the ari long after the telltale smell of “new” has vanished. There is a wide range of natural stains and varnishes that are viable alternatives.
Most textiles that come from abroad are impregnated for shipping. 90% of all leather produced today is dyed using compounds of chrome.
Many big furniture companies produce in countries where labour conditions are hard to control. Have a look if they have policies in place in order to control their suppliers, use codes of conduct and sanctions to prevent modern slavery and child labour in their assembly lines and production chains abroad. How often do they control, if at all?
While producing in far away countries with low labour cost may seem favourable for price, the flipside is a larger carbon footprint because of transport to the end consumer. You could end up sourcing materials like bamboo and cotton from Asia, transport it all to eastern Europe for assembly, to then ship it say to the UK or to France where the consumer will buy it. Look for brands that produce and source local, and, if possible, on your own continent.
Another aspect of transport is packaging. The more the prime materials and the products are moved around, the more packaging is applied and discarded. Also, check what kind of packaging is used and if it can be recycled or repurposed.
Ask yourself what happens to your furniture if something breaks. Can parts be replaced? This largely depends on how it has been assembled, but also on the quality of all materials used. Can you jus take off a leg and replace it? Can a cushion cover be removed for a wash? Think of antique pieces and how they are made. They give value over time, and repairing and refurbishing them just adds to their charm. It should be so also with the new pieces you acquire.
The last step for any furniture. Its useful life is over. Ideally, it has seen several owners, many repairs, and a long lifecycle. But now it has to go. Can it be dis-assembled? How many compound materials are there? How much plastic is inside and can that plastic be separated from the other parts? In general, the more complex the piece is and the more compound materials are used, the harder it is to recycle. Look for products that are 100% natural, like this, you can be sure that they decompose without residue.