One of the toughest challenges to eco-conscious living lies very close to home. It’s actually right in the home—I’m talking about what we live with and on every day: furniture.

Working in the furniture industry for seven years gave me real insight into supply chain and production issues. I learned it isn’t easy to make sustainable furniture. I realized finding it can be even harder, when the tables turned and I was on the customer side shopping for a new sofa. 

This guide is meant to demystify the process of sourcing beautiful furnishings that are eco-friendly and non-toxic. In addition to environmental and social impacts, it’s especially important our furniture is not bad for our health. After all, we spend more time with it than with any other consumer product—mobile devices excepted of course.

While it can seem a bit overwhelming to sort through materials, production methods, and life cycle assessments, there are certain overarching principles to guide us toward low impact sofas, tables, cabinets and chairs. What makes furniture sustainable, and how are we defining that tricky term?

  • Materials: low or no environmental impact in terms of sourcing (are the raw materials renewable, recyclable, nontoxic? Does their processing create toxic pollution? Have they been 3rd party certified?)
  • Production methods: small carbon footprint, positive or neutral social impact (fair trade, fair made)
  • Finishes: low or nontoxic ingredients, minimal or no off-gassing of harmful fumes
  • Life cycle: product’s impact from cradle to grave, end of life—is it reusable, recyclable, biodegradable?
  • Durability: is the design enduring? Are the materials and construction durable?

Living Room Furniture: Sofas & Other Upholstered Seating

An apartment’s central chill zone is the living room, so we can dive in here. Let’s start with the sofa, a living room’s pièce de résistance and usual focal point. Most of us like to find cushy comfort—meaning upholstered furniture. To get the soft padding used in upholstery, we’re looking at cushions or foam wrapped in fabric or leather. The main issues here are:

Cushions

The most common inner cushion material is polyurethane foam, a plastic polymer containing the toxic chemicals methyloxirane (aka propylene oxide) and toluene, both carcinogenic. Avoid!

You may have heard of soy-based foam as an eco-alternative, but it typically only contains a maximum of 20% soy, the rest being polyurethane. Soy brings with it a host of other problems too, such as pesticide use, genetically modified crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.

Better to opt for a natural rubber foam cushion, known as natural latex, a renewable, sustainable resource harvested from the rubber tree. Ask for Dunlop latex to assure there are no synthetic chemicals added. You can even find Global Organic Latex Standard certified (GOLS) for the cleanest option.

Other materials used in cushions create varying degrees of softness and give. These include inner coils, down, batting and foam. Coils can be made of recycled metal. Batting or padding exists in a range of natural, time-proven materials including wool, coconut fiber (aka coir), kapok, bamboo, or cotton (preferably organic). Lyocell is a newer alternative made from cellulose, but requires chemically intensive processing, and is also linked to deforestation (see this rayon/viscose post for details), so better to pass on that.

Down adds an extra inviting softness, however, there are troubling ethical issues around down production in terms of animal welfare and lack of regulations. It’s also high maintenance, needing frequent plumping and fluffing to retain its shape and loft. So unless you have a housekeeper or love the Zen act of fluffing, you can skip this one, too.

Fabric

Whenever possible, choose natural fabrics like organic cotton or linen, and avoid synthetics like petroleum-based polyester, unless it’s made from recycled bottles or fiber. Also steer clear of vinyl (PVC) which is produced with highly toxic dioxin. Plus it has the icky, sticky habit of adhering to the backs of your legs when sat upon.

Ask for untreated fabrics, since stain and fire resistant chemicals are linked to a slew of health and environmental risks. To scratch the surface, so to speak, they can cause fatal hyperthyroidism in cats, cancer in humans (especially children}, and are toxic to other life forms when they enter the environment. By seeking out GOTS or Oeko-Tex certified fabrics, you can avoid these toxic culprits and negative social impacts too. Better yet, choose Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified, a complete life cycle standard requiring fabrics to be upcyclable to another use.

Leather

If you’re vegan, needless to say, this is simply a no-go. Though it is an animal product, leather is a very durable upholstery material. Be aware that most leather production employs chromium and other toxic chemicals in the tanning and dying processes, and often uses child labor. Vegetable tanned, chromium-free leathers are preferable, but be prepared to deal with stiffer leather that needs to be broken in. There are also eco certifications for leather, like Oeko-tex’s or the European Naturtextil IVN certification, assuring low impact production and protection of worker’s health. Buying used or vintage is an excellent compromise, since you’re extending the life of the leather.

Frames

Look for Forest Stewardship Council certified (FSC), reclaimed or salvaged wood; or recycled steel. Frames should be designed for longevity, and ideally, to be easily dissembled for recycling.

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In short…

1) Don’t hesitate to ask sales people about the criteria listed above, but also don’t be surprised if they have no clue. (Move on to #2-4)

2) Choose natural or recycled upholstery materials with low impact

3) Avoid finishes or treatments since these often release toxic chemicals through off-gassing and dust particles

4) Seek out certified products, so you can make use of 3rd party vetting

Cabinets, Storage & Occasional Furniture

Next let’s consider case goods – TV/media cabinets, shelving and storage. These essential pieces are found not just in the living room, but throughout the home to help keep us organized and sane. 

Most cabinetry and storage is made of wood. Source salvaged (e.g. from fallen trees), reclaimed (e.g. from old barns) or FSC-certified. Some conscious manufacturer use glues, paints and finishes that are low- or no-VOC, meaning they release minimal or no unstable toxic chemicals into your home. And who wants an unstable, toxic home? Check labels and ask salespeople whether the finishes are low VOC or water based, the latter is the least toxic type.

You may also want (or at least need) a workstation at home. Desks and work chairs pose the same material and finish issues outlined. I’d recommend checking for Greenguard certification, and looking at companies like Steelcase and Knoll, as well as second hand resellers (craigslist, eBay and local second hand shops).

For coffee tables, you may come across some irresistible 70’s or other vintage plastic/plexi options, but sticking with metal or wood—recycled, salvaged, or vintage—with or without a glass top, is a preferable way to go. Plastic from any era tends to damage easily, while ironically taking hundreds of years to degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of persistently polluting plastic bits.

In short…

1) Find quality, vintage pieces made of real wood

2) Seek out low or no-VOC finishes

3) Seek out certified products, so you can make use of 3rd party vetting

Dining Area 

As the sofa was our focal point in the living room, the dining table is the centerpiece of the dining room. This is where I especially favor going with “pre-loved” or vintage furniture. You can find better quality craftsmanship and wood, along with more character and distinctive styles for reasonable prices.

If buying new, avoid plastics such as polyethylene, polyacrylates, and polycarbonates. Even if they’re made from recycled plastic or are theoretically recyclable, plastic furniture is typically not accepted by recycling facilities. As mentioned, plastics aren’t durable and are virtually impossible to repair. Choose glass, certified or salvaged wood, or metal. But preferably not chromefinished metal, because it is made with highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium. Prioritize solid construction when choosing dining chairs, since they get a lot of wear and tear through daily use and the occasional raucous dinner party.

In short…

1) Find quality, vintage pieces made of real wood and/or glass

2) Seek out low or no-VOC finishes

Bedroom Furniture

I favor platform beds with built in storage for a minimal approach, and overall you can save money by buying fewer pieces. The most important element to invest in, and to vet for toxicity, is the mattress. (Here’s our complete guide to choosing a non-toxic mattress.)

Dressers are an ideal piece to introduce character and an esthetic twist. Opt for vintage or consider splurging on a well-made contemporary piece. (If I see one more busted-up IKEA dresser on the curb, I think I’ll scream!)

Side tables provide a great opportunity to get creative. Consider wine crates, salvaged wood tree trunks, hand carved African stools, small steamer trunks or other found objects with an even surface that inspire dreams.

In short…

1) Try out eclectic alternatives to regular furniture

2) Think minimalism and check out multifunctional pieces like platform beds with storage drawers.

3) Get vintage or used solid wood dressers.

How to Buy Sustainable Furniture

“Pre-Loved”

First, check in with family or friends. Maybe your parents are downsizing, or your friends are redecorating. Let them know you’re in the market, and you may score quality pieces inexpensively or even free if they’re feeling generous. If that isn’t fruitful, go to resellers—online and off. Check your local Goodwill or used furniture dealer for affordable finds. There are often gems mixed in with the crap, and at excellent prices. Online, top sites to tap include 1stdibs, Apt Deco, Viyet, and of course eBay. Keep in mind there’s a bigger carbon footprint if you buy a sofa that is shipped thousands of miles than if you find one locally, but that is still a lower impact than buying new!

Sustainable and New

There are not many bigger furniture brands that are really sustainable, but a lot of them that have a diluted or partial commitment to sustainability. I decided to favor smaller companies that use verifiably sustainable materials and production methods. My selections are ranked by how committed they are, as best I could determine.

Eco Balanza: crème de la crème in terms of meeting sustainability criteria and having certifications to prove it. They’re about to become the only furniture company to receive the most stringent certification available.

Mio: high design occasional pieces, room dividers, storage

The Joinery: wood & upholstered furniture, certified B Corporation.

Haiku Designs: includes bamboo furniture and other more unusual pieces.

CISCO Home “inside Green” line: high end, wide range for every room in the home, pricier than they probably should be. NY showroom inside ABC Carpet & Home.

Viesso: especially strong in sofa offerings, mid-range prices.

ABC Carpet & Home: various brands, including their in-house line, graded with their own sustainability rating system. Definitely furniture as an investment but high quality, and well curated for one-stop shopping. NY showroom, or order online.

Urban Green: specializes in storage beds, children’s furniture, and custom made designs. NY showroom.

VivaTerre: stylish, very affordable sofas.

Clei: minimal and sleek multifunctional, transforming furniture.

Materia: trendy and high quality for reasonable price.

West Elm: not the most sustainable overall, but they do offer salvaged, reclaimed, and FSC-certified wood furniture at good prices.

IKEA: the go-to giant for cheap, decent design. Scores low on durability, but they do use better than average materials and production methods and have a commitment to using 100% renewable energy by 2020 – saving themselves lots of money too. This one is complex, so stay tuned for a separate, in-depth post on “to Ikea or not to Ikea”.

It’s worth noting that while the Sustainable Furnishings Council sounds like the premier US source for the industry, they don’t have the best reputation for stringency in terms of which companies they accept as members.

Overall, some of the best advice for sustainable furniture shopping is to go as slowly as possible – sleep on a mattress on the floor for a bit, and have your dinner on milk crates. This allows time for more serendipitous, used, affordable, and aesthetically perfect designs to fall in your lap, errr, home.

Good luck, and happy shopping!