Furnishing Your Sustainable Life: Essential Answer

January/February 2013

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Furnishing Your Sustainable Life: Essential Answer

Photo: Roger Kidd

Q: What are some major players in the "sustainable furniture" industry? If I wanted to furnish my apartment with really eco-friendly stuff, where should I shop?

Asked by Shilpa Sarkar, '11, Stanford, Calif.

Growing up, I ate dinner at an 18th-century drop-leaf oak dining table and watched a television that sat on an 19th-century wooden stand. At the time they were just parts of the eccentric collection my antique-obsessed mother had amassed over the years. Now that I see the value in buying used furniture, though, I think my mom was the ultimate hipster: she was eco-friendly before eco-friendly was cool. Although there are contemporary manufacturers who work hard to make sustainable new furniture, there’s no substitute for something that has already been built.

So what points can we consider when trying to make the most sustainable furniture purchase? When you are looking at a table, you might ask: What materials are used in this product? How was it manufactured? Was it created locally, or was it transported from far away? How long will the table last? Taken together, the answers to these questions determine how large of an environmental impact this piece of furniture has had, and will have, over its lifespan.

The most sustainable products are those that already exist. At the low end, that might mean something as basic as adding legs to an old wooden door or picking out a table from your local thrift store. You can also find good deals on higher-end furnishings online at or in consignment stores. Assembling your home furnishings this way might seem like a lot of work, but if you make it a quest, you’ll find that it can be fun and economical as well as sustainable.

If you do decide you need something new, think about picking products that are made with renewable materials: for example, fast-growing bamboo over slow-growing rainforest hardwoods. Wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is considered a sustainable option, as are recycled plastics. For a more detailed breakdown of the sustainability of different materials, check out this side-by-side comparison of wood, plastic and metal.

A barn door which has been made into a table.
WELL WORN: This barn door was made into a table. (Photo: Jbaldwin Design).

Regardless of the material you choose, it is a huge plus if you can determine whether it was manufactured responsibly—with limited emissions or other pollution to the environment. Quickly skimming the website of the company from which you are considering making a purchase could reveal a lot about their sustainability. Look for sustainable certification symbols from FSC and Green America. But, beware of greenwashing. Just because something says it is sustainable doesn't mean it is.

No matter where you live, consider buying locally produced furniture that uses locally sourced materials. All other things being equal—an uncertain condition, admittedly—the shorter the distance materials travel (to the manufacturer and finally to your house), the fewer emissions produced during transportation

Using efficient transport practices, or not using excessive space and energy during transport, is another way to cut back on your carbon footprint. If you are on a budget, rather than heading to Target or Walmart, check out Ikea. Ikea is a good example of a company that packs their furniture efficiently, reducing both transport costs for the company and impact on the environment (warning: much assembly required). While they are making steps toward sustainability, Ikea's furniture is sometimes criticized when it comes to the next consideration.

Purchasing furniture that can stand up to prolonged use is another way to be sustainable. Think of it as creating antiques for future generations. Durable furniture that is made well and will have a longer lifespan is a healthy choice for the environment because it does not need to be replaced as often. This reduces environmental externalities, like air pollution, from future manufacturing and keeps unnecessary waste out of landfills. And while you might have to shell out more cash initially, it keeps more money in your wallet over the long run.

So whether you are shopping around for your next loveseat or shower caddy, think about these four things: materials, manufacturing, transportation and durability. Check out the Nitty-gritty for a side-by-side comparison of some sustainable furniture companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. And when in doubt, take a page from my mom's book and head over to your local thrift store to rack up some karma points by reincarnating a used piece of furniture. The Earth (and your wallet) will thank you.

Nicole Sarto, '13, is an earth systems major.

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