EnvironDesign Notebook: Disposable Furniture = Disposable Futures

May 15, 2007
By Heather Clark

Whether it's a lack of knowledge in the industry or a lack of motivation to change, the full potential of sustainable furniture has not been recognized.

I recently experienced my first visit to a "mega box" residential furniture store in Kansas City. Upon entering the store, I was awestruck by the vast amount of furniture, lighting, accessories, appliances, electronic equipment and other miscellaneous items offered.

As I wandered around the store for a few minutes, I was curious if they carried any green or sustainable furniture. I approached a sales associate and asked, "Do you sell any sustainable furniture?" To my surprise, the sales associate replied "Sustainable? What's that?" So, I calmly explained that sustainable furniture means that a product was manufactured using environmentally friendly materials. For example, the product's materials might emit low-VOCs (volatile organic compounds), or be manufactured with recycled materials, or use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood.

After becoming frustrated with the lack of knowledge exhibited by the store's staff regarding the importance of using sustainable furnishing, it became apparent that a significant issue exists and needs to be addressed. If one of the largest furniture suppliers in the Midwest had no idea what sustainable furnishings are, then the residential furniture market as a whole needs to wake up and realize that consumers, particularly young homeowners, want furniture that is "green" or sustainable to fill their environmentally conscious homes.

The residential furniture industry is in "the backwoods" when it comes to environmental concerns1. A very pertinent issue is being neglected because profit, at any cost, is being put ahead of any ethical concern for future generations. It is obvious that furniture manufacturers and retailers have a responsibility to their share holders to make money. However, there are other issues that cannot be overlooked.

One such issue is the negative environmental impact that comes from harvesting endangered forests and the use of synthetic materials that emit many VOCs. There is an easy solution to this problem: sustainable furniture. Unfortunately, there are obstacles that impede progress. Due to the lack of knowledge in the industry and the lack of motivation to change, the full potential of sustainable furniture has not been recognized. The seemingly dismissive attitude of the residential furniture manufacturers toward green or sustainable design needs to be addressed so that awareness can be increased and measures can be taken to speed up the process of transforming the residential furniture industry.

There are numerous reasons why furniture manufacturers should acknowledge the value of sustainable furnishings. Every year, Americans spend $78 billion on furniture4. This is significant because of the environmental impact from the production, transportation and ultimate disposal of industry products. A catalyst to the sustainable materials movement in the AEC industry is Interface Flooring Inc. Ray Anderson, the company's founder, has made sustainability a mantra at his company. Since making sustainability a focal point of its business model, Interface's profits have risen by 29 percent every year since 2003.

Carpeting, like furniture, is an ubiquitous element of interior space and has a large impact on indoor air quality and ultimately landfills. The invention of sustainable carpeting was extremely sought after because it is one of the main causes of "sick building syndrome" due to the many VOCs normally emitted by carpeting11. Instead of waiting for the devastating effects of filling the landfills with useless medium density fiberboard (MDF)- filled furnishings, we should emulate Interface's sustainability model. Some would argue that sustainability is not economically viable or they would claim that business cannot profit by selling sustainable products; yet Interface's research shows nothing could be further from the truth. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart note in their book, Cradle to Cradle, "Sustainability makes perfect business sense and it will continue to be a defining characteristic of successful business of the future. Financial success is key to achieving sustainability: bankrupt businesses are not sustainable"6.

There is an overall national and international level of attention given to global warming and environmental degradation, so why wouldn't sustainable furniture for homes be a relevant issue? While designers and contractors now strive to get the LEED® for Homes certification on new residential construction, I find it ironic that furniture is neither factored into the point system nor regulated by the USGBC. This exposes an interesting problem when the primary guidelines for green or sustainable design do not address what is being put into a building. Stuart Reynolds, vice president of sales with Transformations Furniture, offered that one reason LEED will not place restrictions on the furniture in the home setting is due to the use of petroleum-based foam in cushions7.

Consequently, until there is an alternative to this type of foam, LEED will not place precincts on furniture used in residential environments. In LEED-CI, you can receive one point if all systems furniture and seating introduced into the project space have been manufactured, refurbished or refinished within one year prior to occupancy. The claim that an alternative to petroleum-based foam cannot be developed due to insufficient technological advances seems preposterous when examining the contract furniture market.

Commercial manufacturers attain a green or sustainable label by researching and using sustainable materials such as wheat board, FSC-certified woods and organic wool. In addition to utilizing environmentally- friendly materials, commercial furniture manufacturers continue to strive for optimum cost effectiveness and the reuse of materials when applicable. Most of these companies will take back furniture at the end of its useful life at no cost to the consumer and can often produce new furniture by recycling the old. This paradigm, which focuses on reuse is commonly referred to as "Cradle-to-Cradle," as defined by McDonough and Braungart in their book.

Dr. Lyndon Anderson's presentation on sustainable design uses the phrase, "There is no such thing as 'away.'" After reading his statement, I found the title of his presentation to be quite applicable to my cause. After people are finished with the furniture in their homes, it becomes waste in a landfill along with other materials that can not be reused. When you consider that the average household replaces furniture every five to seven years, it becomes clear that such practices are appalling4. Placing such a vast amount of furnishings into landfills every year is unacceptable! Alternative methods— such as improving harvesting practices, finding new sources for wood, and using recycled common materials—need to be encouraged if not mandated.

Not only do interior designers have to consider day lighting, alternative energy for homes, sustainable sites, and water conservation within the home, they have to take furniture selection into account as well. Furniture can not be considered green if it is made entirely of endangered woods and synthetic textiles. This is why designers as well as manufacturers need to realize the damage that is being done by not specifying sustainable furnishings in our living environment. The technology to investigate alternative materials that are made from recycled products already exists.

It is my belief that in order to successfully revolutionize the residential furniture market and make exquisite, sustainable furniture design a vital component in residential applications, action from manufacturers must correlate with increased consumer awareness and education, as well as participation form imaginative designers.

First of all, manufacturers need to acknowledge that the status quo is in fact detrimental to the environment and will ultimately impact future consumers negatively if measures aren't taken to research and apply sustainable furnishings. Additionally, the R&D capital of the residential furniture industry needs to be redirected and focused on minimizing the ecological footprint of the manufacturing process and developing sustainable material sources. Their main task should be to research new materials, so that a standard of the type of products can be set for all residential furniture manufacturers worldwide (e.g. developing an alternative to petroleum-based foam, so that LEED could start to regulate furnishings).

Secondly, consumers need to have access to reliable and accurate product data. One of the most significant barriers to successfully having "green materials" or building green is not having access to accurate environmental product data3. The consumer has to be environmentally savvy to differentiate a legitimate product from one that is merely "green washed." Many green products focus on single attribute environmental claims, like, "contains 10 percent recycled material," or "made with wood from sustainably managed forests." The Federal Trade Commission has ruled that manufacturers can make only one environmental product claim. If a manufacturer makes more than one claim, it needs to be able to back it up with thirdparty evidence to substantiate the legitimacy of the claim. Environmental Literacy's Web site states, "Undoubtedly, these green washed manufacturers exploit their ability to maneuver statistics to paint a picture of their product being sustainable; so the consumer needs to be aware that if a product contains 10 percent recycled material, that means that one of the materials that make up the product could be 10 percent recycled, and [that] there could be less than 1 percent recycled content in the total product!"

Lastly, designers hold the most important role in the reform of the residential furniture industry. After researching legitimate green product manufacturers, residential furniture designers need to create designs that are simple, attractive, have a great amount of durability, and use fewer resources in the manufacturing process. A disturbing statistic posted on www.environliteracy.com states that for every 10-pound laptop made, the amount of waste created in its construction totals 40,000 pounds (20 tons).

Every material used in the construction of anything has a history. If consumers are armed with knowledge about what materials are the most consumptive over their life-cycles, they can make wise decisions that directly influence the market2.

The residential furniture market must develop sustainable furnishings for its environmentally savvy young consumers, so that their future is not full of over stocked landfills, emitting harmful chemicals over time. Furniture as a disposable commodity is morally wrong. Throughout history, it used to be a tradition to pass down furnishings from generation to generation. Furniture needs to once again become an investment instead of the latest fad. By researching new green and sustainable materials, residential furniture manufacturers can vastly improve the quality and environmental impact of the furniture as they construct for future generations.

The contract furniture industry is beginning to reap the rewards of designing green. Not only is mandating sustainable design monetarily advantageous, it is also rewarding in that the product being marketed is truly what the label implies—green or sustainable. The residential furniture industry needs to follow the lead of the contract furniture industry in developing sustainable materials and methods; and it needs to understand the true cost of not embracing sustainability.

Heather Clark is a student in the interior design program at Kansas State University. She can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Conklin, Gerry. South Cone Trading Company. 20 Oct.-Nov. 2006.
  2. "Landfills." Environmental Literacy Council. 30 Oct. 2006.
  3. "Landfills: Hazardous to the Environment." EPA. 30 Nov. 2006.
  4. Leamy, Elizabeth. "When Buying Furniture, Don't Always Trust the Tags." ABC. 20, Nov. 2006. 2 Jan. 2007.
  5. "LEED Homes." United States Green Building Council. 27 Nov. 2006.
  6. McDonough, William, and Braungart, Michael. "Cradle to Cradle." New York: North Point P, 2002. 68-92.
  7. Reynolds, Stuart. Telephone interview. 6 Oct. 2006. Transformations Furniture, Representative Stuart Reynolds
  8. "The Industry Voice for Workplace Solutions." The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association. 30 Jan. 2007. 30 Nov. 2006.
  9. "USGBC." United States Green Building Council. 10 Oct. 2006.
  10. "What is Sustainability?" Interface Inc. 2004. 12 Dec. 2006.
  11. Knutson, Erick. Telephone interview. 20 Oct. 2006. Baltix Sustainable Furniture, Representative Erick Knutson, Co-President.

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