A Guide to Ethical & Sustainable Furniture and Home DécorFebruary 21, 2021
Sustainable Furniture is more than just a marketing term. Manufacturers and the environment have suffered, and continue to suffer, in the production of once-meaningful household assets that are subsequently disrespected, and frequently disposed of by inconsiderate means. Something has to change, and a movement is under way that is attempting to bring back moderation in the use of natural resources, consideration of the effects on the surrounding environment, respect to the artisans on whose skills we depend, and ultimately love for the finished product.
By Amanda Schroeder
Since before recorded history, humans have produced furniture and homewares to improve our lives and the environment around us. This desire to make our homes beautiful and meaningful is part of what makes us human. Curating a beautiful home is a great way to increase happiness, relieve stress, and live a more conscientious life. Moreover, establishing ourselves in our homes allows us to feel a sense of belonging in the space around us, encouraging us to invest in the communities we live in. But how can we be proud of our homes if the creation of the furniture and homeware inside them is harmful to the Earth and other humans?
Sustainability in the Home Goods Industry
The Historical Division of Ethics and Furniture
As with almost every industry, the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s profoundly altered the furniture industry, moving the industry from a focus on slow, one-off production into something cheaper, faster, and trendier. Before the Industrial Revolution, furniture was made using the materials in the immediately surrounding environment and was crafted by skilled community artisans, then sold to households nearby. Furniture was pricey, but it lasted a lifetime and was passed between generations. The Industrial Revolution turned the focus away from small, local artisans to huge factories where furniture could be mass-produced for widespread distribution.
We now realize this consumer cycle is not sustainable, as materials are used faster than they can be sustainably harvested. They’re then thrown away to rot in landfills longer than they were ever used in the home, especially considering that the cheapest furniture is constructed using plastics and MDFs, which take a long time to decompose and have a toxic effect on the environment.
Working Conditions Around the World
The furniture and home goods industry is also infamous for poor working conditions and shockingly low wages. Employees are also often subjugated to dangerous environments with little hazard insurance. Major furniture retailers have moved their factories to Asia and Eastern Europe, where paying workers low-wages under hazardous conditions goes mostly unscrutinized. In the last few decades, a large portion of global factory manufacturing moved into China, where wages are kept low by hiring migrant workers with few other opportunities. China has become notorious as a cheap place to outsource production, and infamous for the low quality of life of the factory workers.
The manufacturing industry in China continues to grow year over year and wages for workers have gone up as well, though manufacturing workers often still live in poverty and work long hours. According to InTouch, a publication run by AQF, manufacturing workers’ wages have gone up approximately 12% a year since 2001. Unfortunately, these wage increases have encouraged manufacturers to move elsewhere. Recently, the manufacturing of furniture has moved into Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries, where worker wages are even lower than China’s.
Factory workers in China and South East Asia are also subjected to more extreme and dangerous working conditions than their global counterparts. Chinese factory employees work much longer hours than their Western counterparts, and they are 3x more likely to die on the job than American factory workers. Chinese factory workers are also usually dependent on government healthcare, which does not meet what would be considered basic healthcare in other parts of the world. Additionally, working with woods, ceramics, plastics, and MDFs all negatively impact air quality. The associated air pollutants are considered mostly harmless when exposure is short and minimal, but become dangerous when spending 40+ hours a week in conditions where these materials are manufactured en masse.
Hope for Furniture’s Sustainable Future
Luckily, regulations both from governments and independent agencies have emerged to create guidelines for safe and sustainable practices in the manufacturing of furniture and other home goods. Furthermore, just as is happening in the fashion industry, there is an increasing number of brands that evalu1ate and own their role in creating sustainable products. These brands emphasize transparency and place it at the core of their businesses.
Our role as consumers is to educate ourselves on what materials and practices are best for the environment and people, then opt for companies that put these values at the front of their business models. By doing this, we are not only supporting businesses that care for the environment and others. We are encouraging businesses that do not engage in socially conscientious practices to change their ways or die out.
What to Look for When Shopping for Furniture
Where and how wood is harvested has a profound impact on deforestation, biodiversity, and human welfare. Forests are being depleted at an alarming rate. In the last 50 years, approximately 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been depleted. This mass deforestation, in the Amazon and across the world, violently disrupts the lives of plants, animals, and people living in these forests and also has a massive impact on our ability to halt climate change. Though furniture production only accounts for some of the deforestation, it is important to pay attention to the origins of the wood products in our home to avoid contributing to this distressing problem.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the premier certification for sustainable wood harvesting. To achieve FSC certification, the sourcing and harvesting method of the wood must meet high standards for sustainability. An FSC certification is a widely used and internationally recognized certification, so there is no short supply of FSC certified wood products.
Another great way to avoid contributing to deforestation with your homeware items is to opt for more sustainable materials, such as bamboo. Bamboo regenerates quickly and can be used to make beautiful high-quality and sustainable furniture.
- Look for wood furniture with an FSC certification
- Opt for sustainable alternatives to classic wood, such as bamboo
- Avoid MDF and plywood where possible
MDF and Plywood
The use of MDF, also known as particleboard, is a controversial topic in the furniture industry today. Major retailers like IKEA and brands sold on big retailers such as Amazon and Target are often made from MDF. MDF stands for medium-density fibreboard. You’re probably familiar with it – it’s the lightweight, sort-of wood, sort-of plastic material you see on a lot of inexpensive furniture. It is a cheaply made building material similar in use and strength to plywood, which makes it ideal for making strong yet inexpensive furniture. Unfortunately, this does not come without implications for human health. MDF uses formaldehyde as an adhesive. Though formaldehyde is safe in small portions, there is little information on how continued off-gassing fumes could contribute to your health in the long run. The cheaper the furniture, the more likely it will release more formaldehyde into the air, considering that low-formaldehyde glues tend to be more expensive.
Another consideration for MDF, as well as plywood, is that it requires more energy to process than traditional lumbar, though it’s still better than processing plastics. This is because it needs to be broken down, dried, mixed with adhesives then heated and pressed into panels. This is a lot more processing than used to make solid wood products.
MDF is becoming progressively harder to avoid as it is used more frequently in furniture manufacturing, even in what might be considered sustainable furniture. It is important to remember that not all MDFs are created equally. Some are even made of recycled materials and low-formaldehyde adhesives. As a general rule, cheaper MDF materials contain higher amounts of formaldehyde in their adhesives. The price of the MDF materials does not directly correspond with the price of the final product, however. Before purchasing an item with MDF, contact the retailer for information on where and how the furniture was made and what sorts of certification or warning their furniture holds. Where possible, avoid MDF or look for furniture that only uses it as components of the final product.
- Look for furniture that is not made with MDF or plywood.
- If you do end up purchasing furniture made with MDF, look for MDF made with low-formaldehyde adhesives. Most retailers, and any worth shopping with, will get this information from the manufacturer if you request it.
- If you do purchase MDF furniture and it arrives smelling “off” or strong, leave it outside until the smell dissipates. The majority of off-gassing occurs early in the product’s life-cycle. Purchasing MDF materials second-hand is also less likely to cause air quality issues in your home.
The furniture and homeware industry is also subject to similar problems as the fashion industry. Textile waste is a major contributor to waste in the furniture industry. The non-organic cotton industry is a large source of pollution in soil and waterways. Cotton is also a water-intensive crop, making it inefficient to plant en masse for production. Cotton also happens to be one of the most commonly used textiles in furniture and home products.
If you are going to buy furniture or textiles made with cotton, opt for organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without harmful chemicals, which is not only safer for you but also keeps the soil, water, and air healthy. Organic cotton produces close to half the amount of carbon emissions as non-organic cotton.
By purchasing organic cotton, as opposed to conventionally grown cotton, you are also avoiding contributing to an industry that treats its workers poorly. Much like their factory worker counterparts, textile and farm workers are also subjugated to cruel working conditions. The working conditions for cotton farmers are so poor that the average lifespan of an Indian cotton farmer is only 35 years old.
Organic hemp, linen, or bamboo are also great alternatives to cotton, as they do not require as much energy and water to grow and harvest. Many innovative fabrics are sourced sustainably, including TENCEL and ECONYL. All of these fabrics are ideal for sustainable furniture and many other types of home goods and décor.
- Opt for organic fabrics, as these release fewer toxins into the soil, air, and water supply; and will also expose you to fewer irritants in your home.
- Look for products made with recycled cotton, hemp, linen, or bamboo. Consider TENCEL, ECONYL, or other sustainable alternative fabrics.
Where It’s Made
As discussed previously, much of the manufacturing industry globally is known for its horrible working conditions and inadequate pay. It’s easy to write off buying products made in certain countries that have an issue with exploitative manufacturing. However, this dismisses the thousands of artisans in these countries who make beautiful products in humane working conditions.
It’s also important not to assume that just because a piece of furniture is expensive, that the brand or cooperation paid the workers who manufactured the products fairly. It’s important to make this decision based on the transparency the company gives into its manufacturing. Many brands will charge a premium for a name while paying manufacturing workers below livable wages. The easiest way to find products that value every member of the production process is to look for any certifications a product or company holds. Companies that value ethical production will be transparent about it as well.
- Don’t just consider where a product is made, research the brand or company to get an idea of their labor practices. Most companies that value ethics in their production line will be transparent about it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a company asking them about how their products are made and who makes them.
- Look for certifications such as Fair Trade Certified to help guide you in the right direction
Glossary of Terms, Certifications, and Materials
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) – The Better Cotton Initiative is an independent, non-profit organization that protects the people who produce cotton and the environment. The Better Cotton Initiative provides guidelines for sourcing cotton. They also conduct research on how cotton is grown and the welfare of those growing it, and publish it on their website.
Carbon Offset – Carbon offset relates to a company’s carbon footprint. Organizations focused on becoming carbon neutral must first calculate their carbon footprint, then determine how they will make up for this footprint. By successfully offsetting its carbon footprint, a company can become carbon neutral.
Craftmark – Craftmark is a non-profit that authenticates handmade products originating in India. They create standards for what constitutes a handmade product and also provide loans and distribution to artisans in India.
ECONYL – ECONYL is a textiles solution made of regenerated nylon. The textile is used in a variety of products including carpets and rugs.
Fair Trade Certification – Fair Trade Certified products meet strict standards regarding social, environmental, and economic goals. The organization believes that every product not only affects the people who own it but every person who encountered the product somewhere in the supply chain. A Fair Trade certification verifies that the end product was beneficial to everyone involved.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – The Forest Stewardship Council is one of the most recognized authorities in sustainable wood harvesting. FSC ensures the responsible management of forests and provides certifications for suppliers and corporations given they meet the organization’s standards for sustainable use of forest products.
Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) – GOTS provides certification for products that meet specific standards to be considered organic. They emphasize managing the entire production process of the textiles to ensure the product is actually organic.
Global Recycle Standard – The Global Recycle Standard is an international organization providing third-party certifications with strict standards on what constitutes recycled content. Companies who wish to validate any claims of recycled products can seek out certification with this agency.
GREENGUARD – GREENGUARD is an independent non-profit offering third-party certifications for products with low chemical and particle emissions. Each product must be tested for the amount of off-gassing it produces to ensure it falls well below healthy levels.
Greenhouse Gas Protocol – Greenhouse Gas Protocol, or GHG, is an independent organization that provides standards, guidance, tools, and training for businesses and governments to measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.
Leather Working Group – The Leather Working Group is an international organization of manufacturers, suppliers, brands, and artisans dedicated to sustainability in the leather supply chain. The Leather Working Group provides audits of the supply chain for leather and has over 800 members globally.
Lifecycle Impact – A company or manufacturer can calculate the lifecycle impact of their products to ensure they are minimizing waste and damage to the environment. The lifecycle of a product refers to its total impact, from extracting materials to the disposal of the product after it’s no longer usable or needed.
MDF – MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, is a common wood product used in the creation of home goods products. MDFs are made using formaldehyde as an adhesive, and it produces varying degrees of off-gassing chemicals. Very cheap MDFs often have a higher degree of formaldehyde used in their construction.
OEKO-TEX®– OEKO-TEX® is a third-party organization that provides certifications for textiles and leathers that meet chemical guidelines. The organization offers a variety of certifications for different products, all concerned with the amount and type of chemicals found in a product.
PROP 65 – Proposition 65 identifies products with chemicals that have been associated with cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm and requires a warning in the state of California, USA. Any retailer that ships to California will have to have this warning when shipping to California residents, but this can also be a useful tool for those not residing in California. If you reach out to the retailer and ask them if their product(s) require a California Prop 65 warning, they should have this information on hand and be able to get back to you quickly.
Recycled Claims Standard (RCS) – RCS provides certification for products based on the percent of recycled materials it is made out of. RCS ensures that products that don’t meet standards regarding recycled materials cannot claim to be recycled.
Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) – SASB is an independent agency that has created a complete set of industry standards for sustainability. SASB’s goal is to help businesses and corporations globally manage and communicate sustainability goals with investors or in a business setting.
TENCEL – TENCEL is a textile solution made of Lyocell and Modal fibers, which are derived from raw material wood. These fibers are completely compostable and biodegradable, making them a truly cyclical product.
REPREVE – REPREVE is a textiles solution made out of plastic water bottles. REPREVE is most widely used to make performance clothing, but many sustainable furniture brands also use REPREVE in their home products.
VOCs – VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are the gases emitted from a wide array of products. VOCs are known for having both short-term and long-term health implications when exposure is frequent. The usual suspects for high VOC content in the home are pains, wood preservatives, cleanser, and office equipment, though this is by no means an extensive list.
A List of Sustainable Furniture and Home Goods Brands
A Bit of Everything
Made Trade sells a wide variety of products, including sustainable furniture, decor, and clothing. A purchase from Made Trade directly supports the small businesses and artisans that produce the merchandise curated on Made Trade. Their products are 100% vegan and made of sustainable materials. Made Trade is a great place to shop if you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for, as they have an incredibly diverse selection of homeware and clothing items.
The Citizenry curates artisan-made home goods to build a brand that puts the artisans first. Each purchase from The Citizenry directly supports the artisans who created the product. Their artisan partners are from all across the globe and their product line ranges from rugs and bedding to mirrors and chairs.
The merchants at Vivaterra work with manufacturers and artisans from all over the world, curating an expansive collection of items for every room. Vivaterra’s website features a convenient icon system displayed for each of their products to make it easy to pick out the sustainable furniture that adheres to your values.
The Little Market
The Little Market sells a little bit of everything, including spa sets and candles. The Little Market focuses on ethically sourced and artisan-made products, with an emphasis placed on honoring and supporting marginalized artisan communities globally. Their specific aim is to support and uplift people with disabilities, women coming out of poverty, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence.
ABC Carpet & Home
ABCs offers a large selection of products for the home. While their selection is large, they make it easy to shop for products that align with a variety of values by using a simple icon system for marking what standards the product meets. They also offer custom rugs and floral bouquets, all adhering to the ABCs values of sustainability and social justice.
Jardan offers sustainable furniture, lighting, and other homewares, placing precedence on reducing waste and conserving energy use. They focus on recycling and the reduction of waste in the production process. They also offer reupholstery services to prolong the use of the furniture you already own. Their products hold several certifications and memberships, including but not limited to FSC certified, Oeko-Tex, and the Organic Textile Standard.
Simbly’s mission statement is to become the first climate-positive furniture company. Simbly creates contemporary, minimalist furniture made only from sustainably harvested, FSC certified wood. They never use formaldehyde in their adhesives or finishes and ship their products in 40-60% recycled packaging, set to reach 100% recycled packaging soon. They plant one tree for every product sold and are members of 1% for the Planet. Each order is also shipped with EcoCart, a powerful tool that calculates and offsets the carbon footprint of transportation.
Simbly’s sustainable furniture will not only last a lifetime but also fit into practically any space. Simbly also ships directly from the manufacturer, which keeps the cost of their products very competitive by cutting out the “middle-man.”
Medley creates sustainable furniture for the living room, dining room, and bedroom, built out of eco-conscious materials that are meant to stand the test of time. Medley uses all FSC certified hardwood, which is made without harmful adhesives and will last you for a lifetime. Their sofa foam is non-toxic and designed to do as little harm as possible to the environment. Their products are also all hand-crafted in California, the USA in an environment that values the artisans who create the products.
The Joinery is a certified B-corporation run out of Oregon, USA. Their focus is on artisan furniture created with only the highest quality materials. The Joinery makes their furniture out of hardwood certified by the FSC and they recycle or reuse all of their scrap lumber. Their products also all come with a lifetime guarantee. Their mission is to create products to last a lifetime, not end up in a landfill. They make sustainable furniture for the bedroom, living room, dining room, and office.
Sabai emphasizes fixing what we have, as opposed to tossing and buying something new. Their selection features seating that can easily be customized to any space. They use only natural fibers and FSC certified wood, and also offer services such as upholstery and repair services to ensure their products are used until the absolute end of their life cycle.
Thuma sells beds designed for both function and durability. Their designs are simple, timeless, and thoughtful and the majority of their materials are upcycled. Their signature beds are made from repurposed wood and are Greengard certified, guaranteeing minimal exposure to volatile chemical compounds.
Reclaimed Furniture on Etsy
Etsy makes it astonishingly easy to shop reclaimed furniture from a variety of artisans selling through the platform. Etsy’s reclaimed furniture selection offers a comprehensive assortment of products, the majority made of reclaimed wood. Shopping through Etsy is a great way to support artisans.
Jenni Kayne sells sustainable furniture and home goods as well as clothing and fashion accessories. Jenni Kayne focuses on creating and shipping products using only eco-conscious materials. Sustainability and transparency are the foundation of Jenni Kayne, as well as creating simple, high-quality pieces that will stay in style their entire lifecycle.
West Elm offers a mixture of home goods items, including sustainable furniture for practically every room in the house, décor, and textiles. They also offer home products like candles and diffusers. West Elm is transparent about what certifications their products hold, offering products that adhere to a variety of values. Many of West Elm’s products are Fair Trade and sustainably sourced, and all of their all-cotton towels and bedding are made from 100% organic cotton.
Ten Thousand Villages
The Thousand Villages offers a very wide selection of products for both the home as well as fashion accessories. Ten Thousand Villages is a great place to find unique pieces you won’t find elsewhere, and their price point is very fair. Ten Thousand Villages supports artisans in developing countries by giving them a platform to sell their products that they would not otherwise have access to. Every item directly benefits the person who created it. Ten Thousand Villages is a member of the Fair Trade Federation and the World Fair Trade Organization.
Bedding and Textiles
BLACKSAW creates stunning blankets, throws, tapestries, and other home textile goods. Their most popular items are their blankets and throws made out of sustainably sourced baby alpaca wool. All the wool used in the creation of their textiles comes from their partners in South America, who are working to sustain the alpaca population by supporting local shepherds. Purchasing from these small shepherding communities helps these farmers continue their work, as well as provide financial stability and education to their families.
Boll & Branch
Boll & Branch is dedicated to making a more sustainable and compassionate supply chain. All of their textiles are made from organic cotton, which not only benefits the customer but also the farmers who grow the cotton. Boll & Branch decided to use only organic cotton after discovering that the average age for a cotton farmer in India was 35. Convention farming cuts corners that threaten employees’ lives. By sourcing organic cotton, Boll & Branch supports organic farms that value human rights.
Avocado Green Mattress
Avocado makes mattresses, bed linens, and bed accessories out of completely non-toxic, organic materials. They are a certified B-corporation and all of their mattresses are GreenGuard gold certified. They are also quickly encroaching on being completely zero waste, and are a CarbonFree Partner, a program that helps businesses determine their carbon footprint and take steps to offset it.
The Renewal Workshop
The Renewal Workshop is dedicated to making a circular product cycle, where materials are reused repeatedly. The Renewal Workshop offers a lot of options for clothing, but they also have partnered with Pottery Barn to make a line of home lines, such as pillows, towels, duvets, and more, all made of recycled materials. Of all the brands on this list, they also have the greatest selection of curtains.
Parachute is most known for their eco-friendly and supremely comfortable mattress, but they also sell bedding and other linens for the home. Its mission is to create well-made, conscientious, and beautiful products at an accessible price point. Their products are Oeko-Tex certified, guaranteeing any chemical exposure will be kept to a minimum and their mattress is made of recyclable, non-toxic materials.
Sustainable Decor and Everything Else
MadeTerra directly supports Vietnamese artisans who use locally sourced, recycled, and renewable materials in their products. Their priority is to keep the margins fair to the artisans creating their products. By doing this, they not only support the artisans, but also the communities where they work. They sell bakers’ tools, home decor, tableware, and more in their diverse selection.
Accompany sells decor and home accessories, as well as jewelry and fashion accessories. Accompany focuses on artisan-made goods and supporting local craftspeople to preserve their cultures and the communities they live in. Accompany’s mission is to actively stop the exploitative practices of commercial manufacturing and move towards a slower, more compassionate economy.
Know someone who’s doing great things in the arena of sustainable furniture and home goods? Let us know in the comments section!