Five Steps to Choosing Healthier, Greener Furniture
Furniture constantly touches our skin and can emit VOCs directly into our breathing zones. These five steps will help you make safer, greener choices.
Photo Credit: Steelcase
We already have plenty to think about when it comes to the environmental and health profile of basic materials like wood and plastics. Complex assembled products like furniture multiply all those considerations.
What’s more, new products come out all the time, and their features can be radically different. And the nuanced interplay of function, aesthetics, ergonomics, and cost already choreographs a delicate dance for designers and specifiers. That's not even mentioning compliance with LEED IEQc4.5: Low-Emitting Materials: Furniture & Furnishings in LEED-CI or LEED for Schools. How do you stay on top of it—and still manage to pull green considerations into the mix?
One way is to step back a bit and think through what are the top green priorities for furniture.
1. Put health first
Desks, chairs, cafeteria tables: these interior products are in regular, close contact with building occupants, so human health has to be the top priority among many green considerations.
First, ensure the product isn’t emitting harmful VOCs. Look to Greenguard Children & Schools certification and to other certifications based on the California DHS standard (also known as California 01350).
Unfortunately, these standards don’t yet cover semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), nor do they account for hazardous constituents like brominated flame retardants (BFRs) that don’t offgas into the air. Such ingredients can slough off the product over time and contaminate indoor dust, which ultimately makes it into our bodies as well.
(For example, due to California’s flame retardant requirements, Californians have the nation’s highest levels of BFRs—one reason Governor Jerry Brown just directed State agencies to revise these standards.)
2. Discover each material’s story
Beyond protecting the health of occupants, the potential impacts to consider over the life cycle of the product multiply wildly depending on the complexity of the product and the materials used.
While keeping their limitations in mind, consider making environmental product declarations (EPDs) part of your spec process, and ask manufacturers when they will be releasing EPDs for your favorite products, or using other transparency tools.
3. Play favorites
You may be excited by the prospect of tracing the stories of different materials to their source—but time or budget constraints may require a higher-level view for many products.
Some furniture manufacturers consider sustainability a bottom-line issue: they go far beyond just recycled content, a tiny selection of niche “green” products, and pretty pictures on their websites. You may already know who these companies are. If they are consistently able to answer your questions about the environmental story of a product, they’re likely to be further down that path.
4. “Level” the playing field
Multi-attribute green product certifications like BIFMA’s “level” certification can also be a good indicator—a way to quickly pick out a set of greener products from what’s on the market.
Of course, there plenty of green products without level certification, and don’t forget that level certification has different levels; a company has to do a lot more to get level 3 certification (member link) on a product than level 1.
Also, it’s still worth digging a little: a company can get a lot of points toward level certification for management activities and other things aside from product characteristics.
5. Adjust your expectations
It’s just a fact of life: it’s easier to find greener options for some types of products than for others.
There are plenty of super-green office chairs, but for niche applications and for the low end of production costs, it can be a lot harder. Here’s a rundown of what to expect, category by category.
- Office furniture—The area with perhaps the most green activity and competition. There is an abundance of certified low-emitting products, as well as many products with BIFMA level 2 or 3 certification. There are also plenty of refurbished options if that meets the project’s needs.
- Systems furniture—In this important subset of office furniture, there are also plenty of low-emitting products with BIFMA level 2 or 3. Modularity and ease of re-configuration are also key here. If simply rearranging parts can make the system work longer, that’s an easy win environmentally and financially.
- School furniture—Because of the focus on low-emitting materials in schools, there are now a lot of options here, so it’s worth looking for other environmental characteristics as well. Some companies, like Greenplay, go even further with extremely low-impact raw materials.
- Residential furniture—In a residential setting, where there is likely to be lower air exchange and also children—a more vulnerable population—place increased emphasis on occupant health over other environmental concerns. The options vary by what you’re looking for, so be flexible and prepare to apply various lenses in making selections.
- Medical furniture—There’s still a limited set of low-emitting furniture. Make sure you’ve got that covered before looking for recycled content or other sustainable features.
- Laboratory furniture—There is a smattering of certified low-emitting products, from casework to countertops to chairs designed for easy cleaning. Some materials, such as metals designed to withstand chemicals, are also inherently low-emitting.
- Upholstered furniture—Once you get into upholstery, there’s a lot more to be concerned with. Foams and fabrics include both a host of chemical hazards to watch out for in the products themselves and their own unique set of processing concerns. If upholstered furniture is optional, it may make sense to avoid it. If not, consider how much research and hassle you’re willing to undertake to find safer options. While the purest options may only be available from a few select, high-end manufacturers, you can get partway there be seeking out manufacturers with across-the-board health-based policies—like Ikea—that do a relatively decent job within practical market constraints and don’t make “green” a reason to charge a premium.
- Custom furniture—It’s increasingly possible to get both high-end individual pieces and large-volume custom furniture made to green specifications, as long as you work with someone already familiar with green materials. Don’t expect just any furniture craftsman to be willing to work with low-VOC adhesives and finishes.
- Casework—If you go with metal, it’s low-emitting to start with, and emissions certifications like Greenguard Children & Schools don’t tell you much. If you’re looking at particleboard, on the other hand, the certification is critical. There are plenty of options for low-emitting casework, so you might want to look for more green features, but don’t count on an easy answer for medical casework or other specialty applications where there are few options.
- Specialty applications—The rarer the application (multiple seating, detention furniture, etc.) the harder it’s likely to be to find greener materials—so if you have found some real
gems, please let us know in comments! We’ll consider adding them to GreenSpec.
Posted by Jennifer Atlee on June 20, 2012
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