Living sustainably makes good sense from a personal health and wellness perspective. What’s good for the planet is good for us. On a practical level, though, the search for more sustainable choices can cause a little inconvenience — at least initially. Accepting that fact up front makes the hunt for better products feel like less of a burden and more of an invigorating challenge.
If you’re just starting to learn about eco-friendly furnishings, I’ll just say it: it’s easy to become overwhelmed! Materials, sourcing, supply chains, finishes, aesthetics, availability, budget… so many factors to weigh. The key is to get curious, ask questions, and try to make a better choice every time you buy.
So remember, designing a safe, non-toxic, and eco-friendly home is possible. You personally will feel better living in greater alignment with the environment. And it’s getting easier to go green every day. It’s time to demand more from your furnishings!
Shop for responsible home furnishing choices
Some ideas for making responsible choices in home furnishings? Shop local first. Buy vintage when possible. When buying second-hand, avoid lead paint and other toxic finishes and synthetic treatments. When buying new, look for items that are locally made and manufactured and, ideally, made of local materials, too. This saves transportation costs and lowers emissions.
The most sustainable new furniture is generally created from recycled, natural and/or renewable source materials (see the list below). Eco-friendly furniture may be made of reclaimed wood, certified sustainable wood, bamboo, and recycled metal or (possibly) recycled plastic. It should be easy to repair, disassemble, and recycle again.
Find products that are durable and long lasting whenever possible. One way to assess this is to ask yourself, “Is this product likely to end up in a landfill in the next 3-5 years?” If so, move on to another, more sustainable option.
Sustainable furnishing vendors to explore:
- ABC Carpet & Home
- West Elm
- Etsy Reclaimed Furniture
Seek out recommended materials
Some materials generally recommended for their environmental sustainability:
- Bamboo, rattan and seagrass. These natural materials grow quickly. Just watch that your bamboo isn’t a composite with plastic or toxic resin.
- Ceramic tile and porcelain. Clay (which makes ceramic and porcelain) is widely available — found on every continent worldwide. It’s not considered to be a rapidly depleting resource.
- Natural stone. It’s created by nature and doesn’t contain any synthetic toxins.
- Organic cotton.
- Recycled textiles and materials (like wood pallets).
- Salvaged wood.
- Water-based finishes.
Just remember that local, natural, and recycled materials are typically preferred to new materials.
Watch which woods you use
Ideally, the wood in your home furnishings would come from responsibly managed forests, via high-integrity supply chains that value conservation and replenishing the earth’s natural bounty. I know, it’s a tall order. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo to help guide you.
According to the woodworkingtrade.com, the most sustainable woods include:
- Bamboo (technically a grass)
- Black Cherry
- Douglas Fir
- White Ash
And the least sustainable types of woods are:
- Brazilian Mahogany
- Burmese Teak
So please avoid buying these last few in new furnishings.
Avoid harmful synthetic chemicals
Avoid products that have been chemically treated, or find minimal treatments like paints, stains and finishes. Chemicals harm you and your family and they pollute the environment. These may show up in furnishings, rugs, carpet, and paint.
Watch out for these harmful chemicals in particular:
- Antimicrobials (ex: triclosan and triclocarban)
- Flame retardants (ex: PBDE, chlorinated tris and Fyrol)
- Fluorinated substances (ex: PFAS, PFOA, PFOS and PSFs)
- Volatile Organic Compounds, VOCs (ex: formaldehyde)
- Vinyls (ex: PVC) and Phthalates (often added to products with vinyls)
Instead, look for “non-toxic” options like “Zero VOC paint and anti-radiation or “EMR/EMF Shielding” paint. Wear a mask when painting or performing renovations inside your home. Purchase used furnishings when possible. Let new furnishings and materials off-gas outside or near an open window for a few days if you can.
Check your labels and ask questions. Asking questions helps ensure that the staff members and management where you show can see you care about sustainability. When consumers demonstrate demand for eco-friendly products, over time vendors and manufacturers listen.
Watch out for sneaky greenwashing claims
Unsubstantiated green furniture claims (a.k.a. “greenwashing”) poses yet another potential challenge. How do you know that something that appears to be eco-friendly really is? The best way, going back to the original advice, is to ask more questions. Probe deeper. Don’t accept green-looking labels, messages, or packaging at face value.
On the other hand, you don’t want to foster paranoia or stress yourself out to the point of giving up. Just try to do a little better with each purchase. Eventually, you will have a healthier, safer home that reflects your values regarding sustainability in home furnishings.
Think of it as voting with your dollars. What do you want to support, really? The sustainable choice pampers you, your family, and the environment. Ultimately, an eco-friendly lifestyle brings the greatest returns over the long term. That’s the lifestyle I want to endorse.
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