Looking for a comfy place to sit yourself down? Well, before you sink into that showroom softy, consider the eco-impacts of your next chair purchase. Furniture of all kinds come with environmental costs; choosing the least impactful will give you true peace of mind.
Dining room chairs, rocking chairs, and even lazy-day cushioned chairs require wood, which is likely the most used building material in the world, with the US representing almost one third of the global wood buying market. The earth’s land surface used to be approximately 46 percent forest, but today, nearly half of the world’s original forests have been cut down to meet worldwide wood demand and only one-fifth remain untouched. Although it has taken 8,000 years to lose these original forests, the majority of the loss started around 1980. Since then, approximately 2 million square kilometers of forests were destroyed, an area larger than Mexico. An average of 20 million additional hectares (an area the size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined) are cut down every year and in the next 30 years global wood consumption is expected to double.
Forests provide a variety of important ecological benefits, many of which directly affect human health and well-being. These include preventing soil erosion, moderating global climate, and purifying water and air. Tropical forests cover only 12 percent of the planet, but provide habitat to more than one-half of the earth’s known plants and animal species.
Forests also act as carbon sinks, or reservoirs, for carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, plants capture carbon dioxide and store it as plant biomass, releasing oxygen in the process.
Conventional logging disrupts the ability of forests to provide these vital services. Yearly deforestation (meaning fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide) results in 25 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Although there have been many strides taken worldwide to manage forests and prevent virgin or old growth forests from being felled, illegal logging poses an increasing threat to these efforts. In many tropical countries it is illegal to take trees from rain forests, but it is not necessarily illegal to import improperly sourced lumber from these regions. Demand from Western consumers makes illegal logging practices very profitable.
In the last few years, the top three wood buyers in the world—Home Depot, Lowe’s, and IKEA—all committed to work with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to reduce their consumption of non-sustainable wood products. The FSC relies on independent accredited organizations to guarantee that trees are sustainably harvested using forestry practices that maintain the diversity of native species. These practices prevent over-cutting, protect watersheds, and ensure long-term forest management.
Earthy, not eco
Natural textiles used to make chairs such as leather, wool, and down may appear eco-friendly, but environmentalists and animal-lovers would argue differently. Raising animals for these materials requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms generate 130 times the amount of excrement as the entire human population; the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways. Enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—is another serious environmental problem as it is a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane, in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.
The process used to tan leather has long been noxious and polluting. Toxins from tanneries include mineral salts, such as aluminum, iron, and zirconium, as well as formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives. Certain oils and dyes used in the tanning process are cyanide-based. Similar to the rest of the world, more than 95 percent of American-made leather is chrome-tanned. The production of chrome-tanned leather contributes waste to the environment, including chromium, which is classified as a hazardous material by the EPA. Chromium released from tanneries can contaminate drinking water and is dangerous to ecosystems as well as humans. Tanneries also produce other pollutants, including protein, salt, hair, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids.
Many individuals and organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), take issue with how wool-, down-, and leather-producing sheep are treated—even those subject to a pesticide-free, environmentally sound production process. While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that feathers and down are removed from geese and ducks after they are killed for meat, reports of live-plucking of these birds persist. Sheep ranchers perform mulesing to prevent maggot infestations, a process that involves physical restraint and removal of chunks of flesh from the area around the tail without painkillers.
Whether you’re lingering at your kitchen table in comfortable dining chairs or sitting in front of the TV in your favorite reclining, beer-holding seat, your chair requires some form of cushioning to make it easy on the backside. Foam—a form of polyurethane (part of the urethane family of chemicals)—can contain many toxins, including (but not limited to) VOCs, formaldehyde, and benzene.
The construction of approximately 2 pounds of polyurethane rigid foam requires nearly 800 pounds of water, 1.5 pounds of crude oil, and 0.9 pounds coal, plus produces waste consisting of 9 pounds of carbon dioxide as well as other solid and liquid waste by-products.
Many furniture companies are starting to substitute more natural materials for foam, including natural latex, wool, feathers, or other materials made from recycled products such as water bottles.
Wood furniture that comes with some type of environmental certification can help ensure it was harvested sustainably, however not all certifying bodies are equal. FSC is the only international accrediting body that guarantees that wood has been sustainably harvested according to various environmental, social, and economic criteria. There are several other labels used to certify wood that are not nearly as rigorous. For instance, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) was found to have significant shortcomings when compared to FSC.
Reclaimed or recycled wood, salvaged from old buildings or construction projects, can be an environmentally responsible choice, but the labeling of products made from these types of woods can be misleading. For instance, reclaimed wood taken from a lake or river without sufficient care can cause significant ecosystem damage, and therefore should be avoided. Truly sustainable reclaimed or recycled wood will include a label indicating the source and extraction methods used to obtain it.
Related health issues
Indoor air pollution can be more than 100 times more toxic than outdoor air due to materials and products (building materials, paint, carpets, upholstery fabrics, office equipment, cleaners, detergents, pesticides, and so on) that release unhealthy gases (known as off-gassing). One common substance found in particleboard, fabrics, and chair fillings is formaldehyde (sometimes also used as a binder in engineered wood). Other unhealthy chemicals found in some chairs include lead, mercury, benzene, cadmium, trichloroethylene, and styrene.
Reclaimed or salvaged wood is often treated with various chemicals to protect against rotting from insects and microbial agents. These chemicals include chromated copper arsenic (CCA) or ammoniacal copper arsenate (ACA), which contain toxic arsenic and chromium and are considered hazardous wastes by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A better option is reclaimed or salvaged wood treated with ammonium/copper/quaternary ammonia (ACQ), which is free of these hazardous substances and has been registered for use on lumber, timbers, landscape ties, fence posts, and other wood structures.
Foam and other chair fillings are commonly treated with fire-retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which have been linked to brain and reproductive system disorders. A healthier filler is wool, which is naturally fire resistant.
Phthalates, a chemical applied as a softening agent to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics in furniture cushions (among many other products), has been found to be an endocrine disruptor, causing testicular injury and developmental abnormalities. Polyurethane foam, too is a concern, since most have been treated with flam retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These chems have been linked to brain and reproductive system disorders.
- benzene: A flammable solvent used to make many household products, including detergents, nylon, paint, furniture wax, lacquer, resins, and oil (although its use in many other household products was banned in 1978). It is poisonous when ingested.
- cadmium: Used in pigments, fabric dyes, plastics, and metal coatings, cadmium can harm kidneys, lungs, and digestive tracts.
- formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
- methane: A greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere from both natural and man-made sources, including landfills, agricultural activities, wastewater treatment, and coal mining. Once introduced into the atmosphere, methane can exist for 9 to 15 years. It’s more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere (global warming) than fellow greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
- lead: Often found in old paints, lead soldered pipes, and PVC, lead can damage reproductive, nervous, and kidney systems and is a suspected carcinogen.
- mercury: Sometimes found in fabric dyes, mercury can accumulate in tissue and may cause brain and kidney damage, especially in children.
- old growth forest: Also known as virgin forest, ancient forest, or primary forest, this is an area of forest that has attained great age, containing a variety of vertical layers of vegetation, including large live trees. These forests may also be home to many rare species that are dependent on these ecologically unique old growth features.
- styrene: Sometimes found in rubber, plastic, and insulation, it can affect the nervous system and may be a carcinogen.
- trichloroethylene: An ingredient in adhesives and also used as a solvent, trichloroethylene can cause problems in human livers, lungs, hearts, and nervous systems.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
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- Smartwood Program
- Scientific Certification Systems
- SGS Systems and Services Certification Inc.
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- US Environmental Protection Agency - Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA)
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