Opt for used furniture
Opting for a used couch, table, chair, crib, or bedroom set is a great way to reuse existing products, thereby reducing the number of natural resources used and keeping useful items out of landfills. It's also usually more cost-effective compared to buying new.
How to find secondhand furniture
Trends in interior design have made old-style furniture very popular. Here are some ways to find stylish pieces for your whole home:
- Measure first: Measure how much space you have so that you don’t buy something too big. Take a measuring tape when you go shopping.
- Online bargains: Search online for thrifty options through one of the many secondhand furniture services.
- Local, thrifty: Take a trip to secondhand, charity, or consignment shops, as well as auctions, flea markets, garage, yard, and estate sales.
As you search, think quality. Look for pieces that are sturdy and well-made so they will continue to last a long time. But no matter how hard you look, some furniture you find will need a bit of TLC. If you find yourself having to remodel an old piece of furniture, keep these green principles in mind:
- Cushioned pieces such as a couch or a chair often require reupholstering. Make it over with natural fabrics and foam.
- When removing old components, work to recycle the materials whenever possible.
- If a bit of paint or stain is needed to spruce up the old wood, opt for low-toxin finishes to avoid volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Find it! Online used furniture vendors
There are many websites that offer a place for you to buy, sell, or trade furniture. Some, like Freecycle, even allow people to give away used furniture and other items for free in exchange for you taking them away yourself.
Opting for used furniture helps you go green because…
- It reuses existing products, which ultimately saves money and natural resources.
- It reduces pollution associated with making new products.
- It cuts the quantity of bulky stuff entering landfills where it can contaminate soil, air, and water.
There are numerous environmental benefits to choosing used or secondhand furniture. New pieces often contain wood, and unless the wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), it was likely sourced from a forest that is not sustainably managed. Buying used helps to protect forests, wildlife, and waterways. Even FSC-certified furniture requires new materials, such as cotton and foam, whereas a secondhand loveseat or dining room set requires no new resources.
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. 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.
Layered on top of this wood may also be a dangerous cocktail of chemicals used to provide upholstery with stain resistance and fire protection, including formaldehyde, lead, mercury, benzene, cadmium, trichloroethylene, and styrene, all of which may contaminate indoor air. A used find may or may not contain these chemicals, but depending on its age, most of the off-gassing will probably already be done, thereby reducing the risk of exposure to high levels of VOCs.
In addition to being less toxic, secondhand furniture may have the advantage of being better constructed and made with higher quality materials than newly manufactured furniture. Choosing secondhand options also means useful items aren’t taking up space in landfills. In 2003, the US generated nearly 6 million tons of wood waste, including furniture, that went to landfills. And since used furniture is often locally sourced, it cuts down on the amount of transportation needed to get it to its final destination, thus reducing CO2 emissions.
- 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: A substance used in pigments, fabric dyes, plastics, and metal coatings that 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.
- 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 which 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, styrene 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.
- Forest Certification Resource Center: A nonprofit voluntary initiative committed to promoting responsible forest products. The website includes a searchable database of companies who manufacture and sell FSC-certified products. This website also includes a handy table that compares various auditors and creditors.
- Don’t Buy SFI: A campaign spearheaded by groups such as ForestEthics, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace.
- EcoTimber: Maintains a summary of some of the less-stringent certification programs, which, when compared to FSC, fall significantly short.
- ForestEthics: Working to protect forests worldwide.
- Forest Stewardship Council International: The international branch of FSC.
- SmartWood: An approved US FSC auditor.
- The Green Guide - Wood Furniture: The Problems
- Green Home - Formaldehyde
- Pacific Northwest - Definitions: Old-growth Forest
- SF Gate.com - Will your sofa make you sick?
- Treehugger - How to Green Your Furniture
- World Watch - Furniture: Comfort Without Consequences