GreenYour Office furnishings
Choose eco-friendly office chairs
That seemingly innocuous perch in front of your PC is just one of about 16.5 million chairs bought by American companies each year. That's a lot of steel, wood, upholstery fabric, and other materials that have to be processed, finished, and too often, not recycled.
Since office workers spend almost as much time in their chairs as they do in bed, choosing the right chair is not only a matter of planetary health, it's also a matter of employee well-being, too. Studies have shown that employees in healthier work environments are more productive than their less-healthy counterparts.
What to look for when buying an eco-friendly office chair
When checking out your office furniture options, be sure to look for these green attributes, as well as a green seal of approval.
- Easy disassembly and replacement options: If one part of the chair breaks, you can easily replace the broken piece and won't have to send the whole thing to the dump.
- Third-party certification for indoor air quality: Office chairs can offgas toxic chemicals and make the air in your office unsafe. Chairs certified by GREENGUARD or other certifiers are guaranteed not to pollute the air around you.
- Recycled plastic or steel, FSC-certified wood, and/or remanufactured or refurbished materials: All of these materials protect the environment by not requiring virgin materials or encouraging irresponsible logging. They also cut out the harmful manufacturing processes required to make new office furniture from virgin materials.
- Upholstery that uses nontoxic dyes or organic materials: Dyes and bleaches used on furniture fabrics can contaminate water supplies with caustic chemicals. They also contribute to poor indoor air quality.
- Low- or no-VOC stains, paints, glues, adhesives, and finishes: These won't contaminate air quality and do not contaminate the environment with toxic chemicals during manufacturing.
Find it! Eco-friendly office chairs
The Zody task chair is made of 50 percent recycled materials, is 98 percent recyclable, contains easily replaceable parts, and is assembled using energy that is offset with green-e certified wind energy certificates. It is certified as a Cradle to Cradle™ Gold product by MBDC, and is GREENGUARD certified.
This durable work chair is made of 33 percent recycled materials. Celle is Gold Cradle-to-Cradle and GREENGUARD certified, and can contribute to LEED credits in the office. All parts are replaceable and the chair can be disassembled in under five minutes for easy recycling.
HMU remanufactures Herman Miller office furnishings: the company acquires furniture that is no longer needed, disassembles the pieces, and uses the parts to build new, usable furniture finished with eco-friendlier powder-coat paint. This redirects Herman Miller's already eco-friendly office furniture from the landfill back to the field.
Izzy's Zachary chair is GREENGUARD certified, contains easily interchangeable parts, and can be upholstered in Momentum Textiles recycled fabrics. Izzy products use water-based adhesives and finishes, VOC-free powder-coat paint, recycled steel, FSC-certified wood, and recycled packaging.
The GREENGUARD-certified Life office chair is made from 52 to 62 percent recycled materials (depending on whether you opt for the plastic or the aluminum base model) and is 70 to 80 percent recyclable. The chairs are manufactured in a LEED Gold Certified building, where energy use is offset with electricity generated by wind power.
GREENGUARD and Indoor Advantage Gold certified, National's Fuel office chair is made of 25 percent recycled steel, 100 percent recycled polyester upholstery, and low-emitting plywood. The chair is powder-coat finished and uses water-based adhesives.
The Think chair was developed through a joint effort between Steelcase and MBDC's Cradle to Cradle Product Certification specialists, ensuring that all materials used in the chair are safe for the environment and for human health, and that the manufacture of the chair uses energy and water responsibly.
Choosing an eco-friendly office chair helps you go green because...
- Office chairs made from recycled steel, plastic, and wood, as well as upholstery made from plastic soda bottles and other recycled materials, eliminate the need to harvest virgin resources from the earth (which protects wild spaces), use existing products that would otherwise go to the landfill, and require less energy in their remanufacture than new products.
- Chairs that use low-VOC and nontoxic paints, stains, glues, adhesives, treatments, finishes, and dyes will not contribute to smog during their manufacture, and when in use will not offgas toxins that may affect employee health.
- Office chairs made of FSC-certified wood protect trees by ensuring that the wood used is from sustainably-managed forests.
- Chairs with easy-to-disassemble, recyclable parts keep waste out of overcrowded landfills.
Office chairs are often constructed poorly, requiring unsustainably-harvested resources and resulting in short lives and lots of waste. Eco-friendly office chairs on the other hand use materials wisely, reduce waste, and make indoor and outdoor air quality easier to breath.
Recycled materials conserve resources
No matter what your office chair is made of, recycled materials are better for the environment than virgin materials. Recycled materials save energy: recycling plastics can reduce energy consumption by 70 percent. Recycled materials also save energy because the steps required to supply recycled materials to industry (including collection, processing, and transportation) use less energy than the steps required to supply virgin materials to industry (including extraction, transportation, and processing). Recycled materials also reduce pollution because no new items need to be dyed and treated with chemicals.
The manufacture of recycled products releases fewer emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases: recycling programs are estimated to have kept the equivalent of 39 million cars' worth of carbon out of the atmosphere in 2005. Recycled products also eliminate the need to harvest virgin trees from the world’s forests, protecting watersheds, as well as habitat for wildlife and understory plants, and prevent new land from being cultivated for textile fibers, such as cotton or wool.
Sustainable resources protect forests and land
Many office chairs are made from hardwood trees taken from poorly managed forests. Trees are important to earth's ecosystem and must be protected. They filter the air, stabilize the climate by absorbing CO2, and provide habitat for 90 percent of all land-dwelling plants and animals. It's estimated that an acre of trees can grow 4,000 pounds of wood per year while consuming 5,800 pounds of carbon dioxide and producing 4,280 pounds of oxygen.
Eco-friendly office chair manufacturers use reclaimed or, or wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). A leading office furniture manufacturer, Knoll, for example, has used reclaimed red birch logs recovered from Midwestern rivers and lakes. Salvaging 1 million board feet of reusable lumber from an old warehouse can offset the need to harvest 1,000 acres of forest.
Quality means less waste and easier recycling
Recycling your office chair at the end of its life prevents wood, cotton, and foam waste from going to the landfill, where its decomposition produces greenhouse gases and may release other toxic chemicals. More than 8 million office chairs find their way to US landfills each year.
Nontoxic finishes and adhesives protect indoor air quality
Poor IAQ, which can cause severe health problems, is in part caused by emissions from indoor furnishings. VOCs result from paint, adhesives and caulking, finishes, dyes, and more, while formaldehyde is applied to wood and particleboard.
The manufacturing of office chairs also emits VOCs, which creates smog, from the glues, stains, and finishes used. Eco-friendly manufacturers use VOC-free powder-based finishing coats. These finishes use less energy and decrease waste: only 60 percent of wet-spray paint actually stays on the product, but 95 percent of powder-based finishes remain there.
Several independent organizations certify office furnishings that meet environmental criteria:
- Cradle to Cradle: This certification program by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) tests and certifies products to ensure that they employ environmentally safe and healthy materials; are designed for recycling or composting; use renewable energy; use energy and water efficiently in production; and are manufactured with an eye toward social responsibility. They certify office flooring and floor coverings, fabrics and fabric treatments used in office furniture, as well as office seating, desks and tables, storage and filing, and workstations.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): A nonprofit organization that independently certifies that the wood used in office furniture and other products comes from forests that are sustainably managed in the areas of social, economic, and ecological impact.
- GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI): Tests and certifies office furnishings and other products for low chemical and particle emissions, ensuring that they are safe and will not pollute indoor air. Certification programs are available for desks, tables, seating, dividers, flooring, and more.
- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors (LEED CI): While LEED does not certify furniture products, buying eco-friendly office furniture can help you achieve LEED certification as a green office. LEED is a point-based rating system devised by the United States Green Buildings Council (USGBC) in 2000. You can get credits toward certification, for example, by using 30 percent salvaged, refinished, or used furniture, 10 to 20 percent recycled content furniture, or certified wood and rapidly renewable materials in furniture. Individual manufacturers can give you the specifics on which credits can be available from purchasing their products.
- Indoor Advantage Gold: Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certifies products that do not emit more than one-half the threshold for individual VOCs established by the Chronic Reference Exposure Levels (CRELs). The CRELs, established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), establish safe limits for the emissions of 80 toxic chemicals from furniture and other indoor sources.
- ISO 14001: The International Organization for Standardization takes a holistic approach in helping businesses develop responsible environmental management policies. ISO certifies companies, facilities, and products and that meet its 350 International Standards for impact on air, water, and soil.
Related health issues
The EPA cites indoor air pollution as one of the top five public health threats in America. In a recent study, the Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that 40 percent of all office sick days are related to poor indoor air quality (IAQ). Their findings suggest that improved IAQ could increase productivity and reduce the occurrence of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) by 20 to 50 percent, with potential savings between $10 and $100 billion nationwide annually.
SBS, also known as Tight Building Syndrome (TBS), Building-Related Illness (BRI), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), occur when a building’s occupants exhibit symptoms such as dry, irritated eyes, nose, throat, and skin; fatigue; asthma, shortness of breath, coughing, and sneezing; dizziness and nausea; as well as headaches, migraines, and sinus problems.
- 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.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Gases released by a wide variety of products, including cleaning products, furniture, and dry-cleaned clothing. Paint and coatings alone account for 9 percent of all VOCs emitted from consumer and commercial products in the US, according to the EPA. VOCs can cause several health problems, ranging from headaches and respiratory inflammation to central nervous system diseases. VOCs are also considered a possible carcinogen.
- Canada Safety Council - Air Quality at the Office
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety - Indoor Air Quality: What symptoms are often linked to poor indoor air quality?
- Friends Committee on National Legislation - FCNL's Renovated Green Building on Capitol Hill: Take a tour of the eco-friendly office furniture in FCNL's recently greened office space.
- Jetson Green - Zody Chair by Haworth, Inexplicable Green Comfort
- MetrolopisMag.com - Avoiding the Landfill: Afterlife
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - Recycling Saves Energy
- Squidoo - Green Office Chairs
- Waste Online - Textile recycling information sheet
- GreenBiz.com - Greening the Cube: Choosing Eco-Friendly Office Furniture
- The Economist - The Truth About Recycling
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste Basic Facts
- Natural Resources Defense Council - Good Wood: How Forest Certification Helps the Environment
- American Forest and Paper Association - Benefits of Wood Use
- Rainforest Alliance - Smartwood Rediscovered
- Grist - Greening the Cube: Eco-friendly furniture meets the cubicle culture
- Kentucky Division for Air Quality - Indoor Air Quality
- The Green Guide - Air cleaning houseplants
- Environmental Energy Technologies Division - Estimates of Potential Nationwide Productivity and Health Benefits From Better Indoor Environments: An Update