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What's more sustainable, mass-produced or handcrafted furniture?

Sustainable Furniture
Do you know what you're sitting on?
Do you know what you're sitting on?
E. Dygas/Riser/Getty Images

Let's say you've settled on buying either a handcrafted wooden rocking chair from a local craftsman or a plush armchair from a furniture store in the mall with your winnings. How does each fare on sustainability?

To start the life cycle analysis of this furniture, look at the different materials that went into these pieces. It's best if the materials are locally sourced, but there are some other things to look for. If the piece is made of wood, then you'll want to check that the wood was approved by the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies wood that meets environmental guidelines. Any fabrics should be organic materials such as cotton, wool or hemp, and metal should be recycled. Because some furniture finishes are high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that give off harmful air pollutants, look for paints, foams and glues that are certified as low-VOC. Mass-produced pieces are more likely to release VOCs thanks to things like formaldehyde and foam cushions doused with chemical flame retardants; that's strike one for that plush armchair.

The main differences in these pieces are how and where they were made. Work by hand takes less energy than a mass production assembly line, provided that the craftsman works to reduce his waste effectively. A lot of energy also can go into shipping a piece of furniture. Because more mass production is being sourced to Asian countries, that chair might have already racked up quite the carbon footprint in its journey to the mall. Instead, you'll want to look for furniture that is manufactured nearby, using local materials when possible. Unless you have an energy-efficient manufacturing plant down the road, the handcrafted rocking chair from the local craftsman definitely comes out ahead in this round.

And the last step in the life cycle analysis -- how can the piece be used after you're done with it? Can it be recycled into another product, is it biodegradable or will it sit in a landfill? Furniture accounted for more than 18 million pounds (6.2 million kilograms) of waste in 2006, the most of any durable good [source: The Press-Enterprise]. And while organizations such as Earth911 and Freecycle will help your mass-produced chair find a new home, it's more earth-friendly to see your furniture as an heirloom, not a disposable commodity. Handcrafted furniture tends to last longer, so you may be buying less furniture overall than if you purchased a couch that only has a few years of life in it. Another point awarded to the rocking chair.

Ultimately, the rocking chair wins this sustainability contest. It was made locally with renewable wood, and it will far outlast the stuffed armchair. Another advantage you have when buying handcrafted pieces is the ability to talk with the craftsman directly about some of these life cycle issues. It's unlikely that a salesperson in the mall would have the answers, but the SFC certification could eventually help consumers make more informed decisions.

But sustainable furniture doesn't come cheap; there's usually a premium of about 20 to 30 percent over mass-produced furniture [source: Hasek]. Great, you may think -- this lottery money won't last forever, and I won't always have the dough to spend on sustainable handcrafted furniture. A mass-produced couch just may fit my budget better. Well, consumer interest and demand may be one reason why the big guys haven't gone green yet. Until the masses show interest in sustainable furniture, there's no incentive for manufacturers to adjust their practices.

To learn more about sustainability in home design, see the links on the next page.