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

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Congratulations! You finally won the lottery, and now you have a few thousand dollars to redecorate your living room. Of course you're going to be looking for comfortable and good-looking furniture, but you have another criterion as well. You want your new piece of furniture to be sustainably made and good for the environment. So what should you buy?

While green products are all the rage right now, the furniture industry lags behind. After all, the industry's success is based on folks wanting to redecorate every few years. Until recently, there was no way to really know how sustainable your furniture was, or what sustainability might mean in relation to furniture. Enter the Sustainable Furniture Council (SFC). Formed in 2006, the SFC is working to promote environmentally responsible practices in the furniture industry in the United States. It's also developing an identification label that will help customers find furniture that meets earth-friendly guidelines.

And what might those guidelines entail? The SFC uses a Life Cycle Analysis to measure a product's environmental impact. You may think of a life cycle as the time from the cradle to the grave, but the SFC and its members will be trying to get us to think about how a product can go from cradle to cradle. If a product starts life as a raw material, how can it then serve as a raw material for another product? And what did it do in between those times -- was it shipped around the world, or did it remain local? Did it spend its time emitting harmful chemicals and ruining indoor air quality? Did its maker produce a ton of waste in creating it? These are the types of issues to consider when furniture shopping.

Of course, one of your best bets for earth-friendly furniture is buying secondhand, particularly investing in antiques. This recycled furniture doesn't require any additional environmental impact. Also, when you buy an antique that is more than 50 years old, it lacks the toxic chemicals and substances that some furniture can emit [source: Bartolucci].

But for the sake of this article, let's say you want new furniture. You've been window shopping, and you've narrowed down your options. For that corner by the window, you're either going to go with a mass-produced chair or a handcrafted chair. What is the life cycle of each? Which should you buy? Turn the page to find out.

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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.

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Sources

  • Augstums, Ieva M. "Earth-friendly furniture gains fans in green movement." Chicago Sun-Times. April 27, 2008. (June 23, 2008)http://searchchicago.suntimes.com/homes/915644,cover27.article
  • Bartolucci, Marisa. "Fate-of-the-Earth Furniture." New York Times. Oct. 10, 1993. (June 23, 2008)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE4DC173CF933A25753C1A965958260&scp=54&sq=sustainable+furniture&st=nyt
  • Green, Penelope. "Biodegradable Home Product Lines, Ready to Rot." New York Times. May 8, 2008. (June 23, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/garden/08biodegrade.html?scp=3&sq=sustainable+furniture&st=nyt
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