Consumers have become increasingly aware of the impact their purchases have on the environment and their own health, especially here in Marin County. Organic food sales have more than doubled in the last 10 years, the beauty industry has focused on detoxifying and demand for vehicles that don’t rely on fossil fuels has turned Elon Musk into the richest man in the world. And yet, if you’ve tried to purchase a couch, table, or — the whammy of all stress-inducing home purchases — a mattress, you know being eco-conscious is not so straightforward. In fact, the EPA reports that 9.7 million tons of furniture ended up in landfill in the U.S. in 2018, a 33 percent increase since 2000.
But fear not: there is a growing movement to improve the safety and responsibility of the home design industry as well as bring better products to consumers and reuse as much as possible.
Lose the Chemicals
Love that new furniture smell? Time to rethink that. Turns out, that’s off-gassing, which happens when a product releases chemicals in the air. When you install high-toxicity furniture with common VOCs (volatile organic compounds) like formaldehyde and flame retardants, you’re trapping chemicals indoors and huffing toxins that have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption (reproduction, immunity problems) and cancer.
Organizations like UL are trying to simplify the search process for consumers with SPOT, an online product database that tells you if that item on your wish list earns UL’s GREENGUARD seal, which certifies a product is low in toxicity. Marin’s own RH has a number of products that are GREENGUARD certified, including nursery furniture collections from RH Baby & Child. Some furniture brands are even designed with recycling in mind, like Steelcase and Herman Miller. Cradle to Cradle Certified products, which include brands like Herman Miller, factor in the full cycle of a product — what materials were used, how they were sourced and how the materials can be recycled or renewed.
Buy natural materials whenever possible — pure latex, organic cotton or wool mattresses, and solid wood furniture. Avoid those that contain particleboard, PVC and flame retardants. Yet, even when the materials are ideal, pay attention to the construction of the item. Glue is a big off-gassing culprit.
Look for products made with certified sustainable wood, which means the wood was harvested in a sustainable way. The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) stamp of approval is a great one to look for. Also, reclaimed materials breathe new life into items that once would have faced the landfill, such as wood from old houses made into tables or pouf stuffing made from plastic water bottles. Some lines of reclaimed furniture are even popping up at retailers like Crate & Barrel and West Elm.
Buy Fewer, Better
Invest in high-quality items. Just as with the move away from fast fashion, people are starting to look down on fast furniture, which pollutes the environment and ultimately ends up in a landfill. If you seek out quality items that are built to last, they’ll have a purpose for decades to come. And if your style evolves, you can enlist a refurbishment company like Revitaliste to modernize your piece. Or try a resale store, a charity organization or a Buy Nothing Project group.
Bay Area interior designer Katie Storey of Storey Design is leading a movement to eliminate construction and design waste at scale. In just one year, 120 product makers and design service providers have joined the Good Future Design Alliance (GFDA), with a commitment to reduce waste by 50 percent in five years. The organization provides its trade members with a toolkit to reduce, reuse and recycle.
“Five hundred million tons of construction materials go to the landfill every year in the U.S. That’s like 500 Golden Gate Bridges,” Storey explains. “We want to help our industry do their jobs with less waste and protect the planet.” Consumers can source local product makers and designers on the GFDA website and visit GFDA Marketplace, a designer consignment boutique in the San Francisco Design Center.
Donating is the best way to give your items a new life, especially if they are in good shape but no longer suit your style. After 20 years working in the interior design industry, Carolyn Flannery was fed up with waste. “When I ordered three tables for a client and they arrived with a small scratch, the manufacturer told me to throw them away. It was cheaper for them to send new ones than to take them back.”
She launched Make It Home as a way to eliminate that waste and provide “pride of place” furnishings for the people who need it most. She works directly with county services and other charitable organizations to furnish residences for people transitioning out of homelessness, young adults leaving the foster system and other at-risk populations. Flannery is accepting lightly used furniture, bedding and kitchen supplies from individuals, retailers, manufacturers and hotels. The demand is far greater than the supply, and she is actively seeking donations and volunteers.
Labels to Love
FSC, the Forest Stewardship Council, offers the world’s most trusted forest certification and helps consumers and companies identify and purchase products from responsibly managed forests.
Cradle to Cradle Certified offers a science-based standard for safe and responsible materials and products that support a “circular economy.”
Products that have achieved GREENGUARD certification are scientifically proven to meet some of the world’s most rigorous third-party chemical emissions standards, helping to reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure.