Why Sustainable Furniture Matters

Friday, July 18th, 2014
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How old is your living room? Is it looking a little dated and in need of a fresh, modern makeover? The availability of cheap furniture means it’s easy to continually update, refresh and renovate interior spaces.

On the other hand, we’re being urged to live more sustainably and go the extra mile to have a lower environmental and social impact, and a recent Nielsen report suggests that this more environmentally-conscious mentality is winning out.

The dazzling array of design blogs and home makeover TV shows only reinforce the idea of interior design as a form of consumption: out with the old, and in with the new, to stay on-trend and up to date.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that this attitude toward furniture would mean that we are becoming far less likely to pass on quality heirloom pieces to future generations. Instead, our cheap disposable sideboards and lounges will just go straight into landfill.

The idea that furniture should be fashionable is more prevalent, but does that mean we’re indulging in lots of cheap and easily-replaceable buys? A recent Nielsen report, titled Doing Well by Doing Good, suggests the opposite.

In an online survey of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries, an average of 55 per cent of respondents claimed they would be willing to pay extra for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. Millenials (aged 21 to 34) are leading the way, being the most likely of all groups to pay extra for sustainable products and check packaging to ensure the products has a positive social and environmental impact.

It may seem odd that the generation who are most likely to pay extra for sustainable products are also the most likely to be only just starting out with their furniture purchasing, and so might prefer to go for the cheapest possible option. Cheap furniture doesn’t necessarily mean buying brand new or unsustainably, however. Sourcing second-hand furniture through garage sales, council clean ups or online is one of the easiest ways to recycle and reuse furniture items while filling a new home on a budget.

Meanwhile, those shopping for new sustainable furniture pieces need to take into account the full life cycle of the product, from where the materials were sourced to disposal methods when it reaches the end of its life.

Environmental and social impacts should be considered right from the design phase of the piece, such as by procuring timber from sustainably-managed sources, and fabric that has been ethically made. When the product reaches the end of its life, it should be easily broken down into recyclable components, and manufacturers should ensure that replacement parts (such as for replacing worn-out hinges) are readily available.

Furniture shouldn’t be harmful to our health. Substances used in manufacturing can have a range of potential adverse health effects when people are exposed to them in the final product.

For example, the compound 1,3-butadiene – which may be used in the production of latex, foam or plastics – has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Cancer. Additionally, there are volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions to consider, which can contribute to poor indoor air quality, and products should not contain any heavy metals such as lead or arsenic.

When shopping for new furniture, it helps to know what to look for to ensure you’re buying a sustainable product. According to the Nielsen survey, 63 per cent of Asia-Pacific respondents check a product’s packaging to ensure a brand is committed to positive social and environmental impact. Evidence of third-party certification is the best way to check the sustainability credentials of a product.

Consider how, when, and where a product was made if no certification is available, and choose durable furniture that will last and is easily recyclable. It’s time to fill our homes and offices with quality, environmentally-preferable pieces and make cheap, disposable furniture a thing of the past.

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