With growing awareness about the chemicals present in clothing and the poor working conditions of many textile manufacturers around the world, it makes sense to demand to know more about how our clothes are made.

 But what about the textiles that we don’t wear: the upholstery on our office chairs, the curtains on our windows or the fabric covering our cushions?

The same concerns that apply to clothing textiles also apply to the fabrics we don’t wear. Like any other manufactured product, textiles can have negative impacts on the environment and human health during their production or use. These impacts occur across the board, from pesticides used on raw materials or poor working conditions for employees, to hazardous materials remaining in the finished product.

Azo dyes, for example, have been in the news recently. Big-name brands such as Just Jeans, Myer and Target have issued recalls on jeans and bedding products due to the dyes they contained. The dyes and pigments are commonly used in a range of coloured textiles and leather products thanks to their vivid colours and ease of use. Unfortunately, these dyes can break down into potentially carcinogenic byproducts (aromatic amines), posing a threat to human health. Certain azo dyes have been banned in Europe as a result and are classed as a ‘dangerous poison’ in Australia.

It’s not just dyes that consumers need to watch out for. Heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, or lead can be used in the textiles manufacturing process and may linger on in the final product. This is particularly concerning in the case of textile products for infants and children. Other hazardous compounds (such as formaldehyde) may also be present, and can trigger allergies or hormone disruption depending on the substance. And, of course, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can threaten indoor air quality and are responsible for a range of health concerns.

Producing soft furnishings and other textile products can also be harmful to the environment. The use of pesticides on cotton crops, or when used on sheep for their wool, can contaminate local water supplies and be harmful to workers. Discharge of waste water from a production site may cause damage to local ecosystems and should be restricted, particularly where there are known aquatic toxins involved. Emissions to air of substances such as acrylonitrile, nitrous oxide and sulphur compounds are also of concern, since they can affect air quality in the surrounding environment.

The sustainable harvest of wood is another environmental concern for the textile industry. Wood fibres are used in the production of man-made cellulose fibres such as viscose. As with any other activities that involve the harvest of wood, it’s important that the materials are sourced sustainably. Illegally harvested wood can cause ecosystem damage and is harmful to local communities. Any wood sourced should ideally be certified by a reputable scheme such as the Forest Stewardship Council and/or comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, for example.

Let’s also not forget the people who actually make our curtains and chair covers. Safe and ethical working conditions for textile workers are vital. There’s a heightened awareness amongst consumers regarding the poor working conditions for textile producers around the world, particularly in light of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. The International Labour Organisation, an agency run by the United Nations, has a number of conventions and standards that aim to improve the working conditions of employees around the world, including those in the textile industry. For example, some conventions cover the right to form unions and demand fair pay, the elimination of forced labour and discrimination in the workplace, or ensuring safe working conditions.

It can be tough to know whether soft furnishings have been produced with minimal environmental and social impact in mind, and consumer demand is much louder for clothing products than any other textiles. Look for evidence of third-party certification of any products or ask for clear evidence that the product’s supply chain takes into account environmental and social considerations.