Your Practical Guide to Sustainable Sofa Buying and Ownership

Mads Løntoft
 by Mads Løntoft
2022-02-11
Your Practical Guide to Sustainable Sofa Buying and Ownership

The environmental footprint of furniture is significant. The production of furniture, from the use of materials, the manufacturing, transportation, and ultimately disposal of the furniture creates a large amount of waste and pollution.

Data from the US Environmental Protection Agency documents that more than 12 million tons of waste were generated from furniture and furnishings in 2018. More than 80% of that waste ends up in landfills instead of being recycled or reused.

For the past decades, there has been a growing trend of fast furniture, which, like its cousin, fast fashion is highly unsustainable. Fortunately, trends are moving in the other direction towards more sustainable furniture buying and ownership, and this is something we hope to support at Interiorbeat. If not exactly “slow furniture”, then at least much more sustainable furniture, which is better for both your wallet (less needless spending) and our planet (reduced environmental footprint).

We have created this guide to make buying furniture in a more sustainable way easier. Our focus here will be mainly on the environmental impact. Other factors like economic and social sustainability are considerations that we will consider in future editions.

Key Points to Consider Before You Buy Your Next Sofa

We want this to be an excellent guide for practical and actionable things you can consider when buying your next piece of furniture. The short version is summarized below and elaborated afterward.

Practical guide to sustainable sofa buying and ownership by Interiorbeat

So let’s deep dive into each of the points mentioned in our illustrated guide.

Choose the Right Sofa the First Time

It is obvious but often overlooked. The easy access to furniture and interior products makes it much more likely that you will be buying something spontaneously. However, if you buy something like a sofa that you don’t really need or like (and therefore have to get rid of to buy another one) there are no amount of other things that can be done to make up for that. So the first key thing is really to choose the right sofa the first time.

There are many great guides out there on how to choose the best sofa in terms of style and other preferences, so we will not do any of that here but stick with the focus on sustainability. Also, the whole idea of choosing the exact right piece of furniture is at the heart of what we want to achieve in time with Interiorbeat - that is to make it the best tool for you when deciding on your next piece of furniture. Check out more about our mission here if interested.

Determine If the Sofa Can Be Tried and Returned

Okay, so choosing the right sofa is key. But what if, after all, you end up buying one that is not the right one for you? Well, that can happen, and in such cases, it is incredibly useful (and sustainable) to be able to return the sofa to the retailer, to allow them to sell it to someone else, and you to go on and buy the actual right sofa for you.

Many retailers do offer the option of trying the sofa for a period of time and then being able to return it. Typically this has to be within 30-100 days, so look after retailers who offer this service.

Go for Durability (and Repairability)

Choosing a sofa with a longer lifespan is one of the best things you can do to the environment as it makes it less likely that your sofa will end up in a landfill prematurely. A sofa that is well-made will last longer, meaning you won’t have to replace it as often and there will be less waste. When looking for durability, try to find sofas that have frames made from solid materials such as wood or metal.

Another thing to consider is how the sofa is put together. Sofa frames that are partly glued together rather than screwed or nailed are likely to fall apart faster. So, when shopping for sustainable sofas, be sure to consider how it’s made and the quality of the materials. An added benefit of choosing sofas that are screwed or nailed together is that they will often be much easier to repair if needed. Also, when eventually you may have to dispose of the sofa, it will be easier for you or someone else to decompose it into its separate materials which will greatly enhance the odds of recycling at least a portion of the materials used.

Next, we will have a much closer look at what to consider in terms of materials and their environmental sustainability.

Use Certifications As a Helpful Reference

There is no single certification to look for when wanting to buy sustainable furniture. According to Ecolabel Index, there are at least 35 eco labels related to furniture.

However, some of the most useful to look for are the following:

The Greenguard Certification can be awarded to products that are proven to meet some of the world’s most rigorous third-party chemical emissions standards. This certification is important because it assures customers that the product they are purchasing does not contain harmful chemicals that could affect their health. According to the EPA, levels of indoor air pollution can be two to a thousand times higher than outdoors. This is because most of our exposure to chemicals comes from the products we use indoors, such as building materials, furniture, cleaning products, and personal care products. These chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and they can cause a variety of health problems.

The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global, not-for-profit organization that sets standards for responsible forest management. They work with forest owners and managers to ensure that forests are managed sustainably so that the environment, the economy, and the communities that depend on them can all thrive. The FSC has a number of standards for responsible forest management, which include: protecting biodiversity, preventing deforestation, promoting social and economic benefits for local communities, and minimizing environmental impacts.

The Blue Angel Certificate is the oldest worldwide environmental label. Although from Germany, it is also useful in the US as an important certification to look for when buying sustainable furniture. The certificate is awarded to products that meet strict environmental criteria, and it’s one of the most trusted certifications. When looking for furniture with the Blue Angel Certificate, you can be sure that the furniture has been made using environmentally friendly materials and that it has a low environmental impact.

The Certipur-US is the last certification that we will highlight here, which is focused on foam. Given the common use of foam in sofas, this certification is particularly relevant to evaluate the environmental sustainability of sofas.

More on certifications

If you want to dive deeper and get to know even more certifications that are relevant for furniture, make sure to check out our detailed guide on furniture certifications and eco-labels.

Although certifications are generally valid and therefore very helpful, it is always worth keeping a critical eye on the certification. There are accounts of greenwashing where furniture manufacturers and retailers may use a certification that is not externally audited and therefore possibly questionable. This is exactly why you should focus on the most established and well-known ones (like the examples we mention in this guide) to ensure that they are credible and fulfil the purpose of guiding you towards a more sustainable purchasing decision.

Look for Environmentally Friendly Materials

Materials make up a large part of the total environmental footprint of any piece of furniture. We showed this with an elaborate example when sharing the background for our Furniture Footprint Calculator. It is, therefore, worth paying special attention to what materials are used for your next sofa (and if possible how they are sourced).

The environmental footprint of materials varies greatly. In our work with the Furniture Footprint Calculator, we collected data on more than 180 different materials that are used as inputs in the calculator.

To give you an idea of how much the footprint can vary across popular materials for sofa upholstery (i.e. the cover used) let’s have a look at the following comparison of five typical materials used and their environmental footprint measured as CO2-equivalents:

article-co2.webp

One thing that stands out is that maybe that leather sofa you are considering is not exactly the ideal choice if you want to optimize for environmental sustainability. The footprint is measured per kilo of that material, so of course, it also matters how much of each material is actually used for a correct comparison. Another factor is again durability. If you believe it will be easier for you to clean and maintain a leather sofa, and therefore will be able to keep it longer then it will of course even out some of the difference.

Expert tip regarding wooden furniture

Apart from looking for wooden furniture that is marked with e.g. the FSC certification or PEFC certification, it is useful to know that some wood species are actually considered endangered and therefore illegal.

The most prominent agreement to counter trade in endangered species is called CITES. Under this convention species are divided into three appendices:

Appendix 1:

Species that are threatened with extinction. Trade is permitted in very few cases.

Appendix 2:

Species are not necessarily threatened with extinction but trade is managed to reduce the pressure.

Appendix 3:

Includes species in which at least one country has requested assistance in controlling the trade.

If you want to check what appendix is assigned to a specific species, you can follow this approach:

  1. Go to https://www.speciesplus.net/

  2. Search for the species you want to check (you can write the normal or scientific name)

  3. Under “LEGAL” you will see the assigned appendix. In the example below we searched for American Mahogany and you can see that the CITES listing is 2 (i.e. appendix 2).

species-e.png

A few more points to consider regarding the materials for your next sofa:

  1. If possible, go for locally-sourced materials. This is great for reducing the need for transporting the materials, which is a win for the environment.

  2. Recycled materials offer a way of using what would otherwise be in a landfill while at the same time reducing the need for using more natural resources.

  3. Go for non-toxic lacquers. The strong smell that is often associated with new cars, furniture, and other items is due to the use of certain chemicals during manufacturing. These chemicals, such as solvent-based lacquers, emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that can be harmful to your health. An alternative to using these chemicals is to use water-based lacquers, which are less harmful and more environmentally friendly.

Reduce Shipping When Able

You are probably well aware that transportation and shipping are significant contributors to the overall environmental footprint of any goods you buy. This is obviously also true for a sofa, and is, therefore, a key aspect to take into consideration.

Frankly, the most impactful thing you can do is to reduce the shipping distance required to get your sofa from where it is manufactured to your home. The key to this is generally to buy as locally as possible. As a rule of thumb the closer the better. So buying domestically, even if it requires some transportation within the US, is generally far better than buying products that are manufactured abroad and, therefore, must be shipped to a US warehouse and from there to you.

Of course, this requires that you know where your sofa is manufactured, but this is typically information that will be provided by the retailer.

The way your sofa is transported is also of importance, but can be a bit trickier to figure out without some further research. As a general guide air transportation is the most polluting per mile, followed by road and again followed by sea transportation. In the table below we summarize the three modes of transportation and their environmental footprint measured in kg of CO2-equivalents per 100 miles of transportation:

del.webp
Expert tip on understanding the footprint of furniture transportation

If you want to dive some steps deeper you may want to have a look at the cool emissions calculator at Eco Transit. It requires a bit of tweaking and understanding the inputs needed, but is a very advanced calculator that you play around with for free to see the potential differences when changing distances and modes of transportation.

emission-calculator.webp

The Best Disposal Is To Recycle

Even if you do your best to follow the suggestions laid out in this guide like making sure to actually choose the right sofa in the first place and go for a durable design, there may still come a time when you need to dispose of your sofa.

In that case, you can still take action to reduce the environmental footprint of your sofa. As we mentioned in the introduction the amount of waste from furniture that ends in landfills is staggering. You want to do what you can to avoid contributing to this and the answer more than anything is to recycle!

By choosing a sofa made with recyclable materials you can decrease the odds that your sofa ends up as a useless fill in a landfill. Recyclable materials are materials that can be reused or reprocessed into new products. Recycling is the process of converting these materials into new products. There are a lot of benefits to recycling: it saves energy, reduces pollution, and conserves resources. A part of the solution is also to go for sofas that are relatively easy to disassemble so that the materials can be split into the right types and thereby be recycled more efficiently.

If your sofa is still functional enough that it can be used a golden way to recycle is of course to either give it away or sell it second-hand. On this note consider donating to one of the many amazing organizations out there like Habitat or The Furniture Bank Network, who will even refurbish the furniture to make it fully functional for its new owners.

Mads Løntoft
by Mads Løntoft
Mads has been actively involved with entrepreneurship for the past 15 years. This has been in various roles including as founder, advisor, and investor. Since 2016 Mads has been teaching entrepreneurial courses as Copenhagen Business School. To Mads, Interiorbeat is the perfect combination of striving for positive impact in society with business opportunity.
Interiorbeat