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Knock on Wood
That dining room table you’re lusting after has a dirty secret: It was once a perch for macaws. Here’s how to have the look you want—and a clear conscience.

Some furnishings at ABC Carpet & Home are made from sustainably harvested woods and salvaged fabrics. This daybed is upholstered with vintage tapestries from Central Asia. 

Furniture craftsman Stephen Staples calls this place “The Big House.” Located behind his shop and showroom in Plainville, Massachusetts, it is a capacious old warehouse, high-ceilinged and filled with derelict lumber salvaged from demolished houses and collapsing barns, or scavenged after windstorms. Other apparent junk is scattered about: hundreds of old windows, a copper washtub long turned green, hinges, doorknobs, old iron windshield frames from a pair of Model-Ts. Staples points to an ancient two-panel wooden door, circa 1750, more than half its yellowish paint flaked off.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks, beaming. It’s maybe the twentieth time he’s applied that term—beautiful—to a slab of worn pine ripped from a century-old barn floor, or a hunk of walnut deadfall from a 1930s hurricane, or a piece of copper scrap that looks like it should be, well, scrapped. To Staples all of this trash is hidden treasure. The old door, he says, “is just calling out to become part of a cabinet.” A slab of salvaged barn floor is “just begging to become a desk.”

Staples is part of a budding industry that aims to provide consumers with more sound alternatives to conventional home furniture made from trees logged unsustainably in tropical rainforests. This “green” furniture includes not only handcrafted salvage but also secondhand pieces, antiques, and an array of new products featuring organic cotton upholstery, frames made from wood certified as having been grown responsibly, and finishes that won’t pollute indoor air.

Crate & Barrel has launched a bedroom furniture collection, which includes this dresser, made from renewable bamboo.

Maggie Wood, a Jamesport, New York–based interior designer and green building consultant, sees environmentally sound furniture as part of a larger lifestyle change that’s on a par with choosing organic produce, Energy Star appliances, and hybrid cars. And yet, she suggests, green furniture is only beginning to gain traction. “I don’t know why it is, but for some reason this has been the last segment of the green building industry to catch on,” she says. “I work with people all the time who want solar energy, energy-efficient windows, and healthier paints for their walls. But people don’t tend to think about their furniture—even when they’re sitting on it.”

 

While it’s easy for consumers to weigh the environmental pros and cons of goods like automobiles and dishwashers, no one seems to have conducted anything approaching a comprehensive study of a furniture industry that, in the United States alone, generates sales of $79 billion—representing uncounted and uncatalogued tons of wood, fabric, foam, steel, and plastic.

Few people realize that much of today’s furniture-grade wood is being cut from rainforests. China, thanks in part to its vast reservoir of cheap labor, has taken over about one-third of the world trade in furniture during just the past eight years, according to a report from Forest Trends, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The report also states that China has become the world’s leading importer of timber from tropical nations, much of it logged in a way that is “exacerbating the problems of deforestation, unsustainable harvest practices [and] illegal logging.” In Indonesia the current rapacious rate of logging could eradicate native forests within 10 years.

Furniture made from salvaged wood always has a story behind it. A unique hutch by Staples Cabinet Makers in Plainville, Massachusetts, is constructed from native New England white pine from a circa 1820 barn, complete with gaps at the top of the doors created by nibbling horses.

“This isn’t just about trees,” says Andy White, the lead author. “Think about what lives in those trees. When you get rid of the trees in forests where orangutans live, you eliminate orangutans. Wiping out these trees wipes out the full set of biodiversity in some of the most diverse forests on earth.”

“Sometimes people are put off that it can cost as much to do something like reupholster an old piece of furniture as to buy a new one. But it can also mean you’ll end up with a higher-quality piece that has what I call good bones—features like hand-tied springs and really well-built fruitwood frames.”

The problem extends far into the Americas as well. Last June the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and two Peruvian indigenous peoples’ groups filed suit against the U.S. government for allowing imports of Peruvian bigleaf mahogany wood. NRDC and its co-plaintiffs contend that about 90 percent of mahogany from Peru is logged illegally and unsustainably, with almost all of the wood ending up in furniture.

A century ago the range of virgin bigleaf mahogany stretched from Mexico to the Amazon basin, but logging has wiped out all but a few remnant pockets. Estimates suggest that, at best, bigleaf mahogany will be virtually extinct in Peru within a decade unless cutting is slowed or stopped. Not only is this long-lived tree on the international list of imperiled species, it’s also a keystone species for biodiversity in the forests where it predominates, says Ari Hershowitz, the director of NRDC’s Latin American BioGems project, providing habitat for at-risk species ranging from macaws to giant otters. “We’re focusing on mahogany in this lawsuit,” he says. “But there’s a bigger picture here. As buyers of products, we’ve all really got a responsibility to assure that the furniture we love isn’t causing destruction of critical habitats.”

 

So what’s a shopper to do? Lydia Corser, a green interior designer in Santa Cruz, California, says the best first step is “to think about priorities: Are you chemically sensitive?  If so, among other concerns you’ll need to find furniture with fewer bonding agents and reduced formaldehyde content. If ecology is your main concern, you may want furniture made from materials that are completely natural and biodegradable, or made from recycled and reused materials.”

When looking to buy new wood furniture, she advises looking for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). For anyone on a tight budget, refinishing and reupholstering secondhand furniture or antiques often yields a better-quality and longer-lived product than what one might buy new. “There’s just a lot of inferior furniture made today,” Corser says. “Sometimes people are put off that it can cost as much to reupholster an old piece of furniture as to buy a new one. But it can also mean you’ll end up with a higher-quality piece that has what I call good bones—features like hand-tied springs and really well-built fruitwood frames.”

Among the most environmental furniture choices consumers can make are antiques, secondhand furniture, and pieces custom-crafted from wood and metal that would otherwise be destined for a landfill. This dining table is constructed from salvaged maple and recycled steel.

Finding new green furniture isn’t always easy, and often carries a premium price (see “Shop Till You Drop” for some resources). A few repurposers like Steve Staples are scattered around the country. Another option is asking a local furniture crafter to build products to your specifications, whether from FSC-certified woods or with finishes containing low (or no) levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that won’t off-gas.

In various regions around the country, a handful of high-end niche furniture companies are focusing purely on green products. Two years ago partners Jesse Johnson and Anthony Cochran opened the Q Collection, a company aimed at designing high-end, high-style furnishings made from FSC-certified woods and featuring low-VOC glues and finishes as well as natural fabrics, including organic cottons. The company, which has two New York showrooms and supplies interior designers nationwide, relied on a team of consulting environmental scientists and other experts to help set standards for its products.

The Boston company Furnature focuses more exclusively on making nontoxic bedding and upholstered furnishings for customers who are either extremely chemically sensitive or who simply want to reduce air pollution in their homes. The 78-year-old family business originally made conventional upholstered furniture but began to change course in 1994 when a customer who had developed severe chemical sensitivities after her house was treated with strong insecticides asked if it could custom-make pollution-free furnishings for her. Today Furnature offers through its website and Watertown, Massachusetts, showroom only toxin-free products, including a selection of 50,000 fabrics (organic and not).

Based in Gardena, California, South Cone Trading Company has showrooms on both the east and west coasts of the United States, as well as a large network of distributors in between. Gerry Cooklin, the founder and CEO, had an epiphany while gazing a lone tree while camping in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1997, contemplating his career as a conventional furniture maker. “I was successful. I was making plenty of money, but I was using wood from the forests in South America and hadn’t thought much about it,” he says. “It was like that tree talked to me and said, hey, you’re in a position to do something big about this.”  

Today much of South Cone furniture is made from FSC-certified woods. Cooklin also teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and its Peruvian partner, Pro Naturaleza, to found the nonprofit Partnerships and Technology for Sustainability (PaTS). A certified forestry project run by PaTS provides jobs and income to the Yanesha people of the Palcazu Valley in the Peruvian Amazon. Additionally, the group is working to prove the commercial suitability of previously unused woods, a practice that could encourage tropical loggers to, say, selectively and sustainably cut stands that otherwise would be mowed down simply to get at more highly prized species, such as mahogany.

At ABC Carpet & Home stores in New York City, shoppers can find an array of items bearing a “good wood” label and other environmental features. Amy Chender, ABC Home’s director of social responsibility, says the company is working with the Rainforest Alliance to move toward FSC certification for more of its furnishings. Although the current market for green furniture might be small, Chender suggests that the company may be on to something big. “Our customers are showing a lot of interest in these products,” she says. “We think we’re on the very front end of a new and growing wave.”

Meanwhile, mainstream national retailers are showing signs of jumping on the bandwagon as well. Notably, in 2005, Crate & Barrel introduced Asian-inspired bedroom furniture in the form of a dresser, armoire, and television cabinet made of sustainably grown bamboo, and in 2006 it added a bed and nightstand to the line. Technically a grass, bamboo is remarkably hard—harder even than furniture-grade maple. It also grows easily without pesticides or other chemical inputs. Last year the company partnered with the Tropical Forest Trust, based in Europe, which now helps source its wood supplies from sustainably managed land and has turned to the Forest Stewardship Council for certification of its eucalyptus and plantation-grown teak.

Putting ecological principles at the core of its mission, one industry heavyweight, IKEA, holds enormous potential for the entire industry. IKEA uses a process called the “E-wheel” when developing new furniture and other products, notes John Zurcher, U.S. manager for social and environmental affairs. The process tries to look at the entire product life cycle, eliminating waste both in manufacturing and packaging, and attempting to improve a product’s end use—that is, trying to favor materials that can be reused or recycled. The company also says it is moving toward requiring that all wood products it sells be certified.

Green design experts acknowledge that IKEA offers options for buyers on a tight budget, but they also have some mixed feelings. Corser suggests that many of its products seem as if they’re not made for durable, long-term use, and that consumers still might do better shopping for longer-lived used goods. Wood notes that even though the company uses large amounts of cheaper materials such as particleboard, IKEA offers one big plus: The company strives to meet some of the world’s strictest regulations for off-gassing. For example, its suppliers must meet Germany’s formaldehyde air-quality standard of 0.1 parts per million. “It’s not perfection,” says Wood. “But buying furniture like IKEA’s can be a good start. And that’s what I encourage people to do—get a start. Any step you take is a good step.” 

 

A scattering of small U.S.-based furniture manufacturers have very recently begun to take an important new step themselves. In the autumn of 2005 the Rainforest Alliance joined with South Cone’s Gerry Cooklin to organize a first-ever meeting in High Point, North Carolina, a traditional center for U.S. furniture making and wholesaling, aimed at establishing a green furniture manufacturer’s advocacy group. By early 2006, 17 small furniture manufacturers had formed the new Sustainable Furniture Council. The group is so new that it still had neither its formal nonprofit status nor a staff as this article went to press. “This is an industry in crisis,” says South Cone executive vice-president Einar Elsner, who was serving as the group’s de facto staff. “There’s been a rush to China, and that’s led to massive price deflation. In other areas, sustainability seems to be on everyone’s mind, and I think members of our group recognize that this could be the way to go if they want to stay in business.”

However, he adds, anyone promoting sustainable furniture faces a huge hurdle. “Right now,” he says, “most customers only want to know two things: Do I like the way a piece looks, and how much does it cost? We need to get people to start asking another question: Do I want to eat dinner on a table made of wood ripped out of the rainforest and built by someone making 20 cents an hour?”

When you sit at a table made from sustainable hardwood with tight grain and clean, graceful lines, its beauty should put you in closer touch with the forest it came from. “We need to realize,” says Rainforest Alliance forestry division project manager Daphne Hewitt, “that there’s an additional kind of beauty in the environmental integrity of the product itself.”

 

Shop Till You Drop

If you’re in the market for green furniture, you can begin by looking for solid used pieces at secondhand stores, antique shops, and flea markets, or by having a local furniture maker craft a custom piece from FSC-certified or salvaged wood. If you prefer to buy something new, furniture manufacturers and retail outlets are beginning to supply the growing demand. Resources include:

Green Home Guide
Offers tips and reviews from both professionals in the green interior design industry and consumers.
 
Staples Cabinet Makers
A Massachusetts craftsman who transforms “trash” into treasured furniture pieces.

Q Collection
High-end furniture maker with stores in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Furnature
A Boston-based company that specializes in nontoxic bedding and upholstered furnishings for people with chemical sensitivities or concerns about indoor air.

South Cone Trading Company
Furniture made from sustainable hardwoods. For a dealer, enter your zip code into the company’s online database. 

ABC Carpet & Home
A New York City company that offers a variety of sustainable furnishings, including some with salvaged  fabrics.

Crate & Barrel
This company’s Bento bedroom line is made from sustainably grown bamboo.

IKEA
Affordable furnishings that include renewable resources and minimized packaging.

Fresh-Air Furniture
Furnishings you and your family can live with.

















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