Green Home Furnishing
When we come home from our eco travels and excursions, our communing with nature, work, schooling and other daily pursuits, its good to be able to rest, relax and recuperate. We spend a large proportion of our time at home. In a lifetime, it is estimated that humans spend on average of 25 years sleeping, 9.1 years watching TV, plus extra time at the computer, reading, socialising etc, which means that we are in our homes, in bed or on the sofa, for longer periods of time than we care to admit! With that in mind our beds and sofas and other sitting room furniture are important purchases – important for our comfort, and our health, but they also impact on the health and preservation of the planet.
When the time comes for us to replace our furniture, as with any purchase, or project to make our own, we can make an informed choice. Consider the carbon footprint, the embodied energy, of components of a new sofa or couch – usually a mixture of wood, metal, padding and fabric.
* illustration from O Ecotextiles
Green furniture choices include using certified sustainable wood, reclaimed materials, including vintage, low toxicity finishes, designs for disassembly and future disposal, and using tried and tested methods of craftsmanship, are all important considerations, but According to Patty and Leigh Anne of O Ecotextiles, like with most green choices, there are tradeoffs and degrees of green. If we look at the carbon footprint of an average upholstered sofa and see what kind of energy requirements are needed to produce it, the fabric (approximately 70 yards for a sofa) and padding choice could be the most important in terms of embodied energy.
Embodied energy is the energy consumed during the production of a material at all stages from acquisition (growing, or mining raw materials), conversion processes (manufacturing, assembly,) through to product delivery (including transport), human and secondary sources and future disassembly and disposal.
*table1 produced byACMC Plymouth University, England, 22 July July 2014
Vast amounts of fabric are produced by an industry with a gigantic carbon footprint – one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on Earth. In 2008, annual global textile production was estimated at 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric. The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric is :
- 1,074 billion kWh of electricity or 132 million metric tons of coal and
- between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water.
The amount of energy needed to produce the fabric varies between 291 MJ (hemp, the lowest embodied energy) and 7598 MJ (nylon, the highest embodied energy requirements). The fabric choice for a sofa makes a big environmental impact.
The cushions of upholstered furniture need a filler of some kind. Previous generations used feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting. With the advent of plastics, these more natural products have been replaced with polyurethane foam, the newer soy based foam which tends to be mixed with polyurethane foam, and synthetic latex, all with varying degrees of negative health and environmental impacts including use and disposal. Much of this ends up in landfill at the end of its life.
An equally sobering reminder from Sovn blog can also apply to sofas,
“The average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”
Thankfully there is an alternative – natural latex. The raw material comes from a renewable resource. It is obtained from the sap cultivated, from the Heave Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning. Rubber trees are cultivated mainly in South East Asia, where both large scale plantation and small farmers follow a strict planting and replanting program, to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural latex. Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradable, breathable, healthier – totally nontoxic, mold, mildew and dust mite proof. It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals. It has little or no off-gassing associated with it. Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams) and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam but lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.
When it comes to purchasing new furniture, including sofas and other soft furnishings, as with most other purchases, the more natural and organic the components the better! Sustainable wood, latex and natural other fabrics may cost more money to produce and buy, but that does not make their cost vastly beyond the reach of consumers, especially when considering the quality and associated longevity of the life cycle of the piece. A well designed, well-made sofa, particularly with loose covers for laundering and repairs can out live conventional sofas.
Organic sofas and furniture tend to be more expensive, but they aren’t necessarily. Take a look at popular furniture suppliers. Their ranges of fashionable sofas come at a price, regardless of the fact that they are not green! Consumers are paying dearly for conventional sofas that may be poorly made, with cheaper materials and potentially toxic, and our planet is playing dearly too.
Research is the only way to find the best organic, green sofas and furniture available to you. Remember the trade off and look out for the most environmentally friendly natural fabric, using the least chemical processes. Buy the best that you can afford, and keep it for longer. Or in other words…
New York Times, Carl Richard
Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, Stockholm Environment Institute, 2005
Composites Design and Manufacture, School of Engineering, University of Plymouth UK, 2008,