Are organic sofas expensive?

25 10 2012

A current theme in the blogosphere is that organic sofas are expensive, so let’s see what that could mean.

We often hear that organic stuff costs more than conventional stuff, and that only the rich can take advantage of the benefits of organic products.  That is true of food prices – organic food typically costs from 20% to 100% more than conventionally produced equivalents. [1]  And I won’t go into what we seem to be getting in return for buying the cheaper, conventionally produced foods, but let’s just say it’s akin to a  Faustian bargain.

But look at the food companies which in the 1950s routinely produced laughably inaccurate adverts trumpeting the health benefits associated with their products. 

Those old school adverts, ridiculous as they look now, displayed an awareness that healthy food resonated with modern consumers, and heralded the start of a 60 year long transformation that has seen nutrition become the issue that arguably defines the way the food industry operates. It is entirely conceivable that the raft of new green marketing campaigns that have emerged in recent years mark the beginning of a similar journey with other product categories.

So enough about food – this is a blog about textile subjects.  And like food, organic fibers are also more expensive than non-organic.  There is no way to get around the fact that organic cotton items are anywhere from 10 to 45 percent more expensive than conventional cotton products.  But conventional cotton prices don’t take into account the impact that  production has on the planet and the many people involved in its manufacture, including sweatshops and global poverty. With organic cotton, you are paying more initially, but that cost is passed not only to the retailer, but to the weavers, seamstresses, pickers and growers who made that item’s production possible. In turn, you are also investing in your own health with a garment that will not off-gas (yup, just like toxic paints) chemicals or dyes that can impact all of your body’s basic systems.

Those prices – or costs, depending on what we choose to call them – are compounded and go up exponentially in an organic vs. conventional sofa because each input in an organic sofa is more expensive than its conventional counterpart:

  • Organic sofas often use FSC certified hardwoods – which means you’re supporting a resource which is managed so that the forest stays healthy.  Forests are critical to maintaining life on earth:  they  filter pollutants from the air, absorb CO2, purify the water we drink,  and provide habitat for both animals and some indigenous cultures.   Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products.  Conventional sofas, on the other hand, often use composite plywoods, medium density fiberboard  (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).    These products are glued together using formaldehyde resins.  And formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.  The hardwoods are more expensive than the other options, but  they don’t have the formaldehyde emissions.
  • Conventional sofas almost exclusively use polyurethane  foam – or that new marketing darling,  soy foam.  Polyurethane and soy foams are much cheaper than natural latex, but they  are made of methyloxirane and TDI, both of which have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California and are highly flammable, requiring flame retardant chemicals.  They also emit toluene, a known neurotoxin.  The foam oxidizes, sending these toxic particles into the air which we breathe in.  But they’re cheap.  Natural latex, on the other hand, does not impact human health in any way, and it lasts far longer than polyurethane or soy foams.
  • Organic sofas use fabrics that do not contain chemicals which can harm human health.   Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known.  Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer.[2]  Organic fabrics do not contain these dangerous chemicals, so you won’t be exposing yourself and your family to these chemicals.
  • Auxiliaries, such as glues and varnishes, have been evaluated to be safe in an organic sofa.

It just so happens that the web site Remodelista published a post on September 26 entitled “10 Easy Pieces:  The Perfect White Sofa” by Julie.[3]  (Click HERE to see that post.)  And it gives us the pricing!  Prices range from $399 for an IKEA sofa to $9500, and 10 sofas are priced (one in British Pound Sterling, which I converted into US dollars at 1.61 to the dollar).   The average price of the sofas listed is $4626 and of the 10 sofas with pricing, the median is $3612.  None of them mentions anything about being organic.  That means you’ll be paying good money for a sofa that most probably uses:

  • Polyurethane or soy-based foam  – which off gasses its toxic witch’s brew of synthetic chemicals and flame retardants.
  • Non FSC certified hardwood (if you’re lucky), or composite plywood, MDF or Glulam, which offgasses formaldehyde.
  • Conventionally produced fabrics that expose you and your children to chemicals that may be causing any number of health concerns, from headaches and allergies to changes in our DNA.
  • Glues, paints and/or varnishes which off gas volatile organic compounds.

As to price:  let’s  take a look at one sofa manufacturer with whom we work  closely, Ekla Home (full disclosure:  who uses our fabric exclusively) – the average price of Ekla Home’s sofa collection (assuming the most expensive fabric category) is $3290.  That’s $1,336 LESS than the average of the sofas in the Remodelista post, none of which are organic.

Admittedly, one of the sofas that you can buy costs $399 from IKEA.  Putting aside all the myriad health implications involved in this piece of furniture, there is still the issue of quality.  Carl Richards, a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and the director of investor education at BAM Advisor Services, had a piece in the New York Times recently, about frugality and what it really means.  Here is how he put it:

It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time.

Here is the issue: when we settle for stuff that we don’t really want, and instead buy stuff that will be fine for a while, it often costs more in the long run.”

New York Times, Carl Richard

So I’m a bit flummoxed as to why people complain that  organic sofas are expensive.  Expensive compared to what?     If I was paranoid, I’d think there was some kind of subtle campaign being waged by Big Industry to plant that idea into our heads.


[1] The Fox News website (http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2012/03/11/10-reasons-organic-food-is-so-expensive/ ) had some interesting reasons as to why that’s true, some of which are listed below:

  1. Chemicals and synthetic pesticides reduce the cost of production by getting the job done faster and more efficiently. Without them, organic farmers have to hire more workers for tasks like hand-weeding, cleanup of polluted water, and the remediation of pesticide contamination.
  2. Demand overwhelms supply:  Americans claim they prefer to eat organic foods, yet organic farmland only accounts for 0.9% of total worldwide farmland.
  3. Animal manure and compost are more expensive to ship (this is their list, not mine!) and synthetic chemical equivalents are very cheap.
  4.  Instead of chemical weed killers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations to keep their soil healthy and prevent weed growth. After harvesting a crop, an organic farmer may use that area to grow “cover crops,” which add nitrogen to the soil to benefit succeeding crops.
  5. In order to avoid cross-contamination, organic produce must be separated from conventional produce after being harvested. Conventional crops are shipped in larger quantities since conventional farms are able to produce more.
  6.  Acquiring USDA organic certification is no easy — or cheap — task. In addition to the usual farming operations, farm facilities and production methods must comply with certain standards, which may require the modification of facilities. Employees must be hired to maintain strict daily record-keeping that must be available for inspection at any time. And organic farms must pay an annual inspection/certification fee, which starts at $400 to $2,000 a year, depending on the agency and the size of the operation.
  7. Last but not least – subsidies.  In 2008, farm subsidies were $7.5 billion, compared to organic and local food programs which received only $15 million.

Many  say that if Americans who profess to want to buy organic food would stop going to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and buying processed, packaged and pre-made foods, they could easily afford organic foods.

[2]

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t. (Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
    Post
    , March 16, 2008.)
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. (Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
    workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
    Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.)
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population. (Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
    10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321)
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller. Note: lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs. (Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
    Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.)

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10 responses

25 10 2012
SallyS

I admit that all this information is not only needed, but well presented – thank you.
However, as to the end statement regarding being ‘flummoxed’… I can tell you that Ekla is priced well below most others who seem to like to start with higher numbers. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time searching for a sofa that won’t poison my already overloaded system any further. There are numerous forums, blogs, and articles about the difficulties of finding these organic sofas – and yes, price is mentioned. Price is important – we all still have bills to pay and some of us need to replace more than one item. Now, lets take into account that there are no showrooms for the all important sit test – the fit that makes that sofa comfortable. Pictures are nice, measurements are important – but the scariest thing for many is to plunk down several thousand dollars on something they have no idea as to whether it will actually work for them.
I’d love to have an organic sofa – – is it a conspiracy to keep feeding us chemicals? If a company does lovely work – can I sit on it? There are dozens of others and not a sample amongst them. Most of us do not want or need, nor can we afford a four to six thousand dolllar block of organic misery in our living rooms.
We are not all created equal, but frankly I am tired of being told to shop at Pottery Barn for my style and to allow someone else to recreate it – not the same and I shouldn’t have to wade through a chemical laden showroom to do so. Some of us already suffer from chemical overdose, have you studied the results of what this does to a body? Pain seems to come with only one criteria, quest for relief – that means a comfortable place to sit and rest. There does come a time when some things take a back seat – but I still have my twenty year old sofa because in years I still can’t find anything worth sitting on. I’m flummoxed as well. We can find the information, just not the merchandise.

25 10 2012
O Ecotextiles

HI Sally: I think the reason you can’t find the sofas to sit on and try out is because most of the small companies making them are trying to keep their costs down. Since each step of the process is more expensive than a conventionally produced sofa, by adding the expense of sampling, showroom rent and staffing, the price of each sofa would go up considerably. So they’re trying think outside the box, since your concerns are shared by many people who don’t want to make that expensive mistake. But what do customers do in the meantime, because it puts them into a situation of having to just buy on faith. Do you have any ideas? Ekla Home, for example, is revamping their website with will include customer reviews until they have the funds to move to showrooms. In the meantime, they say they have never had a sofa returned and never had a negative review.

26 10 2012
SallyS

Do I have any ideas? Nope, fresh out! We are leaning towards a daybed – reasons: I know that I love my bed made of organic materials, I can clean it easily, I can change it on a whim with a fresh cover or pillows, and it can be moved without a forklift. So many sofas now are made at a knee killing 15 or 16″ height! I shot a hole in a day driving to see such, with a designer who had days switched.
I don’t care how ‘balanced’ it looks or how sleek – this body doesn’t do that anymore. When I mention daybed, usually I see eyebrows go vertical – not exactly looking for a Hello Kitty setup. How about elegance? How about lifestyle? How about personal comfort?
I do understand the need to not pay rent, brick and mortar often equals money wasted. I have talked to one designer who did offer to talk to a customer and go ‘visit’ a sofa – but a two hour drive for such just made no sense to me. I do like what I see on Emily’s site – (I can find lots of pretty pictures) but not having any sofas returned is sort of a moot point when all sales are final.
Harmony has got it figured out – and I am still considering just stuffing my old couch cushions, never mind that it’s too low and the leather is cold, a quilt keeps it warm in winter. I don’t care that the leather has stains and kitty scratches. Twenty years ago I bought high end, have loved it, but not all items get tossed aside – – how about Goodwill and the folks who have nothing? How about shelters and other assistive organizations, as mentioned by Harmony? They will get the stupid Natuzzi loveseat that is not worth any effort, at the ripe old age of five – somebody will want it.
It is cheaper to buy new – not all are looking for ‘cheap’, but finding someone who knows how to work with latex, wool, or organic materials is another idea that seems to be off it’s mark. Finding someone to simply recover a cushion is easy, but filled with what? More polyfoam?
Not everyone has the ‘disposable’ mentality, sometimes less is more and better is always best. All any of us can do is our best, sometimes that is not good enough – but it will have to do.

26 10 2012
O Ecotextiles

I think our best is always good, and probably good enough – I sympathize with your efforts. With your thoughtful approach I’m confident you’ll find something that you can live with – and comfortably.

26 10 2012
Harmony

Thank you for another thought provoking and informative post!

Better living through more & cheap stuff hasn’t delivered on it’s promise. I believe the future will be quality living through thoughtful things. Cheap in the short term can be very costly (and difficult to fix – aka cancer, polluted ground water, etc) in the long term.

As far as pricing goes….textiles are all over the place. People often ask me if my fabrics are more expensive. Compared to what? I will never be able to compete price-wise with WalMart’s fabric prices. Nor do I want to. When you make things dirt cheap you indeed make the decision to invest easier for the consumer, however, the bi-product is that the consumer also feels very little attachment and is happy to discard and replace rather than cherish and restore. This has been boon for our disposable society… but is it sustainable?

In fact, speaking of couches, the one in my studio was being discarded by people because, “It’s cheaper to buy a new one than to have this one recovered” (apart from some wear on a couple of cushions it was in perfect shape – 3 piece corner couch) Well, I bought it (at a community fundraiser rummage sale) and had new cushions made with my fabric. It’s beautiful. I get compliments all the time. Maybe the cost to their pocket book to recover would have been higher but combined these decisions to dispose are costing us our planet and I don’t really think you can get much more expensive than that!

One more word about pricing: In addition to never being able to compete with the cheapest made fabrics, I also see fabrics that are 10x the cost of mine per yard. So just like your white couch example pricing on fabrics is ALL over the place. Next month is the election in this country, but truthfully we all are voting every day with the decisions we make. Businesses follow the money. We are WAY more powerful than we think we are. Spend wisely.

Thanks again for you amazing, thorough, educational blog. I am a huge fan.

26 10 2012
O Ecotextiles

Thanks so much Harmony for these great insights! I couldn’t agree more that our throwaway culture has produced more problems than just overflowing landfills, and that our buying patterns ensure more of the same. I could begin to wax philosophical about why this is, but I guess that’s for another day…
I bet your sofa is wonderful!

26 10 2012
Marni

I have been researching organic couches and lusting after an Ekla sofa for sometime now (not even knowing she uses your fabrics – which makes me want one ever more now). I live in Ekla-land (by the beach in L.A.) and would order one in a hot California minute if I could just try it out first.

Marni
LusciousPlanet.com

30 10 2012
Emily Kroll

Hi Marni:
It’s EKLA HOME here. You are in luck. We keep a few samples around for people to sit on in the LA area. When Leanne said out of the box…this one is really out of the box. If you live within a 50 mile radius of downtown Los Angeles, we can do a “drive by” with our van and bring a sample to you so you can sit, feel, and see our work. We would love to have a showroom, but we are keeping the prices down to pass on to you. It’s a little unconventional…but if you are open…so are we! If interested, please contact our sales rep Ian Lashley at ian@eklahome.com or info@eklahome.com.
Thanks again!
Emily Kroll
EKLA HOME

1 11 2012
michelle

I just have to jump in here and say that we love our EKLA HOME sofa — it’s comfy and gorgeous, covered in your yummy rhubarb “Ideal Upholstery” fabric. We ordered it to be shipped all the way to the east coast after doing lots of research and being really impressed with Emily Kroll’s knowledge and methods. With all the news about fire retardants and other toxins in the typical sofa, we didn’t want to invite any more of that nasty stuff into our home. We plan to keep our EKLA HOME sofa for a long long time. Cheers — Michelle

1 11 2012
Emily

Oops! Edit. I wrote the wrong email for our sales rep Marni. It’s ian@eklahome.com. Not ilashley@ eklahome.com or try info@eklahome.com 310-699-9057

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