True cost of a conventional sofa

8 11 2013

Buying a sofa is a big committment: it dominates the room, costs a lot, and should be presentable for at least 10 years. So let’s say that you’ve cruised the stores, sat in the sofas, lifted them, pushed and probed – and decided on a version that looks and feels right. And you’ve made sure that your choice contained all the ingredients for a high quality sofa – hardwood frame (check), 8 way hand-tied springs (check); high density foam (check), and a decorative fabric that will last the entire 10 – 20 year estimated life of the sofa.

But is it organic?

Most people wouldn’t give that question a second thought, but we think it’s a critical question. Why? Well, let’s just assume you’ve chosen a conventionally produced sofa. That means:

1. The hardwood is not FSC certified, which means it comes from a forest that is not managed. That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They provide habitat for 90% of the animal and plant species which live on land. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products. If you have chosen a sofa which uses plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam), then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. To read more about why FSC certification is important, click here.

2. The sofa uses either polyurethane or soy foam. Even high density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations , and toluene, a neurotoxin . Your polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. And because polyurethane and soy foams are basically solid gasoline, they often require flame retardant chemicals. To read more about soy and poly foams, click here  and here.

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

From blog.greensciencepolicy.org

3. Your sofa uses fabric – made of anything from cotton to linen or polyester – which was produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants such as pentaBDE, PFOA.

There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all. Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer. Some of the chemicals used in processing evaporate into your home’s air (such as formaldehyde), others (like lead) will be available in house dust – because every time you sit down or brush against the fabric, microscopic particles abrade and fly into the air. And remember, your skin is a permeable membrane. We are just beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive periods of development, and how the endocrine system involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops. A fetus might respond to a chemical at one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life.  So infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile, for example. For more on these issues, click here  and here

4. Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on your sofa.

We are often asked about the perceived higher cost of going organic – but really, isn’t the true cost of a conventional sofa more than anybody should have to bear?

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How to buy a “quality” sofa – part 2 (wood)

23 08 2012

Each week for the next few weeks we’ll look at the components of  sofas, and discuss what makes a particular component “green” or “safe”.  We hope  this will help you to better understand the claims of sofa manufacturers, and enable you to decide whether you want to support their products with your dollars.   We  hope you don’t need help to see through claims such as one we saw recently, in which the manufacturer claimed they used “renewable wood”!

We’ll start with the bones of a good sofa  – wood.

Everybody knows that wood, a natural product, comes from trees,  but it’s important to know much more than whether the wood is cherry or mahagony – it’s also important to know that the wood did not come from an endangered forest (such as a tropical forest, or old growth boreal forests) – and preferably that the wood came from a forest that is sustainably managed.   Well managed forests provide clean water, homes for wildlife, and they help stabilize the climate. As the National Resources Defense Council says:

“Forests are more than a symbolic ideal of wilderness, more than quiet places to enjoy nature. Forest ecosystems — trees, soil, undergrowth, all living things in a forest — are critical to maintaining life on earth. Forests help us breathe by creating oxygen and filtering pollutants from the air, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. They soak up rainfall like giant sponges, preventing floods and purifying water that we drink. They provide habitat for 90 percent of the plant and animal species that live on land, as well as homelands for many of the earth’s last remaining indigenous cultures. Forests are commercially important, too; they yield valuable resources like wood, rubber and medicinal plants, including plants used to create cancer drugs. Harvesting these resources provides employment for local communities.  Healthy forests are a critical part of the web of life. Protecting the earth’s remaining forest cover is now an urgent task.”

Unsustainable logging, agricultural expansion, and other practices threaten many forests’ existence.  Indeed, half of the Earth’s original forest cover has been lost, mostly in the last three decades.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), only 20% of Earth’s original forests remain today in areas large enough to maintain their full complement of biological and habitat diversity and ecological functions.[2]

More than 20% of  worldwide  carbon emissions come from the loss of forests[1], even after counting all the carbon captured by forest growth.  

A sustainable forest is a forest that is carefully managed so that as trees are felled they are replaced with seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees. This is a carefully and skilfully managed system. The forest is a working environment, producing wood products such as wood pulp for the paper / card industry and wood based materials for furniture manufacture and the construction industry. Great care is taken to ensure the safety of wildlife and to preserve the natural environment.

Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products:  it is intended as a seal of approval — a means of notifying consumers that a wood or paper product comes from forests managed in accordance with strict environmental and social standards. For example, a person shopping for flooring or furniture would seek a certified forest product to be sure that the wood was harvested in a sustainable manner from a healthy forest, and not clearcut from a tropical rainforest or the ancestral homelands of forest-dependent indigenous people.

Choosing products from forests certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can be an important part of using wood and paper more sustainably. The FSC, based in Bonn, Germany,  brought together three seemingly antagonistic groups: environmentalists, industrialists and social activists. Its mission and governance reflects the balance between these original constituents in that FSC seeks to promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests. Each is given equal weight.   Formed in 1993, the FSC has established a set of international forest management standards; it also accredits and monitors certification organizations that evaluate on-the-ground compliance with these standards in forests around the world.  Today nearly 125 million acres of forest are FSC certified in 76 countries.

But not all certification programs are credible. Spurred by the success of the FSC and consumer demand for certified products, at least eight other forest certification programs have formed internationally, such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) forest certification, and the European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC).  However, these programs are often backed by timber interests and set weak standards for forest management that allow destructive and business-as-usual forestry practices.

The most well known of these alternative certifications is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Created in 1995 by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), an industry group, SFI was originally created  as a public relations program,  but it now represents itself as a certification system.

There are significant differences between the two systems.  FSC’s conservation standards tend to be more concrete, while SFI’s are vaguer targets with fewer measurable requirements. Here is what is allowed under the SFI standard:

  • Allows large clearcuts
  • Allows use of toxic chemicals
  • Allows conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations
  • Allows use of genetically modified trees
  • Allows logging close to rivers and streams that harms water supplies

By comparison,  the FSC:

  • Establishes meaningful limits on large-scale clearcutting; harvesting rates and clearing sizes can not exceed a forest’s natural capacity to regenerate.
  • Prohibits the most toxic chemicals and encourages forest practices that reduce chemical use.
  • Does not allow the conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations, and has guidelines for environmental management of existing plantations.
  • Prohibits use of genetically modified trees and other genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Requires management and monitoring of natural forest attributes, including the water supply; for example,  springs and streams are monitored to detect any signs of pollutants or vegetative disturbance.
  • Requires protection measures for rare old growth in certified forests, and consistently requires protection of other high conservation value forests.
  • Prohibits replacement of forests by sprawl and other non-forest land uses.[4]

Certifiers also grant “chain-of-custody” certifications to companies that manufacture and sell products made out of certified wood. A chain-of-custody assessment tracks wood from the forest through milling and manufacturing to the point of sale. This annual assessment ensures that products sold as certified actually originate in certified forests.

Nearly a decade and a half after the establishment of these two certification bodies, there was a battle between FSC and SFI which  crescendoed in a showdown over recognition in the LEED system, the preeminent green building standard in the U.S.  Since its inception in 2000, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has recognized only lumber with the FSC label as responsibly sourced. Credits such as MR 7 – Certified Wood, has awarded points based on the usage of FSC certified wood only (NOTE:  this is not specific to wood;  LEED  only awards points automatically  for Indoor Air Quality to products which are GreenGuard certified) .  Intense timber industry pressure (specifically from SFI)  led the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED’s parent,  to evaluate the certified wood credit in LEED, which has been FSC exclusive since inception, and determine whether other certification systems, such as the industry-driven Sustainable Forestry Initiative, should be given credits as well.

The thinking was to replace the simple FSC monopoly with generalized benchmarks for evaluating systems claiming to enforce sustainable forestry and open up considerations for other “green” wood labeling systems.

Opponents of this action feel that it opened the door to destructive forestry practices under the guise of “green” –  and  to pass off status-quo business practices as environmentally friendly.  One of the leading arguments for loosening the wood credit — and thus lowering the bar for the standards governing the origins of the wood — is that the FSC system doesn’t have enough supply to meet demand.  To which the rejoinder is that the volume of SFI wood speaks to laxness of standards.  SFI contends that since only 10% of the world’s forests are certified sustainable, the important fact to concern us should be to work on the problems plaguing the remaining 90%.

The USGBC put this issue before their members, who voted to NOT approve the benchmarking criteria – so FSC certified wood remains the only certification allowed under the LEED rating system.

Once you’ve established whether the wood is from a sustainably managed forest, it’s also important to note whether the wood products in the sofa are composites.  Composites are typically made of wood and adhesive – examples of such composites are laminated veneer lumber (LVL), Medium density fiberboard (MDF), Plywood, and Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).  Because these products are glued together using phenol formaldehyde resins, there is concern with formaldehyde emissions.  In fact, a bill  introduced in September, 2009, in the U.S.  Senate would limit the amount of allowable formaldehyde emissions in composite wood products.   In addition, the embodied energy in these products is typically higher than that for solid timber.  Based on a  study done by the    School of Engineering, University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, the embodied energy in air dried sawn hardwood (0.5 MJ/kg) is considerably less than that of glulam (4.6 to 11.0 MJ/kg)


[1] Van der Werf, G.R, et al, “CO2 Emissions from Forest Loss”, Nature Geoscience, November 1, 2009, pp 737-38.

[2] “Guidelines for Avoiding Wood from Endangered Forests”, http://www.rainforestrelief.org/documents/Guidelines.pdf

[3] Examples of SFI certified companies’ harmful practices are at http://www.dontbuysfi.com.

[4] iGreenBuild.com:  Forest Certification:  Sustainable Forestry or Misleading Marketing?  http://credibleforestcertification.org/fileadmin/materials/old_growth/dont_buy_sfi/sfi_facts/2_-_Still_Not_Equal_igreenbuild.pdf





IKEA’s “We Love Wood” campaign

17 07 2012

Don’t you just love the fact that you can buy a sofa from IKEA and pay only about $800 – while at the same time bask in self righteous pride that you have acted to support your belief  that you really shouldn’t trash our planet just for a piece of furniture?  At least, you can try to convince yourself that most of  IKEAs claims are true, even though you know they use cheap polyurethane foam in the cushions, the fabric is not organic and probably contains lots of chemicals which might harm you, despite their claim that all products comply with REACH legislation (naturally, because it’s the law in Europe).  REACH, though light years ahead of anything in the US,  still just mandates the substitution for those chemicals which have been identified as being the most dangerous – leaving plenty that still score in the danger category.

Ikea has a new campaign, “We Love Wood” to highlight its claim that they use wood sourced in an environmentally and socially responsible way.   As they say:

We don’t accept illegally felled wood, or wood harvested from intact natural forests. We’re working with suppliers to improve their ability to trace the origin of the wood they use – a requirement for all suppliers of products containing solid wood and board materials. Our long-term goal is to source all wood for IKEA products from forests certified as responsibly managed. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is so far the only forest certification standard that meets IKEA requirements in this respect.

They are promoting it like crazy – here’s just one YouTube video I found:

So what’s my gripe?

The Global Forestry Coalition (GFC), an alliance of NGOs from more than 40 countries (including Friends of the Earth Sweden), alleged in September 2011 that Ikea’s subsidiary, Swedwood, has been clear-cutting forests, including very old trees, in Russia. Yet NEPCon (a Danish registered non-profit organization which ” works to encourage sustainable use of natural resources worldwide” has certified those operations  to be FSC compliant. GFC has called this logging under the FSC banner “a scandal”.[1]

Naturally NEPCon rushed to defend their certification.  (Click here to read their rebuttal.)

Their response includes the statement that Russian FSC standards do not exclude logging in primeval forest, but rather requires that certified operations take an approach that “preserves the most valuable parts of such areas”.

From the rebuttal:  “Another difference is that the Swedwood  concession area mainly covers forest ecosystems that are naturally influenced by forest fires. Such ecosystems are generally more resilient to clear-cutting than less fire-prone forest ecosystems, such as the native forests of Germany. Fires in the certified concession area happen every 50-300 years, and old trees in the concerned areas show clear marks of forest fire. At clear-cut #3 in compartment 203 of Voinitskoje forest district of Kalevalskoje Lesnichestvo, fires are known to have happened three times during the last 450 years (this is one of the sites mentioned in the complaints).”

Hmmm.  Does anybody have any more information about this?


[1] Environmental Leader,  “IKEA accused of logging old-growth forests”, May 30, 2012, http://www.environmentalleader.com/2012/05/30/ikea-accused-of-logging-old-growth-forests/