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”,

[3] Examples of SFI certified companies’ harmful practices are at

[4]  Forest Certification:  Sustainable Forestry or Misleading Marketing?


SMART Sustainable Standards

17 08 2011

The SMART Sustainable Product Standards  is a group of standards, applicable to building materials, apparel, textiles and flooring. These products constitute 60% of the world’s products, according to the SMART website .  The SMART standards for these products are, again according to their website, “based on transparency, using consensus based metrics and life-cycle analysis.”  The term “consensus based metrics”  means that the standards they use have been pre-established, and are widely available, thereby “eliminating both redundancies and potential inconsistencies”.  Some of these include:

SMART contends that, by using these widely accepted standards, SMART  standards become transparent, i.e.,  nothing is hidden in their requirements or in their decision making.   They further contend that  their rules  prevent industry trade association dominance, allowing the SMART standard to move substantially beyond the status quo.

The SMART Standard confers multiple achievement levels – depending on the number of points a product accrues in the rating system, it can be certified either:

  • Sustainable
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum

This all sounds lovely, but in sieving through the SMART website, I found it extremely confusing.     It also seems to me the web site is designed for large companies with deep pockets – the first question in their INFO/FAQ tab on the website answers the question:  “Why are sustainable products more profitable than conventional products?”  The answer:

  1. The public prefers sustainable products and will pay somewhat more for them
  2. coupled with the assertion that  sustainable products have “cheaper raw materials”  (I can certainly dispute that in the field of natural fibers – organic cotton simply costs more to produce, sometimes considerably more, than conventional cotton), “less liability” and “fewer regulatory constraints”.

Also, becoming SMART certified is very expensive:  For all levels except Platinum, it costs $7500 for certification; Platinum is $10,000.   Maybe that’s why the web site for the SMART Sustainable Textile  lists only 10 products from three companies as being SMaRT certified.  (see )

Finally, the fact that the SMART standards are based on widely available, public standards, such as the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List, means that the SMART standard is not trying to push any envelopes.  For example, the Stockholm Toxic Chemicals List (actually titled the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants) originally banned or restricted twelve chemicals because they accumulate in the tissues of living things and are all but indestructible once they’re released into the natural world.  They can spread across the globe with weather patterns and migrating animals.  They have all been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer and reproductive and developmental problems.  In 2010, nine more chemicals were added to the list, making a total of 21.  But today there are 80,000 chemicals in use by industry, most of which have not ever been tested, so we really don’t even know the extent of our exposure to toxins.  So it’s terrific that  SMART incorporates the Stockholm Convention list, but aren’t those chemicals banned by the Stockholm Convention already?   Also, why stop with just the Stockholm Convention list?  Toxic pollution is a problem without national boundaries.  Chemicals are an issue for international negotiation and have been so for decades.  To date, more than 50 regional and international agreements on chemicals and waste management have been adopted by governments.