How to evaluate a “quality” sofa – part 1

15 08 2012

In light of the recent Chicago Tribune series, “Playing with Fire”  about the deceptive campaigns waged by manufacturers of flame retardants, it seems that with each call we get,  we end up talking about flame retardants.  We think that’s skewed, because flame retardants, though certainly something we wouldn’t want to live with, are not the only monsters in the dark.  So we want to talk again about what makes a “green”,  “safe”, or “sustainable” sofa  – whatever you want to call it – and how to evaluate manufacturers claims.  What we mean is a sofa that does not compromise your health – or mine.   So you can live with a sofa which does not contain chemicals which can harm you, but if a manufacturer does not capture the environmental pollutants created during the process, the end result will be the same – it will just take a bit longer.

So we’re going to do a series of blog posts on the various components of a sofa, so you’ll be better able to evaluate the claims manufacturers are making.

The first order of business is to find out what makes a “quality” sofa.   In looking at what makes a “quality” sofa, I  didn’t pay any attention to the “green” (or not) attributes of each item – we’re simply talking about quality so you’ll be able to evaluate a sofa.  After all, it’s not a “green” option to buy a sofa that you’ll have to replace in two years.  Think about furniture you see in museums that have all their original parts – including fabric – and are often hundreds of years old.  That’s what quality components can do for you.

These are the components of a typical sofa:

  • Wood
  • Foam (most commonly) or other cushion filling
  • Fabric
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Glue
    • Varnish/paint
    • Metal springs
    • Thread
    • Jute webbing
    • Twine

The frame, seating support, cushion filling and decorative fabric all determine your sofa’s level of comfort, and its ability to retain its shape and stability in the years to come.  

How long a sofa will last, and retain its shape,  depends largely on the frame, and a high quality sofa will always have a strong, sturdy one.  A higher quality sofa uses kiln-dried hardwoods  – this process removes all moisture from the frame, enabling it to retain its shape and stability over a long period of time.  Green and/or knotted wood can shrink or crack.   Some better quality sofas use plywood, but if you have to choose a sofa with plywood, make sure it has 11 – 13 layers of plywood and not fewer. Lower quality sofas use particleboard /MDF board.

In a high quality sofa, special attention is paid to the joints, which are dowelled or screwed into place rather than glued.  Some manufacturers even cut costs by using watered down glue.  Joints are secured with corner blocking, dowels and screws, which last longer than just glue and staples.

Regarding seating support:

  • The best seating support is the eight-way hand tied springs system. The craftsman connects each spring to the adjoining one with a strong twine. The twine passes front to back, side to side and then diagonally in both directions thus tying each spring securely.
  • Another seating support system is sinuous spring construction. Sinuous springs are “S” shaped and run from the front of the seat to the back. These springs are supported by additional wires that cross from side to side. This also makes for a strong seat, and it might be the preferred option in a sleeker style as it requires less space.
  • The third option is web suspension in which bands of webbing cross the seat and back. These are then attached to the frame to make a platform for the cushions. Webbing can be made of either natural or man-made fibers, and if used alone doesn’t make for very strong support. However, in better quality sofas, it can be used with a tensioner that fastens the webbing securely to the frame. The web suspension is the least preferable of the seating support options.

Ticking is used between the upholstery foam or latex and the decorative fabric cover; stitches are even and not bunched.

The most common filling used in sofa cushions is high density polyurethane.   Density is measured in pounds per cubic foot (PCF).  And of course there is a lot of variability in density –  it  can run from 1.2 PCF for lowest quality foam, to 1.7 PCF for average quality sofa cushions and up to 2.2 PCF for high quality cushions.   Firmness and resiliency are qualities that make a higher quality foam.  Natural latex is another filling option, and also comes in varying densities.  The lifespan of polyurethane averages 10 years; latex is supposed to have double that life expectancy.  Before there was polyurethane foam, however, people used a variety of materials, such as horsehair and cotton or wool batting.

Fillings can be wrapped in softer material such as wool, cotton or Dacron, which is the cheapest option. Down is considered to be the premium filling choice, and is among the most expensive choices, but cushions filled only with down require daily maintenance. High quality down cushions will have down proof ticking under the upholstery fabric to prevent feathers from poking through.

Down used in combination with other materials is another option, but also expensive. Pads made out of a Dacron® polyester fiber and down, known as Blendown pads, are wrapped around high density foam.  These pads can also be used with springs that have been wrapped up in foam. High density foam surround the springs that are then wrapped in down pads. The result is a soft surface with a strong, resilient support inside. This is a good option as the cushions do not lose their shape easily.





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/