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.



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?

Buying decisions

16 12 2009


In a previous  post (Prosperity Without Growth, 10.27.09), I discussed a paradigm shift in economics and how that seems to be affected by the fact that bigger isn’t necessarily better  –  and how more stuff doesn’t mean you’re a happier person.  Whether you’re an individual or an interior designer, there are some important considerations beyond budget each time you decide to purchase a product, from flooring to fabric.
Obviously the first decision should be: do I/we really need to purchase this product?  Remember the greenest option is not to decide between a virgin widget and a  recycled widget, but between widget/no widget.    Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, said “the most responsible way to buy clothes is to shop at Goodwill.  And the most responsible way to build is to recycle an old building.”
One issue that we should consider, always, in making a purchasing decision, is that of “true cost”.  That means you should consider the ecological and psychological consequences of choosing one product over another.  The life cycle analyses done by many companies and government-funded studies are all important in helping us make these assessments.  But I certainly am not claiming that’s an easy thing to do – who has the time to slog through these reports?  As an example of what I’m talking about:    using paper cups that are compostable sounds great  – but what about the fact they’re probably made from corn, a monoculture crop that often displaces valuable forests and wetlands, and uses tons of fertilizers which are responsible for dead zones in oceans?  What about the fact that corn is being used for other things, such as a biofuel, contributing to food shortages in poor countries?  Or consider the world’s first LEED platinum building, the Philip Merrill Environmental Center of the Chesapeak Bay Foundation, which has all the most up to date technology to save energy.  But Environmental Building News pointed out that the new building was constructed 10 miles from the original headquarters in downtown Annapolis – meaning that many of the 100 employees who walked or bicycled to work now must drive.  For new office buildings, energy consumption by commuters is double that of buildings.
But  let’s say you do slog your way through feel-good slogans to make a decision which you feel is based on solid evidence.  You’re ready to buy.
For an individual, remember – your purse gives you a lot of power.  In fact, Diane MacEachern founded Big Green Purse to encourage 1,000,000 women to shift at least $1,000 of money they already spend on everyday items to a comparable item which is a better environmental choice.  That totals  an initial $1 billion Big Green Purse impact.  Companies listen when their bottom lines are affected.  So when you buy an eco fabric, the industry notices and is nudged to begin to change their ways.
The Designers Accord is a global coalition of designers, educators, and business leaders working together to create positive environmental and social impact.  Adopters of the Designers Accord commit to five guidelines that provide collective and individual ways to integrate sustainability into design, which include:
  • working to increase awareness of the importance of using sustainable practices in all products and processes
  • bringing sustainability to all aspects of undergraduate and graduate design programs so that the next generation of designers is able to practice sustainably;
  • codify best practices to achieve the greatest impact
  • influence policy
As an interior designer, involved each day, perhaps,  in the purchase of a wide variety of products (including fabrics) – you have enormous power.  Susan Szenasy,editor of Metropolis magazine,  in a speech at the American Institute of Graphic Arts National Design Conference, put it this way:  ” Think about this for a moment: an interior designer will buy 1,200 ergonomic chairs for one job, while you and I may buy 12 chairs in a lifetime. If each interior designer demanded that the chairs they specify be designed for disassembly, made of non-toxic materials, and their parts not shipped from thousands of miles away where they might be made by semi-slave labor, the contract furniture industry would have to pay attention.”
Daniel Yang, writing on the ethics of design, said:  “Most discussion of ethical design (if mentioned at all) usually revolves around using environmentally sustainable materials, or doing a communications campaign for a non-profit group. Rarely is the relationship between designer, client, and end user questioned. Yet it’s something that nearly every designer is faced with on a daily basis. It’s easy to refuse a client when much of society denounces it, as in the case of Big Tobacco. It’s a lot harder to advocate against a client’s marketing plans when most of the people that end up consuming the product will probably never come back to complain. We pick and choose our battles, but if we retreat from every fight we’ll eventually have nothing left of a professional soul. Erring on the side of the users over the client might cost you your job, but at least your integrity as a designer will be intact. This isn’t an issue of legal liability, but rather an ethical issue of creating the kind of world we want to live in. After all, we are all end-users of products that someone else is designing.

How can the designer be held responsible if the client is approving everything? It’s true that the client is historically the one deciding what functions something will have, because they assume the financial risk of failures. But a designer isn’t a mindless agent producing a product from a blueprint. There may be specifications, but the designer is the one drawing the blueprint. This is where the designer’s role as an expert advisor comes into play. Hopefully, the client hired the designer because of his expertise in understanding how a particular medium functions. It is assumed that he has a body of knowledge that is deeper than the client’s in a particular area. It wouldn’t make sense for the client to seek the designer’s services otherwise. Thus the ethical burden is placed on the designer because the client does not have the expertise that the designer does. The client can plead ignorance but the designer cannot.”

But lest you are disheartened by the above, Susan Szenasy ended her speech by saying:

“So, is there any good news in all of this? Yes. And it has to do with design. Designers today stand on the brink of being seen by society as essential contributors to its health, safety, and welfare. If you—together with the other design professions—decide to examine the materials and processes endemic to your work, as well as demand that these materials and processes become environmentally safe, you will be the heroes of the 21st Century.”