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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GreenGuard certification

10 08 2011

GreenGuard was launched in 2000 by Atlanta-based for-profit Air Quality Sciences (AQS), which is now a separate not-for-profit organization. Although GreenGuard was not designed specifically for fabrics, it is often advertised that a fabric is GreenGuard certified, because GreenGuard certified products can automatically meet the requirements of LEED 2009 CI Credit 4.5 and BIFMA X7.1.

GreenGuard has developed proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines based on standards developed by the government and by industrial bodies.  Maximum allowable emission levels in air concentrations, according to their website,  are based on those required by the state of Washington‘s indoor air quality program for new construction, the U. S. EPA’s procurements specifications, the recommendations from the World Health Organization, Germany’s Blue Angel Program,  LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI).

GreenGuard  has introduced a special certification, called GreenGuard Children and Schools,  which is intended to be applied to products which are used in schools, daycares, healthcare facilities, and places where sensitive adults may reside or work.  This certification is necessary because, as they say on their website, “children are more sensitive to environmental exposures than adults. Their bodies are still developing including their brains. They breathe faster than adults and in return receive a higher dose of indoor pollution per body weight. To account for inhalation exposure to young children, a body burden correction factor has been applied to the current GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified® allowable levels.”

Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves GreenGuard certified.  The GreenGuard Product Guide has become a purchasing tool for thousands of specifiers as they depend on it to preselect environmentally preferable products.

In order to become certified, all products are tested in dynamic environmental chambers following test methods as posted on the GreenGuard Environmental Institute (GEI)  web site.   The tests are designed to measure emitting chemicals coming from a product; that means it tests only for evaporating chemicals –  chemicals which are a gas at room temperature.  Specifically, for the GreenGuard certification, emission criteria are established for total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOC), formaldehyde, total aldehydes, all individual chemicals with currently published Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), respirable particles and certain odorants and irritants.  The requirements for Children and Schools is more stringent and includes limits on emissions for total phthalates,  consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP) and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates, because, again according to the GreenGuard website, “Results from recent research indicate that inhalation is an important route of exposure to phthalates and that these chemicals have been associated with endocrine disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, asthma and allergies.”

GreenGuard, by measuring only emitting chemicals, is significant for what it does not measure:

  • It does not measure any of the heavy metals (lead, mercury, copper, etc.), such as those used in fabric dyestuffs, because they are not emitted at standard indoor air conditions;
  • It does not measure PVC,  which is a polymer and therefore not volatile (however, some PVC based product types have a special formulation which enables them to meet GreenGuard standards);
  • It does not measure phthalates  except in the Children and Schools certification; phthalates are semi volatile, and don’t begin to evaporate until approximately 7 days after exposure to the air.
  • It does not evaluate the manufacture of a product, nor any byproducts created during production or disposal
  • It does not evaluate any social justice issues
  • It does not evaluate carbon footprint issues

Nobody can debate that we need to rid the indoor environment from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on people’s health, productivity and quality of life.  Since

Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers.  It is incumbent on them to specify products (including fabrics) that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air.  But it is also true that air quality is not the only contributor to poor health, productivity and quality of life of the occupants of indoor spaces – after all, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it’s quite permeable.  So designers should not take this certification as assurance that a product is the best environmental choice – not only does it bypass those chemicals that do not evaporate, it does not look at the production of the fabric, any social justice issues, nor does it look at carbon footprint.  Indeed, a product containing PVC, one of the most toxic substances known – highly toxic in all its phases: manufacture, use, and disposal – can be  GreenGuard certified.

According to GreenGuard itself, as is published on their web site:  GreenGuard is a product emissions performance-based standard, and as such, the complete toxicity effects of the chemical emissions from the products tested are beyond its scope.

So what are the take aways?  Remember that GreenGuard tests for emitting chemicals only, and they do that very well.   But it should not be used as a tool to evaluate a product’s environmental impact and safety.