Here’s How To Tell If Your Furniture Is Environmentally Friendly

by JR Thorpe
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Furnishing your new place is always an exciting endeavor — are you going all millennial pinks or minimalist bronze accessories? — but increasingly, younger generations are looking for a crucial element in their décor-buying decisions: whether their furniture is eco-friendly. Architectural Digest reported in 2018 that, according to data from furniture maker West Elm, "about 85 percent of millennials seek out responsibly sourced product." For millennials, furniture doesn't just need to look good; it needs to be part of a wider environmentally-friendly context, from its manufacturing to its purpose.

Sustainably-made furniture is becoming easier to find, and there are new innovations being made every day; high-end furniture makers are looking to innovative recycled materials to produce new pieces, according to Wallpaper, while cheaper options are being constructed out of everything from mushrooms to recycled plastic and tree bark. If you're on a hunt for environmentally friendly furniture, it's no longer likely that you'll be met with a clueless look from your local furniture salesperson. Making sure that you get sustainable furniture doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot; it means asking the right questions and doing your research to identify where your product comes from, how it's made and how well it'll last. Here are five key ways to ensure your furniture is doing the least amount of harm to the planet.


Is It Secondhand?

One of the easiest ways to source sustainable furniture is to find it secondhand, as that prevents pieces from going into landfill or otherwise being wasted. "Going for secondhand pieces is ideal for reusing furniture that others throw away," advises the organization Active Sustainability. They add that if you have something to get rid of, be aware that you may be able to trade it, thus increasing the life of both pieces and keeping them away from the landfill. "Exchanging is the oldest way to get what we need in exchange for something we no longer want."

Hit up junk sales, backyard sales, secondhand furniture stores and fairs, and places like Freecycle to see what's available in your area. Though, one piece of advice that holds for new and secondhand furniture alike: It's not a good idea to agree to buy a piece of furniture before you've seen it. Always book a viewing to try it out before any money changes hands.


Is The Maker A Sustainable Producer?

If you're buying new and want to keep the environment in mind, you may need to put in some legwork to determine the sustainability values of the producer. Who made your couch, table, or new cool sideboard? Scientific American suggests checking whether they're listed by the Sustainability Furniture Council, "a non-profit formed in 2006 to help develop solid standards and certification processes within the home furnishings industry." If your maker is listed there, it's likely that it tries to use sustainable business practices when it comes to making and shipping your furniture. There are also organizations like Cradle To Cradle, which aims to document the entire journey of a furniture piece and see how it scores in sustainability along the way.

Even big producers like IKEA can have sustainable practices; the company has started a furniture-rental center, and places like Climate Action critique its annual sustainability report pretty thoroughly. They also now have a sustainable range, so just because something comes from a sizeable producer, they don't have an excuse.

Having the product delivered? Check what the packaging options are. Huge amounts of plastic packaging worldwide — up to 95 percent of all packaging made — ends up in oceans every year, according to a study published in 2016. Do they offer a non-plastic delivery option, or one using sustainable materials or recycled plastics?


What Materials Were Used To Make It?

An important factor in a piece of furniture's sustainability is what it's made of. Fortunately, there are ways to check. Ron Barth of Resource Furniture told the Huffington Post in 2016 that you should check if fabric is certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard program, which "mandates that at least 70 percent of fibers are derived from organic sources and do not contain chemical dyes or other additives," and that any wood has been certified as sustainably harvested.

Sustainable materials can vary widely. The Spruce noted in 2016 that bamboo is a particularly good source, because it "grows easily and can be replaced very quickly, so it can be used as a renewable resource." Reclaimed or recycled wood is sustainable too, as are cork, agriboard and aluminum pieces; green design organization Inhabitat explains that a lot of aluminum furniture already contains recycled material. However, they also caution that wood sustainability is difficult to measure as only 12 percent of forestry is covered by any kind of certification, so making sure your wood piece comes from green producers can be tricky.


Is It Efficient And Well-Made?

Function matters when it comes to sustainability. The fewer pieces you buy and the longer they last, the more you're building a sustainable home. "Any furniture that increases efficiency by providing greater utility for the user, such as multifunctional furniture is always preferable," explains The Spruce. "It will take up less space and effectively solve the problem that it was meant to address."

Cutting down your need for multiple pieces by combining several furniture items into one — for instance, a bed that has storage underneath, an extendable table with drawers, or an coffee table that doubles as a bookcase — isn't just for space-poor people in apartments. It also reduces the amount of furniture you'll buy overall. Bonus for the world and your bank account.


5. Can You Recycle Or Revamp It?

Sustainable furniture needs to be well-made; the longer it works, the less often you need to buy a replacement. Once the life of a piece of furniture is done, or it breaks, what can you do with it? Best case scenario is that it's able to be fixed, or you can update the upholstery, or otherwise update it a piece at a time (without tossing the core of the piece). Some bits of furniture are already up-cycled by the time you get them, which adds to their sustainability score. However, if you want to have sustainability at home, it's a good idea to learn how to lengthen the lives of the furniture you've got.

"Refurbishing, refinishing, and reupholstering greatly extend the lives of furniture pieces. For a rewarding feeling of accomplishment and pride, take a class or watch online videos on furniture reupholstering or refinishing, and do it yourself," green homes expert Tom Watson wrote for the Seattle Times in 2014. Furniture up-cycling is really popular these days, so there are a lot of ways to learn how to do it — and it's a great skill to have when you're just tired of your current decorating scheme. No need to buy something new; just put on a new slip-cover, add new legs, and you have an entirely new look.

Some producers have ways for you to repair and revamp your furniture; Gispen, a furniture maker in the Netherlands, has a circular business model that means you can send in old furniture to be upgraded or recycled. When you're buying, check out whether your producer has a similar scheme.


Environmentally friendly furniture can be a reality in your home if you do a bit of research and don't mind getting a bit down-and-dirty when it comes to updating or recycling it. Do your research, educate yourself on what you want to prioritize, and save up for well-made, efficient pieces rather than the cheap stuff that will break and need to be replaced quickly.