Questions to Ask When Looking for Sustainable Furniture

Sustainability has become very important to my firm and also to our clients. We are providing answers as they seek choices meeting their needs for style, value and eco-responsibility. Last week, I was a panelist on the Aspire Design Magazine Tour. I joined four other industry professionals in talking about Sustainability from trend to lifestyle and how to guide clients toward conscious choices.

When it comes to selecting materials for renovation projects and purchasing furniture, we’ve learned that it’s important to ask a few questions first, to see if it meets the needs of the eco conscious consumer. 

What’s it made of?

The Sustainable Furnishings Council has an eight question scorecard for retailers to become ranked. Some highly ranked examples are Mitchel Gold – Bob Williams, Room & Board, and Urban Green.

Where does the wood come from?

The most important aspect in wood purchasing is making sure it is legally harvested from responsibly managed forests. Look for certified (example: Forest Stewardship Council CSF), reclaimed wood, North American grown wood, or Plantation grown woods. 

What about textiles?

The best solution is to look for organically grown natural fibers.

Textile production accounts for more toxic pollution of water than any other industry. Toxic chemicals are used in both growing natural fibers, creating synthetic fiber and is used in processing the fiber into thread, making the fabric and finishing the cloth.

How about leather?

There are good and bad sustainable sides to leather.

Leather is often produced in a toxic process using vast quantities of water and many chemicals, including heavy metals that pollute waterways.

Leather products also have a very large transportation footprint. They may come from South America, are sent to Europe for the tanning and manufactured in Asian before the product is purchased in the U.S.

But, leather lasts a long time and it’s durable, which is an important part of sustainability.

Were paints or finishes with high VOCs used on this product?

VOCs stand for Volatile Organic Compounds, which off-gasses during manufacturing and continue to be released years after the product has reached the home. What you need to look for here are paints or stains with low VOC finishes. These are water based, as opposed to oil based (paint). 

Were fire retardants used in the foam?

Flame retardants were put in mattresses and furniture cushions until 2013. That’s when studies were concluded to show causation to cancer, birth defects, impaired fertility and problems with children’s growth and brain development.

What can you do?

Check the label on your furniture and confirm that it does not contain chemical fire retardants.

If you’re concerned you have a sofa with these cushions you can cut a marble-sized piece of the cushion and send it to Duke or Berkeley University for testing. We had a client whose sectional cushions were replaced at the manufacturer’s cost because it was an older sofa from a reputable maker. When I called and mentioned how these older cushions were found to be cancer-causing, my reputable vendor immediately responded. The vendor offered to replace the cushions at their cost with no profit margin.

Current Concerns With Toxic Chemicals In Our Homes

Surprisingly, house dust is currently the primary way we are exposed to toxic flame retardants. The best practice here, is to keep dust under control in the home, replace old furniture, don’t pass down old furniture and be very careful about new buying decisions.

Along with the flame retardants group, fluorinated stain and protection treatments are a concern, as well.

Anti-microbials are most often found in mattresses. The big concern is our long exposure to them while sleeping.

Formaldehyde is another concern. Examples are the adhesive in kitchen cabinetry, flooring adhesive, and carpet backing. These all can be made with formaldehyde which continues off-gassing years after the installation date.

What can you do?

“Crypton” and “Inside Out” branded performance fabrics are a better choice and also are members of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. The protection is actually woven into the fabric and not sprayed onto the surface. This along with rigorous testing has allowed the stamp of approval by the Sustainable Furnishing Council.

Carpets now have ratings from the CRI stating Green Guard at various levels.

For cabinetry and flooring we can ask for non- formaldehyde adhesives. The more we request it, the more the manufacturers will provide healthy alternatives.

Where was the furniture made?

Using local workrooms is better for our economy for two main reasons. Using vendors that use materials and natural products from within a 500-mile radius from where its being made is better for the environment and will also provide local employment to help your local economy.

Kitchen & Bath Countertop Fabrication Facilities Must Protect Their Workers

NPR and Architectural Digest both had articles in October of this year where they reported lung disease with workers who are cutting kitchen and bath counter tops.

We know Quartz has exploded in popularity. From 2010-2018 the imports of the material rose 800%. The benefits with Quartz are that it’s less likely than natural stone to crack or stain, but they make this engineered stone by embedding bits of quarts in a resin binder. That means quartz is almost entirely composed of crystalline silica (90%). In relation granite is 45% silica and marble is 10% silica. What we are now discovering is many cases of silicosis, a lung disease, can be progressive and has no treatment except for a lung transplant. The dust is the main problem, and preventative measures can be taken by the fabricator. Once in your home, there is no danger with these products.

What can you do?

Look around the floors and surfaces for the white powdery dust. If it is prevalent, they are not taking care of their workers. Look for fabricators that are accredited by the National Stone Institute. In these cases, they invite OSHA in to inspect their facilities and train them in the preventative measures needed to protect their workers.


The bottom line is to be more aware. We are all exposed to many of these things, but we can find ways to be exposed to them less. Indoor air quality is 5-10 more polluted than outdoors, but by opening our windows just ten minutes in the morning we drastically improve the indoor air quality, and thus our sleep as well.

Showing concern for our health, the health of workers, and the health of our planet are all just ways to keep us connected and improving other aspects of our daily lives. To quote my dear friend Susan Inglis, President of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, “Our goal is to just be moving the needle and increasing awareness.” She has really opened up my eyes and I hope I’ve helped a few of you as well. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at or our studio line at 203-890-9292.

The Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC), American Sustainable Business Council, Center for Environmental Health, Healthy Materials Lab of Parsons School of Design and others are partnering for the “What’s it Made of Initiative”. The program is designed to help consumers ask and find out what everything they use is made of and where it came from. It also encourages transparency in supply chains and hopefully to stimulate innovation to reduce harmful chemical inputs to the manufacture of furnishings.