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SUSTAINABLE FURNITURE. HOW TO BUY IN 2023

Buying sustainably is getting easier. In the food and fashion industries, producers and retailers are talking more to customers about the environmental and social impact of their products, helping them to make an informed choice. But what about items for the home? How do you find and buy sustainable furniture?

First, an insider tip: crawling around the furniture section of a department store on hands and knees is a quick way to embarrass your family. Easily makes top five in the list of Bad Dad Behaviour (BDB), I’d say.

I’m looking for labels, for knowledge. The ‘made in’ sticker under a dining room table. A tag dangling from the leg of a work-from-home office desk. Something that will tell me where that piece of furniture was manufactured, where the materials came from and who made it. An indication that this could be an item of sustainably made furniture.

Sometimes I just nudge it. See if wobbles. BDB top ten.

Looking online gives more scope for research. Sometimes, a manufacturer or retailer will have details of the furniture’s origins, to help with informed decision making.

But what questions should you be asking? Before you decide to buy online or in-store, how do you establish whether the piece of furniture you are considering purchasing is genuinely sustainable or eco-friendly?

What makes an item of furniture sustainable?

Several factors contribute to the sustainability (or unsustainability) of a piece of furniture. By asking a few core questions based around sustainable foundations we can begin to make an informed purchase. By the way, when we say ‘sustainable’, we mean in ecological, social and economic terms. Has the furniture been created in a way that carefully considers its impact in these three areas?

Does the furniture use sustainable design?

Has it been designed with an efficiency of materials? i.e. Does it use up as few physical resources as possible whilst still ensuring structural solidity and stability. For instance, do the legs really need to be that chunky?

Is the furniture durable and repairable?

This is really an extension of sustainable furniture design. Can the parts be easily replaced if they wear out or get broken? If you’re in a store, how do the office desk or shelving unit fair on the nudge test? Will they shake themselves apart in a couple of years, or are they solidly built? It’s worth noting here that flatpack doesn’t necessarily denote inferiority – well made, cleverly joined sustainable flatpack furniture can last for generations, and often has the advantage of replaceable parts, for easy repair.

How sustainable are the materials?

If the furniture is made from wood, is there a clearly stated origin for that wood? Where was the timber grown? Was it cultivated and managed in a way that safeguards – and ideally encourages – biodiversity and regeneration? There are various certifications available to show that timber has been sustainably produced, but there isn’t a huge amount of transparency for the buyer beyond the awarding of a benchmark pass. If you can, talk to the maker or retailer and ask them where the wood has come from; see if they know what species it is, how it was cultivated and how it arrived at their shop or workshop. The same questions on origin and composition can be asked of any material. Similarly, consider the finish used on the product – is the oil, wax, paint or varnish non-toxic or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds)? Did the manufacturer use a water-based glue?

Consider too what will happen to the furniture once it reaches the end of its life. Will the materials used to make your dining table or kitchen bench end up in landfill? Or can they be reused and recycled as part of the circular economy?

Timber yard in Suffolk with sawn timber air drying in stacks

How was the furniture manufactured?

For example, was your daybed made in a workshop that adopts energy-efficient production processes, such as using renewable energy sources? Do they deal with waste materials responsibly? To give an example, at Hyrst Furniture our partner workshop at HMP Warren Hill compacts wood offcuts into biomass briquettes that are used to generate heat for the workshop.

Who made the furniture?

Aside from environmental sustainability, there are issues of social and ethical responsibility to consider. Ask for information on who made the furniture, whether they were suitably rewarded for their labour and if they have safe working conditions. If the item has been made by artisans or communities overseas, consider if this workforce will still be employed when a cheaper source of labour emerges elsewhere in the world in the next few years. These aren’t easy questions, and in truth most retailers and manufacturers won’t have easy answers; the forces of globalisation play a huge role in the manufacturing and retail of furniture today. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t consider the issues, and – when possible – use them to help shape our decisions on goods and services.

Hyrst-furniture-maker-Ben-choosing-from-tool-cabinet-in-Suffolk-workshop

What is the geographical footprint of the furniture?

How far have the materials used in the furniture travelled? And how far has the finished item journeyed, from point of manufacture, via warehouse or shop, to reach your home? The distance of this supply chain, and the carbon produced by the transportation along the way, will have a significant sway on the environmental impact of your purchase. Whilst we’re talking about miles travelled, sustainable flatpack furniture such as our own Newcraft Desk again has an advantage here, its reduced volume enabling more items to be transported per shipment.

The question of cost

So, these are the core questions to ask; the points to consider when looking for sustainably made furniture. All of these factors will have a bearing on the environmental, social and economic impact of what you buy (and most of these questions can also be applied to other areas of purchasing, from clothes to food to other items for the home).

After which, the buying process for sustainable furniture reverts to more traditional lines of enquiry. Will it fit through the front door? Is it toddler proof? And, perhaps most importantly, how much does it cost?

All of the factors outlined above can have a bearing on cost. And it’s important to know that if you apply the suggested criteria – and exert your purchasing power based on questions about origin, distance travelled and materials – you won’t be buying the piece furniture with the lowest price tag. You will, however, be making an informed choice. And, over its elongated lifespan, the cost of that item may well balance out the cheaper alternatives that only survive five years at best.

Above all, look for transparency

As with food, fashion and most other goods, sustainability in the making and selling of furniture is signposted by transparency. A transparent chain of custody – from forest to home – is usually a good indicator that ethics, social responsibility and ecological sustainability have been carefully considered. If the chain of custody is bad or unchecked, the maker or retailer probably won’t be talking about it.

So, research online. Ask questions. And, of course, don’t be shy about getting down on your hands and knees. Do the hard yards in the furniture showroom. Look for those labels…

Learn more about the materials and manufacturing processes used in Hyrst’s own furniture; every item that we make and sell has its own story.

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