These days it seems that everything is “eco-friendly.” It can be challenging to separate fact from fiction. What is really an environmentally friendly product and what is a sales pitch? The truth is, short of living in a tree and catching your own food (without tools) there is no perfectly carbon neutral product.
Knowing the right questions to ask is important to make the right choices for yourself and your family. At Modify Furniture, we have done extensive research on materials, manufacturing and other processes that impact how green a product is. We have chosen the materials for our furniture based many factors in an effort to offer our customers highest quality furniture while minimizing environmental impact. We have compiled an outline to help consumers ask the right questions when purchasing products for their home.
1. Materials used: The most obvious question is, “what is the product made of?” Most home furnishing products are made from wood, metal and/or plastics.
For wood products, reclaimed wood is an obvious choice as it does not require cutting down trees. It is important, however to know what that material is finished with (more on this below). Cork and bamboo are both rapidly renewable products. Growing bamboo is actually a carbon negative process although this benefit may be somewhat minimized depending on ultimate traveling distance. U.S. based bamboo manufacturer, Teregren is currently in the process of growing their bamboo on american soil.
modify desk in bamboo
Considering metals, both steel and aluminum are recyclable materials. While prime (no recycled content) aluminum requires high energy in the production process, recycled content aluminum greatly reduces this burden. The EPA states that Recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy cost of processing new aluminum. The superior structural integrity and longevity of products made with aluminum is also an important benefit. We proudly source our raw aluminum from a local manufacturer that guarantees an average of 30% recycled content, a proportion that is optimal environmentally while still offering superior quality and structure.
When buying products made with wood, look for items made with FSC certified or recycled-content wood materials. Keep in mind that reclaimed wood may carry health risks related to the finishing products originally used, information which could be unknown. The website, http://www.woodguide.org/guides/materials/ has a wonderful in depth review of sustainability of wood materials.
Plastics can often be recycled but it is important to check labels to be sure that the product you want to purchase is made with recyclable plastic. Additionally, many products out there are are made from 100% recycled plastic.
2. Where did the materials come from and how far did they travel? Raw materials traveling long distances to the manufacturing plant only to travel yet again to reach the end user expend energy. Look for companies that source materials locally when possible.
3. Manufacturing process/waste management. This can be difficult for a consumer to determine. Look for companies that are transparent about their efforts to minimize waste and avoid excess inventory. Keep in mind, most products do produce some waste, so look for companies that recycle their scrap and use materials that are recyclable. At Modify, we have researched lean manufacturing techniques and designed innovative programs that effectively minimize waste. Additionally, our made-to-order model limits excess inventory.
4. Finishing processes. As important as the materials used in a product is what they are finished with. Eco-friendly bamboo or cork coated with toxic oil-based paints and varnishes are toxic to workers and consumers. Look for products with low VOC finishes only. While water based topcoats are typically low VOC, they do require stripping and refinishing for any repair work. For our bamboo finishing, we chose a low VOC natural oil-wax product not only for it’s rich luxurious finish and safety profile, but also for customers’ ability to spot repair if necessary.
5. Packaging materials- It is important to also consider how products get to their final destination. Flat packing requires less packaging and takes up less room during transport, which translates to lower enegy consumption during transportation. Almost all cardboard packaging is made from recycled material (often 100%). Plastic wrapping that is made from recycled material is usually green tinted. Newer packaging materials including mushroom packaging and biodegradable peanuts are making their way to the market as well.
6. Product quality. “Disposable” furniture even if made with eco-friendly materials is not particularly green. Look for quality products that will last for years to come. Also look for designs versatile in function so you won’t “outgrow” them.
7. What’s in a name. Looking for products that are Cradle to Cradle certified will assure you that that your products are eco-friendly. They have the most stringent criteria for certifying products as eco-friendly products. However, it is also important to keep in mind that obtaining these seals require extensive costs and time and can be challenging for younger companies to “prove their worth” compared to larger corporations.