Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking to furnish my new apartment and wondering if you could point me toward some sustainable options? — B.C., New York
In the U.S., sustainable living has gained momentum in recent years as more and more Americans make conscious efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Reusable shopping bags, greater recycling, and electric cars are major successes when it comes to greening our everyday lives. And a lesser known but no less substantial contributor to environmental damage comes from a source of our comfort: home furnishings.
Economically speaking, Americans spend nearly $120 billion on furniture and bedding per year, and 84% buy furnishings new. This increased demand, leading to increased production, means that companies looking to cut costs rely on cheaper, less sustainable materials. This results in to furniture that’s not built to last and therefore ends up on the curb. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 9 million tons of furniture enter landfills every year. On top of that, the manufacturing of many of these furnishings consumes considerable amounts of natural resources, and some may contain toxic chemicals that impact both the environment and human health.
Fortunately, there are ethical and sustainable options available when it comes to furnishing a home or apartment.
A large number of companies now offer green-friendly products that use sustainable materials and manufacturing methods. Chicago’s What WE Make specializes in furniture using reclaimed wood, custom-made-to-order. Masaya & Co. produces handmade tables, chairs, bed frames, dressers and more using sustainable materials and low-impact methods, and for every product sold, the company plants 100 trees in Nicaragua, where products are manufactured. Alabama Sawyer makes furniture from local tree waste, and Emeco makes chairs from recycled materials and uses 100 percent recyclable shipping and packing materials. Medley makes all types of home furnishings with sustainable materials such as bamboo and organic latex, free of toxic chemical finishes. Avocado Green Mattress makes eco-friendly bedding with nontoxic materials and ethically sourced labor practices. Etsy partners with sellers who specialize in items crafted with reclaimed plastic fibers, cotton, linen, wool and responsibly-sourced woods.
Second-hand furniture offers further options for sustainable furnishings.
“The most sustainable products are those that already exist,” says Nicole Sarto of Stanford magazine.
Local charity shop items tend to be quality pickings simply in need of washing or a new paint job. IKEA now has a furniture buyback program, giving store credit for second-hand IKEA furniture that they refurbish and resell. Furniture rental is also an option for sustainably furnishings, especially if a person changes residence frequently.
Beyond furniture, the smaller details of a home or apartment can also be sustainably sourced. Water-saving showerheads, eco-friendly lighting, and energy-saving curtains and blinds are all items to consider when furnishing a space.
Like any sustainable lifestyle choice, furnishing a home or apartment is about more than choosing a comfortable couch or chic end table. It’s about how the item was made, what it’s made with, and where it’s ultimately going to end up.
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