Before any major purchase like a couch, most of us do a little research online. All major retailers with a brick and mortar store offer most of their products online. In each couch’s product description, we can easily check the price, the exact dimensions, available colors, and the type of materials used.
In the case of furniture quality, the construction of the frame is just as important as the materials used. All these details together reveal whether that cool couch is safe for you and sustainable for the planet.
We cannot assume that toxins like VOCs in glues and varnishes, formaldehyde in particle board, and flame retardants in foam do not exist in our furniture. The federal government does not yet regulate every single bad element, so knowing the long term implications of certain couch materials can save us in the future.
Reviews of my favorite retailers
The following comments examine the credibility of the materials used, and the transparency of how the information is presented. Each retailer is a major player in their market, so their leadership towards sustainability and protecting our physical health can define an industry.
The People and Planet branding is well represented in the trail blazing commitments described in their 2016 Sustainability Report and Sustainability Strategy for 2020. The reduction of conventional couch foam, which is not recyclable or biodegradable, is not clearly defined in either report. The following image is most applicable and suggests the addition of soy-oil to mattresses, but not to couch foam. Technically, mattress and couch foam are the same thing, just different densities.
Chemical recycling is a newer solution to reusing and reducing our global consumption of plastic. We are in the early phases of developing this chemistry and I commend Dendro Poland for setting the example now. Similarly, the supplier of my natural latex foam shreds all their scraps and sells it as cushion filling, so nothing is ever wasted.
The biggest concern is the Prop 65 warning in the product's description. The wood used in the frame is likely particle board which can contain formaldehyde, and is known to cause cancer. There are many products and retailers that offer products free of formaldehyde or are sealed with paint or veneer that limit off gassing. Just read the online warnings and double check labeling while in the actual store.
Crate and Barrel: Gia Sofa
Crate and Barrel believes their "environmental initiatives and social responsibilities.....are foremost in every company and product decision we make". In the upholstery section of the environmental initiatives, they cover all the bases with certified wood, partially recycled steel springs, and are committed to minimizing the use of polyurethane foam with more energy efficient alternatives. Of course, we still know that only 100% natural latex foam is biodegradable, and all other current alternatives are plastic versions.
The best statement, "green improvements are typically associated with higher costs, we are bringing these upgrades to our customers without added expense", establishes the expectations between consumer and retailer of the industry's changing focus towards sustainability. With a tighter profit margin, design and production will require more flexibility, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. All companies will need these skills and mindset to compete in the future if they hear the public's call for more environmentally safe products.
Restoration Hardware: Madison Upholstered Sofa
The real meaning of deconstructed details
Hopefully you've gained some insight to how product descriptions walk the thin line between honest information and selective marketing jargon. Retailers cannot ignore the public's push towards non-toxic products that are safe for people and planet. Retailers' commitment level will be clearly stated like Ikea and Crate and Barrel, elusive like Target's corporate responsibility, or totally absent in lieu of investor relations as is the case for Restoration Hardware.
If consumers persist with savvy and trusted knowledge, then manufacturers will keep pace with innovative and attractive products that do more good than harm.
The true retail leaders will balance the importance of people, planet, and profit, and will incorporate these ethics into their marketing. As consumers, brand loyalty should only be granted to those who prove they are worthy and consistent. We're all in this together, one planet and shared fate, so honesty still remains the best policy.