Today’s shoppers are more environmentally conscious but what is the most sustainable furniture you can buy? Sustainability isn’t limited to the material your furniture is made from, but also incorporates aspects such as social impact, the gases it releases into your home environment as it wears down or if it can be reused.
‘Sustainable furniture’ labels can be attached to everything from bio-degradable and natural resources to recycled materials, commonly plastic and wood. Many resources are promoted as environmentally viable, but how true are their claims when taking in the full process?
Here we compares the sustainability of plastic, wood and metal furniture, taking into account the whole process – from manufacturing to releasing gases in your home environment. Perhaps surprisingly, when taking in the full process of production, transport, manufacturing and air pollution, few resources have as simple and low impact as wooden furniture. However, wood is just one product among many that can be chosen for sustainable furniture, depending on which sustainable factors are most important to you.
What is sustainable furniture?
To determine if your furniture is sustainable, PAROTAS has put together the below list. Sustainable furniture should check off as many factors as possible below:
- Low energy required to produce
- Little to no waste or hazardous by-products
- Low greenhouse gas emissions
- Low air pollution contribution
- High reusability
- Made from natural materials or fibres.
Sustainability has also traditionally incorporated elements of social equity, economic demand as well as environmental responsibility, for example, choosing certified wood over illegally sourced materials. Your furniture may be cheaper but the detriment to both social and environmental aspects reduces its sustainability.
When choosing sustainable furniture, it is also important to consider the quality of products and how well they are constructed to withstand generations of use: Reusability is the most sustainable way to reduce any further environmental impact.
Below we take a look at the environmental impact of producing wood, metal and plastic furniture – and which ranks the best as the most sustainable furniture.
Sustainable furniture: Wood, metal or plastic?
Sustainable Factor #1: Production and transport pollution
The conversion of raw materials into a usable product is typically the largest contribution to your furniture’s carbon footprint, representing the most pollution in a product’s entire life cycle. Transport also contributes to air pollution, although producers can implement environmental practices to offset their carbon footprint; if a company does it, it will typically be shown via a sustainable label or award.
When weighing up production, the processing of metal is by far the least sustainable due to the reliance on fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, and chemicals for turning it into a usable product. In contrast, wood and plastic furniture typically rank as being the most sustainable materials, with respect to having the lowest environmental impact to produce and transport, as shown below:
- Metals require the most manufacturing to convert into usable materials, contributing many harmful substances that contribute to greenhouse gases. Metals are also heavy and logistics is typically a complex, machine-based process, all adding to the carbon footprint of metal furniture.
- On the opposite end of the scale sits plastic, which is relatively easy to create. However, the sustainability of plastic is reduced by its reliance on petrol-based chemicals, although it is possible to purchase bioplastics (made from natural resources, such as vegetable oils) or recycled plastic. Plastics are also typically light and easy to transport, contributing the lowest to transport pollution.
- Compared to resources such as metals or plastics, timber requires only minor processing, which at its simplest form can involve a saw or an axe. Processing must include drying, however this can be done naturally (air dried) or using a kiln. The maintenance and drying process of kilns are generally chemical free, unlike the other two furniture materials. Wood shavings and dust generated from sawing can be used to power certain kilns, such as boiler kilns, meaning by-products are not wasted.
WINNER: Wood is the most sustainable choice with regards to contributing the least pollution during production – but is heavy to transport. In terms of transport pollution, plastic furniture has the lowest environmental impact.
Sustainable Factor #2: Renewability and reusability
In isolation, production and transport does not solely determine a furniture’s sustainability. High-energy production, such as required for metal, can be partly offset by a material’s ability to be reused over and over again.
However metals are extracted from the earth’s crust and renewed on geological timelines, so renewability is evidently low, taking thousands of years and specific conditions to replace resources. This might be justified by the high reusability and long life-span of metal furniture, although sustainability is reduced somewhat if the metal must be broken down and re-manufactured into another shape.
Comparing reusability, in contrast, the sustainability of plastic is reduced because of its easy wear and consequent low reuse of plastic furniture, despite being easy to produce or ‘renew’. Additionally, its reliance on petrol-based chemicals, a relatively non-renewable resource, drains the sustainability points of plastic’s renewability. However, there is an increased use of recycle, biodegradable and eco-friendly plastics, which have a lesser environmental impact.
Wood, on the other hand, manages to strike a balance between the two; its renewability is considered short – trees can regrow in 10–30 years – and its reusability is relatively high, with wooden furniture often lasting several generations. Although, it should be noted that the sustainability of wooden furniture is reduced in low-quality products, for example, plywood furniture, as opposed to good-quality, natural slabs of wood.
WINNER: Wood is the clear leader for its balance on both ends of the spectrum, with a relatively short renewability period and a relatively long life-span.
Sustainable Factor #3: By-products and bio-degradability
In contrast to common furniture materials such as plastic, glass, aluminium and steel, wood can often be reused without breakdown or complete remanufacture. Additionally, out of all the furniture materials, wood is the only material where all by-products can be used (in this case, of the tree) and completely degraded by natural ecosystems in several years.
Bio-degradable plastic, as the name implies, can also be decomposed – and in relatively short times, too, up to six months for small items. Its synthetic counterpart, however, can take several hundred years to disappear, so the type of plastic furniture you choose has an astronomical effect on its sustainability value.
A negative markdown, though, is the problem of plastic pollution as it decomposes, which has shown to kill wildlife, clutter waterways and pollute cities. This is in contrast to composting wood, which can become a resource for natural environments.
Additionally, wood by-products from processing include woodchips and sawdust, which are both usable, while an economic use can be found for almost all parts of a tree in proper sustainable practices; for example, parota tree seeds are a high-protein food source and the bark contains tannins for leather tanning. Shavings and sawdust can be used in boilers, garden mulch or as a raw material for other industrial uses. Unsuitable logs, chips and waste cuts can also be converted into reconstituted wood panel products (particleboard, medium density fibreboard or MDF, hardboard and blackboard), or paper and cardboard. Intact wood pieces can also typically be reused in other applications, such as doors, windows, skirting boards, frames, flooring, landscaping, fuel.
WINNER: Besides being the only natural and degradable resource, wood is also noted for its complete usability of by-products. Bio-degradable plastic, however, should be noted for its quick decomposition, although plastic pollution is known to be harmful.
Sustainable Factor #4: Impact on air quality
Besides the air pollution produced during production, discussed in point one, certain materials can also release harmful gases as they ‘break down’ with daily use. Synthetic plastic furniture in particular can release harmful gaseous substances that contribute to air pollution as they wear down.
As a natural product, wood doesn’t contribute to poor indoor air quality, however, toxic coatings, such a varnish, can be harmful. This can be reduced by using natural treatments, for example, PAROTAS uses a unique blend of natural oils on their wooden furniture.
Additionally, while neither metal or plastic can claim any points for improving air quality, wood furniture goes as far as to store the carbon dioxide that was absorbed when growing as a tree. Trees are widely known for their air cleaning properties, taking in carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen. The carbon dioxide stored in the wood is not released even when a tree has been harvested and processed into timber products – but it is released when burnt, meaning reused wood will always be the most sustainable furniture choice, or buying new wood furniture with the intention to keep it for a long time.
Interestingly, trees can store up to 48 pounds (22kg) of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester up to 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time they are 40 years old. However, their air cleaning abilities reduce somewhat as they age and growth slows. This provides an argument for the sustainable practices of reforestation, where forests can be used as a pollution solution and, when no longer efficient cleaning vehicles, as an economic source, with furniture being one of the best ways to not release the carbon dioxide back into the air.
WINNER: Wood is the only material that improves air quality, although, toxic coatings can contribute to air pollution in your home, so choosing natural treatments is more sustainable.
What is the most sustainable furniture?
While bio-degradable plastic presents a strong argument for being a highly sustainable furniture choice, overall wood furniture wins more categories to become the most sustainable furniture. However, this is provided it is high quality wood (that can be reused) and treated with natural oils, as well as coming from a certified source.
PAROTAS combines carpenters, designers and architects to provide custom parota wood furniture of even the most ambitious modern designs. The parota tree can be sustainably sourced in its native regions in Mexico and Central America, where it thrives in humid zones and all parts of the tree can be used. Read more on the sustainability of parota (guanacaste) and the qualities of parota wood or contact PAROTAS to ask about your custom design. You can see the unique colour and grain of parota on our page on live edge wood.