When considering how to purchase sustainable products, you need to consider the whole process: how products are made, what they are made of, where they come from – plus how they will be used and disposed of.
Sustainable product design needs to incorporate social, environmental, performance and financial factors. To determine what is sustainable, it’s also important to consider what products are needed in day-to-day life, and how best these meets can be met. PAROTAS provides a checklist below to help you choose sustainable product designs.
Sustainable products: definition
The University of Saskatchewan uses the following factors to determine sustainable products and materials. To decide if your product is sustainable, it should tick off as many factors below.
Sustainable products are defined as:
- Refurbished, reclaimed or reusable furniture
- Furniture with an eco-logo or certification
- Low pollution-emitting
- Made from natural fibres
Additional ways to be sustainable include not choosing products made with:
- Plastic foam containing CFCs or HCFCs
- Formaldehyde and chemcial-emitting materials
- Polyurethane foam
- Synthetic fibres
Sustainable products: Reusable or reclaimed furniture
Reducing the amount of new products made offsets all environmental factors, making reclaimed furniture one of the top ways to be sustainable. If you are choosing new furniture, then the quality and lifespan are important factors in determining if it is a sustainable product design – so you can ensure the sustainability chain is activated by passing your furniture down.
Keeping this is mind, the sustainability of ‘eco-friendly’ furniture can be reduced if the product is low quality and must be replaced in a few years – such as plastic furniture – as extra production contributes to more pollution. In contrast, the long-life and reusable nature of metals, such as steel or aluminum, slightly improves their sustainability rating, although the non-renewability and pollution associated with metal manufacturing make it one of the least ways to be sustainable.
Wooden furniture is also reusable and commonly passed down or reclaimed to make new designs. With the potential to last more than 100 years, sustainable wood products are one of the best environmental options to choose, provided the furniture is high quality and natural solid wood. Sustainable wood products do not typically include cheap wood furniture, for example, made from veneer, plywood, particleboard, fibreboard and laminated wood, not least for containing air-polluting adhesives which are not environmentally friendly.
Sustainable product certification and eco-logos
One symbol of sustainability is the eco-logo certification, which is granted to furniture producers that incorporate environmental leadership and practices reducing environmental impact, such as offsetting transport pollution or using ‘green’ manufacturing processes.
Natural resources, such as wood, can be sourced in sustainable ways and demonstrated with a local government certificate or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approval. Choosing certified wood means it has been legally harvested from areas that are environmentally managed, an important factor in determining a sustainable product.
Product sustainability over time: Low air pollution in your home
It’s important to choose furniture with the least impact on air pollution. Besides pollution produced during production, furniture can also release chemicals as it breaks down and deteriorates with use.
Some products contain VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) which are carbon-based chemicals – such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde – that can evaporate at room temperature and cause health problems, such as chemical sensitivities and allergies.
VOCs can found in products containing:
- synthetic fibers, such as plastic or polyester
- polyurethane foam
- products such as particle board using gluing agents.
Furniture made of wood, plastics, laminates and metals can impact your home environment if they incorporate adhesives, fire retardants, varnish or paint. Non-sustainable products can also include cheap upholstered furniture that uses synthetic polyurethane and petroleum-based fibres, such as polyester.
To avoid air-polluting furniture, choose products made from natural materials, such as solid wood furniture finished with natural treatments. For example, PAROTAS treats all their wood furniture with a unique blend of natural oils, creating a matte finish that is also home-friendly.
Sustainable design products: Natural fibres
Natural fibers are typically more sustainable products due to the reduced air pollution from manufacturing and in the home environment, plus for their bio-degradable by-products. In contract, synthetic plastic and polyurethane products contribute to long-term waste issues as they do not break down in landfills, unlike wood. As such, if choosing plastic furniture, bio-degradable or organic plastics are the only sustainable choice.
Many synthetic materials, such as plastic and polyester, use petrol-based chemicals, which are non-renewable and harmful to extract. Synthetic fibers may also release damaging gas chemicals. For example, plastic foams containing CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are destructive to the atmosphere; although today the less destructive HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) are more commonly used, it still contributes to ozone depletion and climate change. Additionally many manufacturers still use carbon dioxide as a blowing agent, which is implicated in global warming.
Furniture made from certain moulded plastics, particleboard and medium density fibreboard (MDF) can also release small amounts of formaldehyde through use, either by inhalation or even absorption through the skin. The international cancer research agency classifies formaldehyde as a likely human carcinogen, as well as causing allergic reactions in a significant part of populations.
In this respect, choosing natural materials is key to sustainability, again boosting the rating of sustainable wood products as one of the best ways to be sustainable.
Sustainable products list
Below are three organizations that help consumers make sustainable choices by providing online tools for finding low-emission and green products. To find lists of sustainable products and companies, check the websites of:
Unsustainable products to avoid
The use of fossil fuels in furniture production is common, however, combustion of fossil fuels increases the concentration of CO2 and SOx (from the earth’s crust), contributing to a number of negative effects such as acid rain, climate change and affected human health.
Petrol is also used in many synthetic fibres, such as polyester, and for polyols, such as polyurethane. Petrol, however, is extracted at a much greater rate than what is redeposited back into the earth’s crust. Petrol is common in the production of synthetic plastic furniture, including plastic laminates.
Metals used in furniture are also sourced from the earth’s crust. The extraction process can be complex, as they are found in solid mineral form from which the pure minerals have to be extracted, with manufacturing contributing many greenhouse gases.
The sustainability of products is also reduced by adhesives, retardants, varnishes and paints which may contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). In this respect it is important to choose natural materials and treatments.
A checklist for sustainable product design:
- Furniture that does increase atmospheric pollution of resources extracted from the world’s crust, implicated in global warming.
- Does not contribute more human-made substances to the earth’s environment, or can be reused.
- Made from bio-materials that can be kept with natural cycles and easily assimilated by ecosystems, or be 100 percent recycled in another way.
- The method of extraction and production should have the least environmental impact or be generated from renewable, carbon-free sources.
- Sourced in a way that doesn’t infringe on local communities’ needs and environment.
Sustainable wood products
PAROTAS brings together carpenters, designers and architects to create made-to-order sustainable wood products. We work exclusively with parota wood, which thrives in its native tropical zones of Mexico and Central America and is not listed as a threatened species. The parota tree – also known as guanacaste – creates an interesting argument on how true sustainability can be achieved, as all parts of the tree can be used and its roots have nitrogen soil-fixing properties. All our parota wood is certified and sourced from Mexican providers operating under governmental environmental schemes. We also aim to increase sustainability by incorporating better manufacturing techniques to decrease waste, plus finding a use for all by-products. Contact PAROTAS to ask about your custom design.