Whether you own your home or rent, have a house full of furniture or are starting with nothing, at one time or another you will need to buy furniture. If you are intent on going green and making environmentally responsible choices, furnishing your home should be no exception. Green furniture can have benefits for your health and bank balance, as well as the environment. It can be cheap or high-end, old or new and can look identical to furniture that is not environmentally friendly. In fact, in the past the very same piece of furniture could have been considered anything but green. Rather than cramp your style, with a bit of DIY and some inspiration, green furniture can be completely unique and the best possible fit for your own personal tastes – even if you yearn for yellow furniture with bright purple polka dots.
There are many factors that determine whether a piece of furniture can be considered eco-friendly, ranging from the material and manufacture, to the chemicals it releases and the length of its lifecycle, but the main considerations I have covered below. Rather than listing green companies or retailers, which you can find yourself by conducting a google search, I have listed some of the easiest and cheapest ways to go green and some key things to consider when buying new products. I feel that surrounding yourself with green furniture does not have to mean spending big bucks and so have included lots of examples from my own home to show what can be done on a very limited budget. Obviously, buying furniture locally, as with anything other product, is a good start, as less transport means less carbon emissions.
1. Buy second-hand – You can’t get much more green than buying second-hand. Used furniture requires no additional resources to manufacture, is generally locally sourced, already off-gassed (see 7.) and by taking it off someones hands, you remove the potential for it to become landfill. Unless we are talking fine antiques, there is the added bonus that used furniture is generally more affordable . I find ‘Gumtree’ to be a wonderful source of all things second-hand, but in your area it could be that the classifieds in the local paper, craigslist, ebay, charity shops or furniture auctions are better. You may choose to buy furniture in good condition that is already perfect for your needs, but if like me you would rather grab a bargain, why not buy something with potential that needs a bit of work? When i bought the pine dresser below, it was ginger, with chipped varnish, a heat ring, cracks in the wood and some water damage at the base. I sanded it down, filled the imperfections with wood filler, and after a couple of coats of white gloss paint it fit perfectly into my home.
2. Reuse/upcycle – Equally Green, and even more affordable than buying furniture second-hand, is to pick up unwanted free furniture (at your local tip or via a freecycle group) or reuse something you already own. Most of the furniture I now call mine (but would have previously disowned under oath…), was found lying around in the shed when we moved in or bought by my husband long before we met. The furniture was truly not to my taste, an array of ginger pine, veneered particleboard and a rainbow assortment of non-matching laminate. Thankfully, after a lick of paint or homemade wood stain, and a few other minor changes, I was left with furniture I would have happily bought new.
We completely sanded down this ginger pine table and chairs…
Then aged the seats using bleach, strong tea and a solution made from vinegar and dissolved iron wool. This created a finish that perfectly match my rustic ‘bleached pine’ recycled wood dining table (see 5). I then re-upholstered the stained cream velvet seats using a staple gun and some new black cotton material.
I aged the table in the same manner as the chairs, and it became my office desk.
The rest of the old furniture including beds, TV unit, bookshelves etc., I painted white with either ordinary gloss or laminate paint, depending on the surface. The bed above for example, was sanded and the engravings filled with wood filler before the paint was applied to produce the finish shown below.
I matched the bed, with two mahogany-effect laminate bedside cabinets that I also painted white. The cabinets had brass effect plastic handles that I replaced with pine knobs bought from mitre 10).
3. Re-purpose – Re-purposing furniture, is taking something new or used and changing its function to something other than what was originally intended. The fantastic thing about re-purposing is that you end up with something completely unique. I was on a strict budget for our bathroom and was seriously struggling to find eco-friendly affordable solid wood solutions…so I took a hall table and a kitchen island and re-purposed them into the bathroom vanities.
As I bought the hall table whilst my house was being built, I simply asked my builders to cut holes for the sinks and taps, and my plumber fitted them. We changed the brass drawer handles to black cast iron cup handles (bought from Early settler) to match the other bathroom accessories. As the drawers were quite shallow, we also sanded down a couple of old rusty silver towel rails that were hung in the shed shower room, sprayed them with black paint and mounted them on the front of the unit so that towels could be used to hide the plumbing behind.
As cutting marble is a fairly specialized job, we took the kitchen island to a stone mason in Cairns and paid to have the holes cut in the top for the sink and taps.
4. Buy Recycled/FSC certified wood furniture – FSC certification guarantees that a product has been manufactured from materials sourced from forests that have been managed responsibly. The certification also ensures that workers, communities and indigenous peoples are respected and that they there is equitable access to any benefits (see the FSC website here for further information). FSC certification is very strict and depending where you live, it can be hard to source certified products locally. An alternative that can be equally green, but may be more readily available, is recycled furniture. Recycled furniture is made from timber salvaged from existing wood products, such as old doors, floorboards, barns and boats etc. My kitchen and all of the other furniture I bought new, and later modified to fit my needs, is FSC certified recycled wood furniture bought from Eureka street furniture. It was highly discounted in an end of line sale with a further negotiated discount on top.
I bought a couple of matching stand alone pantries and teamed them with a converted 1.2m high wood bar. The bar was chopped down to an appropriate height and the foot rest raised to form a kitchen island complete with storage shelf
I also bought three, freestanding drawer units that we bolted together. The joins in the granite worktops were sealed with silica to prevent liquid seeping down between the units. The only other addition to my cheap, and highly individual recycled wood furniture kitchen was the sink unit, which we had handmade locally from pine and hardwood. I aged the unit using the same technique used for the desk and chairs and then attacked it with a hammer, scissors and a screwdriver to beat down the corners and add holes, dents and gauges to mimic the recycled look of the other pieces.
5. Choose furniture that is durable and repairable – One of my main considerations when buying furniture, fixtures or fittings, is durability. If you buy something of quality with solid construction than can easily be repaired, it is much less likely to end it’s life as landfill. Depending on the product, it could last you a lifetime, or just considerably longer than cheaper alternatives. Either way, you generally save money investing in durability in the long-run and reduce your resource consumption, given that you will not be buying replacements continually. With furniture, solid, durable items also tend to be ideal for up-cycling or re-purposing if you are desperate for a different look. Alternatively, if you are so bored with them you can no longer tolerate them in your home, they are more likely to have resale value and be desired by someone else.
This coffee table was made from the bottom of a bar identical to that used to make the kitchen island. It is extremely solid and will likely last longer than me. I can already imagine converting it into rustic shelves, a smaller table or a desktop if I ever fancy a change.
The top of the bar used to make the coffee table was cut to size to make this very solid wood dining table, which I matched with my up-cycled (formally ginger) pine chairs.
6. Avoid buying new ‘toxic’ furniture – Toxic furniture is manufactured using chemicals that can be harmful to health. The easiest way to ensure you are not buying ‘toxic’ furniture is to avoid buying new PVC, pressed wood, polyester and foam products or those with stain resistant coatings. Instead, opt for furnishings made from solid wood, glass, metals and natural fibres such as wool, cotton, silk and hemp. The main nasties to look out for on labels are Voc’s, Phthalates, PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), PFC’s (Perfluorinated compounds) and Formaldyhyde. If there is no label, ask a salesperson. Many of these products continue to ‘off-gas’ over time and contribute to indoor air pollution. Buying second-hand or recycling used products can mean that the chemicals have already aired off. If you are up-cycling, avoid re-toxifying by using ‘Low VOC’ or ‘Zero VOC’ paint.
7. Consider Bamboo and Rattan furniture – Bamboo is a fantastic eco-friendly alternative building material to wood. It is an incredibly fast growing, high–yielding grass that when woven together forms boards that are tougher than most timbers. The downside is that most of the world’s Bamboo is grown in Vietnam and China, which adds an environmental cost in terms of transportation. Some bamboo is also grown using harmful pesticides, so make sure to check this with the retailer before you buy. Rattan, a type of palm, is another great alternative to wood. It is is durable, long lasting and grows quickly so is a readily renewable when harvested responsibly.
In future blogs I hope to show some of the DIY techniques discussed and also cover green fixtures and fittings…so make sure to check back regularly for updates.