authentic green sustainable in your home furnishings

As a kid who grew up in Seattle for part of my life I knew IKEA pretty well. My grandmother is an avid decorator and I grew up watching shows like Christopher Lowell and Martha Stewart, which fostered an adult habit of self-soothing with HGTV (before it became non-stop House Hunters – seriously why is it so hard to put on a decorator show once in a while?)

IKEA is also hard to resist – but their smooth Scandinavian lines, slick photo vignettes depicting the perfect Danish family and Walmart-cheap prices hide the fact that IKEA has been clearcutting Siberian old growth forests (yes the ones Siberian tigers make their home in) to make crappy furniture that doesn’t even last long enough to be resold at Furniture Works most of the time. To give you an idea of how horrible that is – the last glass fronted bookshelf I sold was over 150 years old from Bernhardt’s factory on the East Coast of The United States. So next time your friend brags to you about their newly bought IKEA shelf just remember there’s a tiger out there that probably died for it so they could hold their stuff for 5 years before hauling it to the dump.

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A good gift for an IKEA lover is a Pussy Riot CD and this. 

Unlike Walmart, IKEA doesn’t even try to own their shame. They launched a greenwashing campaign in 2009 – part of a haphazard pattern of deceit that had been going on for a while – they allied themselves with the (rather dubious in recent years) WWF in an effort to obey the Earth Day lights out hour – except they didn’t turn off their lights like everyone else. That would affect the bottom line.

With so many cheap options out there for furniture that doesn’t require cutting down swathes of old-growth tiger habitat in impoverished Russia, why do people choose IKEA?

At Furniture Works we source from many different companies – some of them green, but not all of them. I dislike idealism but care deeply about the enviroment. It’s pointless to attempt to go “all green” in a city full of people who would rather go to a big box store to buy particle board chic than pay $200 more for a company that is totally eco-friendly and sustainable.

The hope is that the deal intent customer will happen upon an even better deal in the used sector, as they are often better quality even though they are cheaper. (We have couches dating back to the 50’s that are still going strong – a testament to that era’s emphasis on quality) ¬†Still, even if the customer does go with a sofa from the cheaper brand due to style or warranty concerns, it’s as good a quality as anything from Ikea or Walmart, if not better.

I find that the majority of Olympians care deeply about the enviroment including their local economy, and generally want to avoid particle board due to health concerns and enviromental concerns. Still about 1% of my customers insist on comparing prices with big box stores – I’m always finding I have to explain the difference between a $35 particle board “designer” stool from a big box store and a $135 solid teak stool from a permaculture company like Tropical Salvage.

The practicality of having a chair that lasts a lifetime is a value not lost on many descendants of Western pioneer culture, who had to make due without frequent shipments of factory items across the Great Divide. I’m sure anyone from a family who came from a survivalist lineage heard the phrase “Waste not want not” which basically means if you don’t waste anything you’ll never want for anything. (This meme has also probably been horribly misinterpreted by chronic hoarders, but it’s still a great sustainable sentiment.)

So how do you choose high quality furniture that won’t fall apart in 5 years after offgassing its toxic compounds into your lungs, leaving you feeling disappointed and environmentally unfriendly? It’s not always easy to discern what is junk and what’s not – and the price tag doesn’t always give a clue. The store you buy from has a markup and if that markup is very high – you’re overpaying. Try to get the manufacturer’s name of a piece you like and call a few dealers for quotes. That will give you a better idea about whether it is overpriced and cheap, or a good value. Secondly, a professional salesperson will know their stuff and can explain different types of construction to you, and demonstrate these features on any piece of furniture you like. If they can’t do this, they’re not a professional salesperson, they’re an order-taker, and won’t be much help.

In that case, you can figure it out yourself – looks can be decieving to tactile oriented people, so touch the furniture – wiggle it around to check for wobbly joints, feel the back and sides of upholstery. Many cheap sofas will have cardboard, or worse, nothing but empty space between the fabric and the frame. You want a solid feel on most sides.

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This inexpensive large club chair from Coaster has reinforced solid sides and back with a midrange brocade microfiber fabric.

The fabric should have a luxurious feel, even if it’s a rustic weave, like baize or tweed. Keep in mind that almost all weaves from chenille to faille are now manufactured with microfiber threads. There is a big difference between cheap microfiber and top of the line luxury microfiber, and the performance between each kind is substantial.

Leather is a whole ‘nother animal, and if you’re not going to bother with top grain cowhide and its $500 and up price tag, go for a good quality bonded leather (fabric/leather blend) – bicast products are plastic coated and use the cheap and flimsy underlayers of the hide. They are less durable than cheaper bonded leather from a reputable company. Most leather products on the market sold by mid range design stores are bicast. Keep in mind that almost all leather products are produced using highly toxic chemicals and are not enviromentally friendly at all – particularily the cheap bicast products. Although some companies do produce organic leather, it’s almost exclusively for clothes.

A handful of manufacturers such as Tropical Salvage are jumping on the sustainable bandwagon with everything they’ve got. Others like Winsome Wood, a local company based out of Woodinville, Washington, make sure they only source from sustainable wood, (Rubberwood from farms in Indonesia) but still use standard varnishes. Rubberwood is also sustainable at the moment because the trees used to produce latex in Indonesia are burned after they reach the 30 year mark. Turning them into furniture prevents farmers from doing this sort of mass-burn and puts money in their pocket. If the latex industry bottoms out Rubberwood may not be sustainable anymore.

Organic furniture is out of the price range of most buyers still, even though it’s often much less costly than high-end designer pieces produced using enviromentally unfriendly chemicals and materials.

This sustainably harvested Javanese white teak table from Tropical Salvage elicits cries of shock both at how inexpensive it is, and how pricy it is, depending on the customer. ($790)

This sustain-ably harvested Javanese white teak table from Tropical Salvage (shown with rubberwood chairs, $135 each) comes from the volcanic ash fields in a conservation forest. It elicits cries of shock both at how inexpensive it is, and how pricey it is, depending on the customer. ($790) The savings to the planet’s fragile ecosystem are substantial.

If you’re on a budget and can’t afford sustainable new, you can’t go wrong with a gently used couch or chair, or try to buy something that is not made out of particle board or unsustainably clear cut old growth pines like Ikea’s lineup. There’s plenty of great used solid wood furniture available in the market if you have to have something stylish and trend forward looking.

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This unsustainably harvested 1950’s secretary-bookcase of Danish make was only $225 used. Because of its used status, it is eco-friendly despite its dark origins. (Clearcut Indonesian forests)