Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Which Is Greener - Handcrafted Furniture or Mass-Produced Furniture?

There’s a bit of a debate between furniture manufacturers, designers and environmentalists about which practice is most sustainable: handcrafted furniture or mass-produced furniture.  Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each so you can decide for yourself.

Guadua furniture at the National Bamboo and Gu...
Guadua furniture at the National Bamboo and Guadua Investigation Center, Córdoba, Quindío, Colombia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Handcrafted Furniture

When comparing handcrafted furniture and mass-produced furniture, you’re essentially comparing apples and oranges or perhaps organic apples and oranges.  You have to look at the variables for each to decide which is better.  Initially you might think that organic apples are much better than oranges; however, if they’ve traveled from Australia to land on your table in Chicago then there is a lot of energy used and pollution created on that trip.  The same holds true for furniture.

Handcrafted furniture is the best bet if it’s created with reclaimed or sustainable wood.  For example, bamboo is a sustainable wood because it grows quite quickly and can be harvested from bamboo farms without destroying forests.

Additionally, handcrafted furniture is better if it’s stained or painted with VOC-free or low VOC finishes.

Is it upholstered?  If the answer is yes, then handcrafted furniture would be considered better than mass-produced if the upholstery is reclaimed, recycled or some type of organic and environmentally-friendly fabric.

Finally, where did that piece of furniture come from?  If it was shipped to your community all the way from China then that presents some environmental challenges because the shipping will use up all sorts of fossil fuels and pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

So is mass-produced furniture the answer? 

English: Eletrical wire reel used in MORAR MAI...
Project made by Dama Design to show overall concern with ecodesign and reuse of materials. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Generally, no.  In most cases, mass-produced furniture commits all of the above environmental sins and then some - including unsafe manufacturing processes, environmental pollution, chemical pollution and more.  However, as people become more and more conscious and particular about what they buy and how they contribute to the environmental situation we’re in, more and more manufacturers are answering the call.

Mass-produced furniture can be green.  It can be made with recycled materials, it can be finished with environmentally-friendly paints or stains and it can be created locally.

One way to make sure your mass-produced furniture meets sustainability standards is to check to see if the manufacturer is recognized by the SFC or Sustainable Furnishings Council.  They have a rigorous life-cycle analysis and if your manufacturer meets their approval it may very well be better than that handcrafted piece of furniture.  You can check the Sustainable Furnishings Council website to find out if a retailer or manufacturer meets their criteria. (For more about the SFC, check back for Thursday's post.)

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