“What’s It Made of?” Initiative Aims to Promote Sustainability

Businesses and consumers alike are placing an increasing emphasis on the sustainability of product manufacturing and design. As we develop a fuller understanding of how business practices impact the environment and how this can in turn affect human health, the compounds that comprise consumer products are becoming a matter of heightened concern.

Recently, a group of organizations dedicated to business sustainability launched an initiative to support and centralize health and safety efforts in the home furnishings industry. The comprehensive project was designed to raise awareness of common harmful substances present in many home furnishing products, promote the need for businesses to adopt transparent disclosure models regarding product production, and spur the development of solutions to current sustainability challenges in the sector. In these ways, the “What’s it made of?” initiative will seek to improve the safety of chemical compounds throughout the furniture supply chain.

A New Movement

SFClogoIn a March 2017 press release, the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) announced that it planned to partner with a number of leading sustainability advocacy organizations to create a wealth of new resources for furnishings companies and consumers. “What’s it made of?” is a joint initiative of SFC, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), GCI General Contractors, the Center for Environmental Health, and the New School’s Parsons School of Design Healthy Materials Lab, among others. As its name suggests, the initiative encourages buyers to research the materials present in their purchases, while at the same time encouraging the industry to provide easy access to this information, with the aim of eliminating harmful chemicals in the home furnishings supply chain. The initiative supports furniture manufacturers in their ongoing efforts to create quality products safely and efficiently, focusing on innovative new ways to integrate health and safety into the furnishing design and manufacturing processes.

The “What’s it made of?” initiative officially launched with a Sustainability Essentials webinar on March 16, 2017. Led by the Sustainable Furnishings Council and panelists from a number of its partner organizations, the webinar served as an introduction to the “What’s it made of?” initiative and the harmful substances with which it is most concerned. The free event offered participating companies foundational information on how they can improve the safety of their supply chains, as well as an introduction to SFC’s revolutionary GREENleaders sustainability training course.

Although the Sustainability Essentials webinar marked the official launch of “What’s it made of?”, the initiative first took root months earlier at the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s 10th Anniversary Celebration in October 2016. At the event, ASBC CEO David Levine stressed the idea that it is now more feasible than ever for businesses to balance financial success with social and environmental responsibility. He then took the opportunity to introduce the impending initiative, noting that corporate transparency regarding materials and operational practices is one of the most crucial factors driving industry sustainability.

Taking the Pledge

living roomThe cornerstone of the “What’s it made of?” initiative is the Pledge to ASK. Presented alongside an online tool that can help companies ensure that their suppliers are fully disclosing chemical ingredient information, the Pledge to ASK serves to formalize signees’ “commit[ment] to reducing the use of chemicals that pose harm to human health and the environment.”

David Levine introduced the Pledge to ASK alongside the “What’s it made of?” initiative at the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s anniversary celebration. Demonstrating widespread industry support for the issue, more than 300 guests signed the pledge before leaving the event. To learn more and sign the pledge, visit

Chemical Dangers

SFC research suggests that the home furnishings industry recognizes the importance of safety and sustainability initiatives. In addition to the 82 percent of furnishings companies that support requirements for chemical ingredient transparency throughout the supply chain, 88 percent of furniture customers are concerned that the materials in their homes could be detrimental to their health.

Some of the materials at the root of these fears include volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, which companies frequently use to dissolve other chemicals found in adhesives, paint, and coatings. Often found in furniture comprised of composite wood, formaldehyde is one of the many harmful chemical compounds understood to be a carcinogen. This group also includes dioxins, a potent byproduct of polyvinyl chloride production often tied to the manufacturing of outdoor furniture, imitation leather, and inflatable mattresses.

Although they are intended to increase the safety of furniture products, flame retardant chemicals can actually cause harmful neurologic, reproductive, and immune system issues when inhaled into the body through the air and dust. Other potentially harmful substances used in the production of home furnishings include fluorinated stain treatments for use in carpeting and upholstery, as well as antimicrobials, which have been dropped as a regular ingredient in soaps due to concerns over bacterial resistance.

Going forward, the “What’s it made of?” initiative will facilitate training sessions and seminars on these and many other safety concerns inherent in the furniture production process. This, along with consumer outreach initiatives, will represent a significant and concentrated effort to improve the well-being of millions worldwide.