“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.

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This Is How the Furniture Industry Is Going Green

In light of growing environmental consciousness worldwide and future generations’ increasing influence on the furniture market, furniture companies are increasingly focusing on the environmental impact of their operations. A recent poll conducted by Capstrat Public Policy demonstrated just how important sustainable living is to many consumers. The poll found that over half of the shoppers surveyed would be willing to pay for a product that was more expensive than the other options if it was more sustainable.

A commitment to eco-friendly design and manufacturing principles not only allows companies to do their part to preserve the Earth for generations to come, but it can also be a valuable tool for reducing operational costs and garnering customer loyalty. Following are some of the many areas in which furniture industry stakeholders have prioritized the battle to reduce the sector’s ecological footprint.

  1. Sustainability-Focused Industry Associations

furnitureA number of new and established industry organizations have taken the lead in making environmental consciousness a priority in the furnishings sector. Offering membership and, in some cases, special accolades to companies with a proven dedication to sustainability, these groups have unified the industry around core sustainability goals, creating new operational standards and third-party certification programs to help firms assess and improve their environmental performance. In addition, their efforts have made sustainability issues more visible to customers, while also creating convenient avenues for buyers to research the environmental implications of their potential purchases.

Organizations with a stated interest in improving the sustainability of furniture design and manufacturing include the American Home Furnishing Association (AHFA), which has launched several programs under its broader Eco3Home sustainability initiative. Member companies initially implement Enhancing Furniture’s Environmental Culture program, a facility-level framework designed to improve resource management, limit energy and water usage, and enhance recycling and waste management processes. In the next stage of the multi-step program, Sustainable by Design, companies set sustainability goals in areas such as supply chain management; social responsibility; and climate change, which assists them in later providing specific health, safety, and environmental criteria to register products with AHFA’s Eco3Home seal of approval.

Other industry organizations spearheading sustainability efforts include the Business and Institutional Manufacturers Association, which has created a certification program to ensure responsible energy consumption, material sourcing, and social practices among the business furnishings industry. At the same time, the Sustainable Furnishings Council has worked on the frontlines of sustainability efforts since its inception in 2006. Supported by a diverse group of industry stakeholders encompassing retailers, manufacturers, and nonprofit environmental groups, the council leverages education and communication to advocate for sustainable practices throughout the furnishings industry.

  1. Phasing out Toxic Substances

As sustainability becomes a higher priority for furniture manufacturers, many are closely examining the chemicals used in their production processes, as well as any potentially harmful substances released into the environment by their activities. The finishings, treatments, and binding agents used on furniture can pose a risk to consumers, even after they leave the manufacturing facility. Furniture manufactured with formaldehyde or flame-retardant chemicals can release toxic gases into the home in a process known as “off-gassing,” posing a risk to humans, animals, and the environment.

The avoidance of materials and processes that involve toxic materials not only stems from growing environmental awareness within the furniture industry, but also from bolstered environmental regulations. In August 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the rules in Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which allows the agency to enforce rules regarding the production, transportation, use, and disposal of potentially harmful chemicals. Drafted to lessen the danger posed by formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, Title VI restricts the amount of the substance that manufacturers may use in plywood, medium-density fiberboard pieces, particle board, and hardwood.

  1. Sustainable Materials

wood furnitureFurniture companies are seeking materials from sustainably managed sources, often carefully assessing their supply chains to ensure that each leg of a product’s production journey yields a limited environment impact. This has elevated the importance of local sourcing while also increasing the popularity of wood as a design material. Both reclaimed wood and wood harvested from sustainable forests help to combat deforestation, and some companies are even making an effort to replenish those forests that provide their wood.

While it is considered a type of grass rather than wood, bamboo is an exceptionally popular sustainable resource for a number of reasons. Often grown without the use of pesticides, bamboo grows quite quickly and thus takes a relatively short amount of time to replace. Durable and pliable, bamboo is both antibacterial and antifungal.

An important aspect of sustainable resource consumption is recycling and responsible waste management. Unique upcycled furniture pieces are no longer relegated to thrift shops and vintage stores. Now, many mainstream retailers are harnessing the concept as a sustainable trend. Recycling often presents an opportunity for furniture designers to draw on their creativity to rework pieces from previous seasons or to repurpose resources that would usually be thrown away. The concept of recycling and reuse is important not only in furniture design, but in distribution, as well. Increasingly, retailers are using reusable cartons, blanket wraps, and other sustainable materials to ship items to consumers.