7 Sustainability Questions You Need To Ask Before You Buy Your Residence Hall Furniture
How do you know if the furniture that you're buying for your residence hall is ethical?
It's an important question, because building residence hall furniture consumes a lot of resources and it leaves a big footprint.
What kind of footprint?
Creating Ethical Furniture
Your furniture is built from lots of different materials. Those materials need to be sourced and then shipped to a manufacturing plant. Then the furniture is constructed and eventually shipped to you.
At every step in that process, you create waste, spend energy, consume resources, follow regulations (or not), and impact economies.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, all of that activity positively or negatively affects the welfare of people, habitats, and the biosphere. (Note: We previously explored these factors in-depth with respect to two popular sources of residence hall furniture—rubberwood and wood laminate.)
So to really understand how ethical your furniture is, you need to break down the process. It’s the only way, because it's complex and there isn’t a pat answer to this question.
And when it comes to this line of questioning, what you’re really asking is this:
Is the complex system that creates my furniture governed by an ethic of sustainability?
To find the answer, you need to ask the right questions. What questions?
To start with, they should reveal if sustainability is a core value in the creation of your furniture. To that end, we've outlined seven questions below which you can ask to help you get to the bottom of this.
Is The System Sustainable?
The definition of sustainability includes the three pillars of social, environmental, and economic impact, so it’s really the best measure of ethical furniture.
According to Herman Daly, one of the early pioneers of environmental sustainability, a strict definition of environmental sustainability must include the three following criteria:
- For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield);
- For pollution the rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal); and
- For nonrenewable resources the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource.
In this context, here are some questions you should ask of your furniture manufacturer. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you some reference points and a place to start.
I’ll go ahead and provide answers with a positive and negative example for each.
To be clear, the answers I’m providing here are partial at best. In truth, you should try and understand the entire production cycle and then apply these questions to every step in that cycle.
Of course, no company is perfect, including ours, but asking these questions will give you a clear picture into whether sustainability is a driving force and factor in the creation of your furniture.
1. What is the impact on worker health?
To answer this question, you need to understand the system that creates your furniture.
The Bad: For example, if your furniture is made from rubberwood (Hevea brasiliensis), it’s probably imported from China or Southeast Asia. There, the laws governing working conditions fall short of standards here in the United States.
According to a 2014 recent report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Malaysia and China—both huge sources of rubberwood—rank as two of the worst countries in the world for workers. What does that mean? According to the ITUC Report:
• Workers have no guarantee of rights.
• Countries with the rating of 5 are the worst countries in the
world to work in. While the legislation may spell out certain
rights, workers have effectively no access to these rights and
are therefore exposed to autocratic regimes and unfair labour
The Good: In contrast, if your materials are sourced and produced in the United States, that’s an immediate plus from the vantage point of human health.
Although it doesn't compare to countries who score highest for worker health, the US has better working conditions, laws, and regulations in place to protect workers.
2. Can you recycle it?
This is a super simple question to answer but it tells you a lot about the material.
The Bad: Furniture that is made from high or low pressure laminate is not recyclable. In fact, if you cut or burn it, it’s potentially toxic to humans and deadly to pets.
Laminate often contains wood-based products glued with different chemicals and resins like urea-formaldehyde. When burned, the plastic layers produce cyanide gas.
The Good: Solid wood furniture can live many lives even after decades of use in residence halls. You can upcycle or reclaim it for use in new furniture. You can burn it for energy and of course it biodegrades safely and naturally.
3. How much energy is used to make the furniture?
What kind of carbon footprint is generated in the creation of your furniture?
The Bad: Let’s look at furniture that uses high or low pressure wood laminates. Because laminate is a non-renewable man-made product, it requires energy-intensive manufacturing to produce before it even enters the furniture manufacturing process.
And since most of it is created in China, carbon-spewing coal is the chief source of energy in its creation.
Finally, shipping the laminate overseas requires more fossil fuels. All this happens before the laminate is used to manufacture your furniture. So wood laminate has a large carbon footprint.
The Good: In contrast, solid hardwood is a plentiful renewable resource that requires no added energy to create. Trees need water, sunlight, air, and soil to grow. And trees are plentiful. According to the educational site, SeatlePi:
In the United States, deforestation has been more than offset by reforestation between 1990 and 2010. The nation added 7,687,000 hectares (18,995,000 acres) of forested land during that period. The trend in reforesting areas has been driven by organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Arbor Day Foundation.
Furthermore, unlike laminate furniture, we can capture all the wood ‘waste’ products from our manufacturing process to fuel our steam generator. That’s how we power our kilns and light up our factory.
4. Does it have a short supply chain?
In her book Green Consumerism: An A-to-Z Guide (p.173), Juliana Mansvelt advises the savvy green consumer to privilege the following when looking for green furniture.
- Easy repairability and/or ability to be refurbished. (see above: recyclability)
- Short supply chains including components such as locally or regionally harvested wood and local manufacturing - chain of custody assurances.
The Bad: Furniture made from both wood laminates and malaysian hardwoods like rubberwood (Hevea brasiliensis) have long supply chains which include importing raw materials from China and Southeast Asia.
Consequently, there is little to no control over the standards of sustainability that govern those resources.
The long supply chain is bad for the environment because it often translates to a large carbon footprint.
Additionally, it means that the local economies who supply the resources and raw materials benefit the least.
The Good: We make our furniture with solid hardwoods from the Northeast United States. When we harvest our trees, we minimize the impact on local wildlife habitat and maximize long-term forest health.
We own our sawmill in Vermont. All of our trees come from within 120 miles of our mill. Once they are processed into lumber, they make the short journey to our manufacturing plant across the New Hampshire border.
We have one of the shortest supply chains (if not the shortest) in the residence hall furniture market. And because we control the entire supply chain, we meet and exceed the highest standards of sustainability.
For example, our furniture is awarded the gold standard of sustainable wood furniture certification—the FSC® (Forest Stewardship Council®) Chain of Custody standard (FSC-C019618). In March, 2014, the Rainforest Alliance re-certified DCI. Our certification is valid to March, 2019.
5. What kind of waste is created?
The Bad: When you manufacture plastic laminate, where does the waste go? Although there is some disagreement about it, laminate is not really recyclable. According to the website How Products Are Made:
The plastic laminate manufacturing process produces several byproducts, some of which are considered hazardous. Toxic emissions emanate from phenolic resins during the laminating process, and acrylic resins and hardeners used in applying plastic laminates to surfaces are also considered hazardous. Decorative plastic laminate itself is not considered a "recyclable" plastic. However, at least one major manufacturer has taken steps to reduce harmful waste and emissions. By switching from solventbased to water-based phenolic resins, the amount of toxins released during lamination can be reduced.
Many of the big companies in the residence hall furniture market import their laminate sheets from China. We can’t actually access the records of the companies producing those materials.
But you can be fairly certain the waste products that come from that manufacturing process end up in landfills where they can’t biodegrade.
We create zero waste.
All byproducts get recycled into fuel or other wood products. Nothing ends up in the dumpster or the landfill.
We use rough cuts in our pallets and bark to create wood chips for landscaping. And we go even further.
All waste byproducts from our manufacturing processes are used to make steam and/or electricity for our factory. When our wood boiler is in use, the factory does’t consume any gas or oil (even during cold New Hampshire winters!).
By using a wood boiler to run our kilns and heat our factory and offices, we are saving an average of 68 gallons of oil an hour and 200,000 gallons of oil per year!
6. What Is The Life Cycle Analysis?
When evaluating the sustainable qualities of your furniture, one science-based framework is Life Cycle Assessment/Analysis (LCA). According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ”LCA is a tool for the systematic evaluation of the environmental aspects of a product or service system through all stages of its life cycle.”
The Bad: When considering the LCA of wood laminate furniture, the Green Home Guide, advises builders (and residence hall buyers) to avoid laminates, saying that:
- Laminate is easy to maintain but ranks low on the durability quotient because it cannot be easily fixed or refinished if damaged.
- At the end of its useful life, it gets pitched into a landfill, where its ability to decompose is minimal.
- It’s difficult to quantify what chemicals, if any, will leach from laminates once they hit the landfill or would be emitted into the air if placed in an incinerator.
The Good: According to LCA studies, compared to non-wood products, wood consistently comes out on top.
The one trouble spot for wood, when it comes to LCA, is the spike in energy required for the kiln drying and treating process. At DCI, we mitigate this impact through our sustainable Vertical Integration Process (VIP).
What does that mean? In essence, we use wood byproducts from our milling process as fuel to power our kilns. In doing so, we minimize our carbon and energy footprint while eliminating waste.
7. Is It Toxic?
Toxicity is potentially the biggest concern related to the ethical quality of your residence hall furniture. And it’s something you should take into account. Despite regulations, many furniture manufacturers still use materials that emit cancer-causing Volatile Organic Compounds.
The Bad: Wood laminate is a popular material for wood flooring and also for residence hall furniture. It’s an appealing alternative to solid wood because it’s cheap and durable. But there are issues.
You may already know about one of the most notorious cases of laminate wood from the infamous Lumber Liquidators formaldehyde violations profiled on 60 Minutes in 2015.
After that story broke, the Center for Disease Control later issued a cancer warning to people with Lumber Liquidators laminate flooring from China (the same basic materials used in laminate furniture).
The CDC had said on Feb. 10 that formaldehyde levels in select versions of the company's laminate flooring could cause two to nine cancer cases per 100,000 people. The new estimate is six to 30 cases per 100,000 people.
The Good: We use solid hardwood as the basis for all our furniture. The beautiful thing about solid hardwood is that it requires no toxic chemicals in the process of furniture manufacturing.
Ahead of EPA standards, our roll-applied finishing process emits Zero VOC’s (chemicals emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids that have adverse health effects) and our UV finish is certified MAS Green.
Your Next Steps
In the end, there are a lot more questions you can ask to determine if your residence hall furniture is ethical (sustainable) or not. Here are a few more:
- Is the impact on the biosphere included at every stage of production?
- Are the materials made from renewable resources?
- How much of the raw materials are locally sourced?
- Are materials sourced outside the company and if so how sustainable are they?
- Is sustainability considered at every stage of the process?
You can learn a lot with a few questions. And as someone who is buying this much furniture, you shouldn’t underestimate the positive impact your choice can have on human health and the environment.
All you need to do is ask a few of these questions up front. Before you know it, you’ll have the information you need to select the most sustainable residence hall furniture.
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To set up an order today or to talk with one of our representatives, you can write to us here or call: (800) 552-8286.
You can also learn more about our industry-leading FSC CoC certification, our MAS certification, and our green materials sourcing, sustainable manufacturing, and our unique zero waste Vertical Integration Process (VIP).
Download the DCI Sustainability Pledge here.
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