Furniture and the Climate: A Comprehensive Guide
From start to finish the production of new furniture contributes to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A study from the Furniture Industry Research Association found that producing a new piece of furniture generates, on average, GHGs equivalent to burning over 5 gallons of gas. Buying a new sofa is like burning twice that amount—the same as driving your car 220 miles!
When choosing furniture, it’s important to consider the emissions from the lifecycle of the piece. The lifecycle refers to the completes series of steps in the production and disposal of furniture. It begins with the harvesting of raw materials and ends when a piece is broken down for recycling or sent to an incinerator or landfill. The carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by the furniture lifecycle are increasing yearly, and there is little hope that solutions will be found.
Here we’ll breakdown the emissions of the key steps in the furniture lifecycle: the harvesting of raw materials, manufacturing, packing and transportation, and disposal.
Harvesting Raw Materials
The lifecycle begins with the harvesting and processing of raw materials used to manufacture furniture. This step is by far the largest contributor to GHG emissions, accounting for 70 to 90% of all emissions in the lifecycle. This is a key reason why buying used is so important—it eliminates the need for new materials and reduces the demand for new furniture that creates pressure for extensive raw material production.
Here at The Bird’s Nest, we’ve previously covered how the harvesting of lumber for furniture is a major driver of deforestation and related climate consequences. However, these emissions largely result from the furniture industry’s illegal and unsustainable logging practices rather than the material itself. Making wood furniture generally requires less energy than furniture made from other materials and wood furniture can store carbon so that it offsets nearly all the GHGs related to its production. Plus, all-wood furniture is almost always recyclable.
Using other raw materials, however, has a major impact on furniture emissions. Even glass—which is not one of the most common furniture materials and is relatively tame in its emissions—emits “significant” GHGs. The major materials such as metal, plastic, and upholstery, however, have far bigger consequences.
Metal furniture is one of the fastest growing types of furniture in the world by market share, and research shows that the metals and mining industry accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s total carbon footprint. One of the most common metals used in furniture, stainless steel, produces 3.3 tons GHGs per every ton produced. The steel industry is among the three largest producers of CO2.
Plastic is another material with a major GHG footprint. The plastic industry generates 232 million tons of GHGs every year and its emissions are expected to outpace coal plants by 2030. The plastic furniture market is worth over 12 billion dollars and is expected to grow by nearly 4% a year.
Roughly 80% of plastic is made of carbon and over 5 billion gallons of oil are converted into plastic every year. Plastic production requires fossil fuels to be extracted, transported, and processed, with each step contributing millions of tons of GHGs. One of the most potent plastic-related GHGs is methane, which traps 28 to 36 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. Plastic production also has a social impact. In the US, about 90% of the pollution from plastic plants occurs near low-income communities.
Keep in mind that metals and plastics are often used in furniture even if they’re not major components of a finished piece. The nuts and bolts which hold your office chair together are metal and the laminate covering your desk is likely made from plastic. It is difficult to gauge the emissions from these minor uses of materials in furniture production, but they nevertheless contribute to the overall footprint of your furniture!
Upholstery, however, is likely the biggest culprit of furniture-related GHGs. The leathers and textiles used to cover large surfaces and stuff seating and bedding produce lots of emissions. About 35% of all upholstered furniture is covered in leather, with a single furniture set requiring 6-7 hides. The leather furniture market is worth over 20 billion dollars a year, and is expected to grow by nearly 12% a year through 2029. A single leather tannery, however, produces over 5 million pounds of CO2 per year.
But textiles far surpass leathers when it comes to GHGs. Textile production and consumption are skyrocketing, and the furniture industry is partly to blame. The rapidly expanding market for upholstered furniture has generated “overwhelming demand” for textiles. In the US alone, upholstered furniture accounts for roughly 30% of household furniture sales and around 44% of textile output goes to home furnishings—over double the amount used for clothing (although this includes non-furniture furnishings such as bedding and towels).
By some estimates, textile production accounts for 7%-10% of global GHG emissions—a staggering 1.2 to 2.93 billion pounds a year. That is more than the output of some industrialized countries and equivalent to every person on earth traveling 2,500 miles by plane each year. In the US, the textile industry is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions. The industry is also environmentally harmful in other ways, using over 20 trillion gallons of water per year and creating 20 to 25% of global water pollution. We’ll take a closer look here at how different types of upholstery textiles contribute to the climate crisis.
Fabrics created from natural fibers require the cultivation of crops or trees, which are then harvested to create yarn that in turn is woven into a fabric. Planting, fertilizing, and controlling for weeds and pests for natural fiber crops all produce emissions.
For example, cotton is of the most popular natural fibers for furniture upholstery and one of the most environmentally destructive crops. Cotton cultivation produces 220 million tons of CO2 per year and is pesticide intensive, accounting for 16 to 22% of the world’s pesticide use—more than any other crop—despite growing on less than 3% of cropland. Pesticides and other chemicals used in cotton production have been found to poison soil, waterways, and even people, while also decimating biodiversity.
Other natural fibers used in upholstery are made from wood pulp, which contributes to the furniture industry’s impact on deforestation. To make these fibers, 50 million trees are estimated to be logged annually from illegal and unsustainable forests. The water and soil pollution from chemicals used during pulp processing also destroys habitats and endangers species.
Finally, there are synthetic upholstery fabrics that are derived from fossil fuels. Creating these synthetic polymers often produces more CO2 emissions than harvesting natural fibers. Some produce additional GHGs with huge consequences for our climate.
Now that we’ve covered the emissions of raw material harvesting, let’s take a look at manufacturing.
Once the raw materials for furniture have been harvested and processed, they are transported to manufacturing facilities where they can, if necessary, be processed further and then assembled into usable furniture or furniture components. Manufacturing accounts for 8 to 58% of GHG emissions in the furniture lifecycle. Large and specialized machinery is typically needed to create modern retail furniture, and these machines require energy that is usually derived from fossil fuels.
It is also worth considering the impact of chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Furniture manufacturing uses tons of resins, lacquers, varnishes, glosses, laminates, inks, polymers, and adhesives used to bind and finish surfaces. These chemicals often produce hazardous wastes that pollute the environment and damage human health.
Packing and Transportation
Once furniture has been manufactured, it is packaged and shipped to be sold. Packing and transportation accounts for 1 to 8% of emissions in the furniture lifecycle, which may seem small but nevertheless has a significant impact.
Plastic, of course, is one of the most common packaging materials. IKEA, for example, uses plastics for around 10% of its packaging. Fortunately, IKEA is one of many major furniture retailers that has already reduced its plastic packaging and has committed to eliminating plastic from its packaging altogether. However, IKEA and other retailers often substitute carboard and paper for plastic. These may not be as emissions-heavy as plastics, but they add to the demand for wood that drives IKEA and other retailers to engage in logging practices that contribute to deforestation and its massive climate consequences.
Transportation adds further emissions. Shipping is one of the “biggest problems” in the furniture industry. Not only is it expensive—adding to the high price points of national furniture resellers such as Chairish—but every mile of transportation adds to the CO2 emissions of the furniture lifecycle. The average freight truck, for example, emits a pound of CO2 for every three ton-miles.
Much of the furniture sold in the US, however, has an even larger impact because it is shipped from overseas. The US is the world’s #1 importer of furniture, with two to five billion dollars’ worth of furniture imported every month. A recent report, for example, found that Ashley Furniture has the second-highest import emissions of all major US retailers, beating out giants such as Target and Home Depot.
Buying local is an easy way to reduce the carbon footprint of your furniture purchases. A recent study in the International Journal of Supply Chain Management found that “buying locally will definitely lower the greenhouse gas emissions and other resources associated with transportation of furniture.”
Once a piece of furniture has been purchased by a consumer and used in their home or office, it is either resold—thus extending its lifecycle—or it’s disposed of by being broken down and recycled, incinerated, or placed in a landfill. Disposal is the most overlooked stage in the furniture lifecycle. Much of the research cited in this blog post, for example, relies on a “cradle to gate” rather than “cradle to grave” calculation of emissions. In other words, the research examines the emissions from when materials are harvested to when a piece is sold, instead of from harvesting to disposal.
The disposal of furniture, however, has serious consequences. As we’ve discussed on our sustainability page, Americans send over 34 million pounds of furniture and home décor to landfills every year. This is over 5% of the yearly waste that ends up in city landfills. According to the EPA, these landfills are the third largest source of humane-related methane emissions in the US. That’s nearly 15% of the total and the equivalent to driving 20 million cars for a single year!
Some types of furniture have greater impacts. Oil-based plastics are not biodegradable and release carbon trapped in the plastic when incinerated. The 40 to 70% of plastics that end up in landfills or are leaked into the environment often contaminate water resources. Four to twelve tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year.
Stainless steel is generally durable and recyclable but is so difficult and costly to separate from plastic that many recyclers refuse to do it. Thus, stainless steel furniture often contributes to the 10 million tons of stainless steel that ends up in landfills each year.
Reducing the environmental footprint of your furniture is simple. All you need to do is
- Buy local
- Buy used
- Maintain and Refurbish
- Repurpose, Resell, and Recycle
Magpie Reclamations makes this easy! All our beautiful furniture and home décor is locally sourced from the DMV region and cleaned, refinished, and refurbished for reuse. Our consignment service provides a no-hassle way to resell your furniture to a new home. Any piece we directly buy for resale will also be responsibly recycled or donated if we can’t sell it to ensure that it never ends up in a landfill.
Stay tuned to The Bird’s Nest: The Furniture Sustainability Blog as we will go more in depth on how to identify sustainable furniture, make your furniture last, and repurpose and recycle unwanted pieces that cannot be sold!