Sustainable Furniture Specification Guide

April 27, 2012
This sustainable furniture specification guide proves there's more than one way to go green.

If you need to order new or replacement furnishings, it’s worth your time to learn the ins and outs of furniture specification.

Chairs, desks, casegoods, lounge and waiting room seating, and storage cabinets are a significant investment because they must endure daily use for years on end. “From its first day in your building, furniture also begins to impact productivity, IAQ, daylighting, and cleaning practices,” says Steve Brewster, program manager for Kimball Office, a developer of workplace furniture.

Disregard the many facets of furniture specification, however, and your investment could be soured with furnishings that offgas VOCs, damage easily, cause poor ergonomics, frustrate users, and can’t be repurposed.

One way to avoid these complications is to select green furniture pieces. “Investing in environmentally preferable furniture goes a long way toward creating a cohesive, enduring, and productive environment,” says John Michael, vice president and general manager of Business Interiors by Staples. “It helps companies meet sustainable goals, achieve relevant certifications and standards, prioritize employee health, and differentiate themselves from competitors.”

A Wealth of Sustainable Attributes
Be wary – green furniture is a nebulous term that encompasses everything from low-VOC finishes and recycled content to lifecycle and durability considerations. Eco-friendly pieces may offer one or a combination of the following benefits:

  • Recycled or salvaged content (wood, plastics, metals)

  • No- or low-VOC levels

  • Rapidly renewable or bio-based materials

  • Recyclability, including packaging

  • Environmentally preferable supply chain and manufacturing processes

  • Ability to be modified or reconfigured

  • Compatible with green and mild cleaning chemicals

  • Durability and longevity

  • Easy replacement and serviceability of key parts

Because sustainable furnishings support a broad array of attributes, you need to decide which qualities you want to prioritize in your purchase. These are often influenced by your occupant needs or corporate sustainability program.

Common Green Furniture Certifications

Worried about the validity of a manufacturer’s green claims? These common logos can give you peace of mind by offering third-party verification of sustainable furniture attributes

Forest Stewardship Council

WFSC certification is a voluntary, market-based tool that supports responsible forest management worldwide. FSC-certified products are verified from the forest of origin through the supply chain. The process is carried out by independent certification bodies that have FSC accreditation, ensuring that the forest products are from responsibly harvested and verified sources.

FSC applies to a variety of wood-based products, including building materials, furniture, restroom and cleaning supplies, office paper, cardboard, and flooring.


The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI) targets human health by enhancing indoor air quality (IAQ) and reducing exposure to chemicals and pollutants. The GEI certifies products and materials for low chemical and particle emissions.

GREENGUARD Children & Schools Certification specifically limits emissions of total phthalates, consisting of dibutyl (DBP), diethylhexyl (DEHP), diethyl (DEP), dimethyl (DMP), butylbenzyl (BBP), and dioctyl (DOP) phthalates.

Cradle to Cradle

The Cradle to Cradle Certified program is a multi-attribute eco-label administered by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. It assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future lifecycles. The program provides guidelines on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients.

The Cradle to Cradle program evaluates a product’s design and manufacturing practices and offers four levels of certification. Each product’s materials and manufacturing practices are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship, and Social Responsibility.

BIFMA level Certification

Wlevel is a sustainability certification program for furniture. It delivers open and transparent means of evaluating and communicating the environmental and social impacts of furniture products in the built environment. level scores a company’s social actions, energy usage, material selection, and human and ecosystem health impacts.

The level brand uses a numeric marking of 1, 2, or 3 and recognizes a variety of sustainability attributes for materials, such as climate neutrality, recycled content, efficiency of material usage, biodegradability, selection of rapidly renewable materials, and lifecycle assessments.

NSF/ANSI Standard 336

NSF/ANSI 336: Sustainability Assessment for Commercial Furnishings Fabric, developed by the public health and safety organization NSF International, addresses the environmental, economic, lifecycle, and social aspects of furnishing fabric products. It includes woven, non-woven, bonded, and knitted fabrics used for upholstery and vertical applications, such as drapery or panel systems fabric.

The NSF/ANSI 336 criteria are divided into categories (e.g. fiber sourcing, water and energy use, recycling practices) with a weighted point system applied to each. Certification is based on point totals to achieve a Compliant, Silver, Gold, or Platinum level.

SCS Indoor Advantage

The SCS Indoor Advantage certification program certifies compliance with rigorous IAQ emission requirements. The program is designed for interior building materials, furnishings, and finish systems.

Indoor Advantage is based on emission criteria established in the BIFMA Standard for Low-Emitting Office Furniture Systems and Seating (ANSI/BIFMA X7.1) and the USGBC LEED criteria for EQ4.5 (furniture and seating).

UL Environment Sustainable Product Certification

Sustainable Product Certifications tell the story of a product’s environmental performance throughout its lifecycle. These voluntary, multi-attribute, lifecycle-based environmental certifications indicate that a product has undergone rigorous scientific testing, exhaustive auditing, or both, to prove its compliance with stringent third-party environmental performance standards.

These standards set metrics for a wide variety of criteria, including energy reduction, waste diversion, recyclability, salvaged material usage, site preservation, transportation reduction, and natural resource conservation.

Regardless of what individual qualities you’re looking for, keep in mind that sustainability should extend beyond a single attribute. Even though a piece may offer a certain percentage of recycled content, it could still be offgassing VOCs. In reality, the greenest furniture piece you can select is not only environmentally sensitive but it should also be the one you’ll get the most use out of for the greatest amount of time.

“Manufacturers are responding to this need for longevity by shifting the way they design furniture – no longer can a piece last a mere 10 years until it breaks,” explains Norman Nance, vice president of marketing, architect and design, and environmental initiatives for KI, a furniture manufacturer. “Furnishings must now offer an extended life and easier serviceability.”

Any manufacturer you partner with should offer warranties ensuring the longevity of the piece as well as a catalog for parts. “Sustainable furniture should be durable furniture – one should be able to expect that a piece will be around for a long time,” says Brewster.

One of the easiest ways to extend the life of furniture is to replace worn-out elements instead of the whole piece. Whether it’s casters, seat cushions, or table tops, choose a piece that can have those parts serviced or switched out.

“Furniture should also fit what people are doing – occupants shouldn’t have to conform to it,” Brewster argues. Not only is compatibility crucial, but ergonomics and height adjustability are important features that help make users more comfortable and productive.

A growing number of studies have shown the ill effects of everything from improperly sized furniture for students to the health problems associated with workers sitting all day. Support occupants with pieces that address their work and health needs.

An often overlooked way of making furniture green is to have furnishings that are reconfigurable and mobile. As your space needs shift, your furniture should be able to adapt to new layouts, job requirements, and occupant volume. This is particularly important as the size of individual workspaces decreases and more organizations incorporate remote workers and online classrooms.

Importance of Certifications
With the number of unverified green claims on the market, you have a right to be wary of anyone claiming eco-friendliness without anything to back it up. This is where third-party certifications come into play. These logos aren’t just marketing tools, explains Brewster, they are clear documentation that supports a product’s sustainable achievements.

Green certifications carry credibility as most are based on industry best practices and require a vetted application process. The standards that products must meet to gain certification are also open for review and comment to ensure the greatest level of transparency and consensus.

While companies are proud to advertise which certifications they’ve achieved, it can be overwhelming to purchasers trying to dissect precisely what each one means. Note that some evaluate the product’s entire lifecycle while others highlight a single attribute. See the chart on page 35 for an overview of common green furniture certifications.

Beyond Product Use
If you want the 30,000-foot view of sustainable furniture, consider looking at the product’s complete lifecycle from supply chain to end-of-life options, recommends Nance. This goes beyond the product’s life in your facility to concentrate on creation and disposal. Lifecycle covers material origins and production and extends through packaging and shipping practices, instead of looking at one certification or a single green attribute.

When evaluating the lifecycle of environmentally preferable furniture, Michael suggests asking the following questions of your manufacturer or distributor:

  • Does the company use renewable sources of energy, such as solar power, to run their operations?

  • Is their equipment ENERGY STAR rated?

  • Are plastics and other harmful materials in product packaging minimized?

  • Does the company help customers consolidate orders to avoid multiple shipments of small items?

  • Does the company have strategically located distribution centers and ensure that customers are getting their products from the closest location?

  • Are electric or biofuel vehicles used for distribution?

  • Has the volume of packaging materials been reduced and can they also be recycled?

If available, you can also request an environmental product declaration (EPD), a standardized, third-party verified document based on a product’s lifecycle assessment (LCA). These evaluations cover material sourcing, production processes, transportation modes, use and maintenance, and disposal options.

Because EPDs are a standardized overview, you can effectively compare two products, which can be difficult otherwise. But unlike a certification, an EPD won’t tell you how green a product is – it doesn’t provide a rating or award level. It’s up to you to decide which green attributes are important for your facility.

Expected Costs
“No matter how great the sustainability story is, people are generally not willing to pay a premium for green furniture,” finds Nance. “In many cases, they shouldn’t have to.”

“Employing sustainable practices throughout your facility does not have to cost more. This is a common misconception about going green,” Michael stresses. “There are environmentally preferable alternatives that cost the same or less than their traditional counterparts. Also consider costs over the product’s life. If it will last longer, have fewer harmful side effects, and be easy to recycle, it costs less overall than its traditional furniture counterpart.”

You can expect a comparable price to traditional pieces with green furniture or even a price reduction if the manufacturer has been aggressive about reducing waste along the supply chain.

“Sustainability is about the elimination of waste from landfills, the manufacturing process, and packaging,” explains Brewster. “It means less energy and materials are used in the process, which can create cost savings for the manufacturer.”

As with any facility purchase, think of furniture specification as a long-term investment. It would be easy to select something based on looks or a low price, but you and your occupants will pay more in the end.

“Promoting sustainability company-wide and across all areas of a building remains an important initiative for many facility managers,” says Michael. “As furniture plays an important role in the overall makeup of a facility, sustainable furniture that meets environmental certifications can help companies benefit the environment and meet their green goals.”

Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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