Buying eco-friendly office cubicles, executive desks, seating, filing cabinets, and other furniture is getting easier. With government agencies, universities, and corporations specifying greener products, furniture manufacturers have been fairly quick to put environmental options on the table. Both large and smaller companies offer furniture made from sustainably harvested woods and recycled, bio-based, or nontoxic materials, and made with glues, paints, foams, and other ingredients that don’t give off noxious odors.
Why bother with green furniture? What environmental harm could office furniture possibly cause?
Not much while you’re sitting in your modular furniture talking on the phone. But furniture making has traditionally been a problematic source of emissions. In this eco-conscious world, there is growing consideration given to what happens to furniture after it fulfills its useful life. In recent years, the major office furniture manufacturers have undertaken big changes. You should too.
The first thing to consider is air pollution. Traditional manufacturing processes create emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from glues, stains, and finishes. VOCs are a major contributor to indoor air pollution and outdoor smog. Greener solutions include powder-based finishing coats, which not only are VOC-free, but require less energy and create less waste. About 95 percent of powder ends up on the product, compared to only about 60 percent of paint in traditional wet-spray processes.
Next, consider wood. With increased pressure to reduce the use of hardwoods from poorly managed forests, companies have had to scrutinize their suppliers’ sources. Furniture manufacturers such as Knoll and Herman Miller have committed to using wood producers with sustainable forestry practices such as seeking out reclaimed lumber.
Recycled materials, once shunned as second rate, are becoming much more common as well. Steelcase uses a growing amount of recycled content in its steel and particle-board products. Guilford of Maine, a leading supplier of fabrics to the office-furniture industry, also offers a line of upholstery fabrics made from recycled soda bottles.
Leading-edge companies are also designing for disassembly — that is, making furniture that can be easily taken apart and fixed or recycled. Over the past few years, Herman Miller has adapted a “protocol for sustainability” that includes a rating tool for new products, a materials database, and disassembly guidelines and training procedures.
If you’re looking for green furniture, you do not have to pay top dollar for new furniture from one of the industry leaders. Consider the refurbished route. Increasingly, more and more companies are using refurbished cubicles, desks and chairs. A whole industry has grown up around providing refurbished items. With good reason: each year, U.S. companies buy about 3 million desks, 16.5 million chairs, 4.5 million tables, and 11 million file cabinets. Experts estimate that about half this amount is thrown away annually; according to one estimate, that’s enough to furnish all the offices in Boston.
New Life Office, who has been a “re-manufacturer” for the last 18 years, is a typical example of this trend. To offer lower-cost, recycled workstations, we clean and repaint metal, replace fabric, and recycle used materials. New Life Office uses low-VOC coatings, fabrics made from recycled plastics, and other environmentally friendly processes.