sustainability | Jan 24, 2024 |
10 ways to source sustainable wood furniture

When sourcing furniture, designers are increasingly concerned with choosing pieces that are both ecologically sound and nontoxic. Wood seems like a safe choice: It’s naturally sourced, biodegradable and durable. But it’s less obvious which kind of wood is best. We combed the research and asked experts to share the best advice to help you source the most sustainable wood furnishings.

Get to know how things are made
You’ll be better able to assess the sustainability of a piece if you understand how it is made. At first glance, you may assume wood furniture and cabinetry is composed of one type of wood. But as the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons cautions in its Healthier Cabinetry Guide, you’ll often discover on closer inspection that “many prefabricated cabinets are built using a combination of three or more wood composites and veneers, which typically use toxic glues containing formaldehyde.”

Choose solid wood
Whenever you can, opt for solid wood, which eliminates the need for resins and binders found in composite woods, thereby eliminating concerns of potential toxins. It also makes it much easier to research where the wood was sourced from.

Look at the certifications
When shopping, look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which indicates the wood was sourced from a well-managed forest with lower-impact logging methods. However, be wary of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) label, which sounds like an eco-certification but has come under fire from environmental watchdogs for greenwashing, as it does not provide any guarantee of sustainable practices.

Check the scorecard
In addition to an FSC label, you can check a manufacturer’s environmental track record through the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s Wood Furniture Scorecard, which is produced in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation. According to SFC, the goal of the evaluation is to encourage furniture retailers to “implement policies that drive responsible wood sourcing practices through their complex supply chains.” So, if you choose something because of its score, let the manufacturer know! The scorecard is also a great way to discover brands that are making a conscious effort to use sustainable wood.

Give plywood another look
When solid wood is not an option, plywood is your next-best bet, says Phantila Phataraprasit, the founder of Sabai, a sustainable furniture brand that uses FSC-certified plywood for the frames of its upholstered pieces. Plywood tends to have the lowest amount of binder (3.5 percent by weight) of all the composite wood options; MDF, HDF and particleboard have much higher concentrations (10 percent, 11 percent, and 12 percent, respectively, according to the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree initiative).

Explore reclaimed options
The Sustainable Furnishings Council encourages the use of reclaimed lumber as a part of its scorecard. However, this lumber “lends itself more to custom pieces or one-off pieces,” says Phataraprasit, who notes that a brand needs to be flexible in order to design around that specific reclaimed material. For her own line of hardwood tables, she determined there was too much variation in reclaimed wood to create a uniform product.

Divert trees from the landfill
Phataraprasit landed on salvaged urban lumber, which her company sources through Cambium, one of many operators working to keep usable wood out of landfills. Megan Offner, the founder of New York Heartwoods, was working in the design-build industry when she pivoted to milling naturally fallen trees in the Hudson River Valley. “Trees are often part of the waste stream,” she explains. “Fallen trees, urban trees that come down in storms, or urban trees that require removal—a lot of that material gets chipped, cut into firewood or [sent to] landfills. I asked, ‘How do we get that material into peoples’ homes?’” Almost immediately, Offner’s customers began requesting furniture made from the lumber, so she hired a team to produce a furniture collection and fulfill custom orders.

Use your client’s trees
If you want to go to the next level with your sustainable sourcing, look to the piece of land where your project is located. Offner works with homeowners and interior designers to make “whole tree furniture” that uses trees that need to come down because of construction or safety. “Using a tree from [a client’s] own backyard becomes something that’s memorable and meaningful,” she says. “It adds a quality to the interior space beyond just the beauty of the material.” For a client in New Rochelle who had to take down a 30-foot tree, she was able to use it to make all of the bedroom furniture, two bookshelves, three stools and a coffee table. Heartwoods also recently worked with interior design firm Love Is Enough on its redesign for Little Cat Lodge by using wood from trees felled at the nearby Catamount ski resort, lending the hotel a unique sense of place. Offner also consults remotely with designers outside of the New York area who want to utilize their clients’ trees.

Avoid tropicals
If your client is longing for mahogany or another exotic wood, proceed with caution. According to the National Resources Defense Council, tropical hardwoods are difficult to manage sustainably because they regenerate poorly after logging and these forests have often been subject to illegal logging. Note that this includes ipe and teak, which are often used for outdoor furniture.

Seek out vintage pieces
Perhaps the best option of all is to source vintage and antique wood furniture, because these require no new trees to be chopped down. As a bonus, you’ll often get a piece that is of higher quality than you can find today at the same price.


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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