I recently moved into a bigger apartment—always an exciting prospect for a design nerd, but this move was particularly exciting because it meant that there was enough room for my fiancé and I to each have our own desks (finally!).
Finding a desk that could arrive before Valentine’s Day was in itself a feat, as the surge of people working from home has driven demand through the roof. But after much online sleuthing, I was able to find one that ticked all my boxes for style, size and budget—and could ship within a week. When it arrived, I had it out of the box and assembled in a few minutes and was already styling my desk accessories when I noticed a piece of paper I’d missed in my rush. Under an all-caps “WARNING,” the note informed me that my convenient little desk might contain lead paint, which could cause cancer and reproductive harm. Just as quickly as I’d put it together, the desk was packed back up and slapped with a return label.
I was lucky. There are many hazardous chemicals lurking in our home furnishings that don’t come with a warning label, something that most consumers are largely unaware of. What’s more surprising is that designers are often in the dark, too. A new survey from the Sustainable Furnishings Council found that 68 percent of 103 designers who responded said that hardly any of their clients asked about harmful chemicals in their furnishings. Perhaps even more startlingly, 55 percent of those same designers reported that they had no sources for healthy home furnishings that also fit aesthetic needs. “When we sent out the survey, we assumed that there would be some gaps in the knowledge of our members, but, seeing the results, it’s clear that they are operating with the bare minimum of information on these issues,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the SFC.
There are a few reasons that this issue has stayed on the fringes of the A&D industry, ranging from a lack of transparency from manufacturers to a dearth of governmental regulation and the power of the chemical lobby, but the biggest is just what Inglis said—a lack of awareness and education. The presence of harmful chemicals like flame retardants and antimicrobials in our home furnishings is something that has only recently begun to gain attention. That’s partially due to a simple fact: They’re invisible. “Toxicity is a little bit ethereal,” says Baltimore-based interior designer and SFC ambassador Laura Hodges. “We know that [toxins] exist but we can’t see them or touch them—though often you can smell them. This is a huge component of sustainability, but you can’t see it, which makes it harder to conceive of.”
Even once a chemical is identified as toxic, it can take years for that knowledge to spread. Hodges points to asbestos and lead paint, two materials now widely known to cause health complications, but that were used in buildings for decades. “Think of how long it took to discover that those materials were hazardous,” she says. “Then that knowledge has to trickle down. It’s easy just to put your head in the sand on these issues.”
Over the past few years, terms like VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and off-gassing (the process by which new materials release VOCs—think paint fumes or even “new car smell”) have started to come into the lexicon of the design industry. But there are plenty of potentially toxic chemicals that are still under the radar of most design professionals, to say nothing of the general public. Stain-resistant treatments common in performance fabrics, for example, contain polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, as well as a host of other health concerns, like a decreased immune response in children.
The presence of such chemicals in performance fabrics is particularly troubling, given the industry-wide embrace of durability as a key selling point over the past decade. “We have to let go of the idea that we can make our furniture bulletproof,” says Hodges. “We shouldn’t be teaching our clients that everything is going to be waterproof and stain-resistant. You do have to clean and take care of things.”
Before designers can educate their clients about toxins, they first have to educate themselves. But, according to that same SFC study, 48 percent of respondents said that they didn’t know of any sources that would tell them about the environmental safety of furnishings. That there are so few notable sources on this topic stems from a major hurdle: a lack of governmental regulation and, consequently, a lack of incentive for manufacturers to be transparent about what they’re using.
While organizations like the SFC do provide resources on the subject, Inglis says that they are limited in how far they can go. “The best we’re able to do is indicate the companies that are willing to disclose what goes into their products,” says Inglis. If manufacturers are not willing to be transparent about their process and the materials they use, there isn’t much that the SFC (or anyone else) can do to find that information out. “We aren’t a certifying body, and we don’t aim to be,” she adds. “And that’s what it would take to have full clarity about what’s going into furniture.” There is no government or third-party entity regulating what’s put in home furnishings, no equivalent of a nutrition facts label for this industry.
While there are nongovernmental certifications for the quality of individual materials like textiles and wood, there is no single organization that takes a holistic approach. The fabric on a sofa may be certified to the highest standards of organic textiles and have wooden legs from a sustainable source, but the cushions inside could be coated in flame retardants. “Sustainability is complex,” says Inglis. “In this day and age, we expect an easy answer, and there are not easy answers on this. The main thing is to accept that it’s complex and keep thinking about it and doing our research and making careful choices.”
Perhaps the closest we’ve come to any major legislation on this issue is California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, more commonly known as Proposition 65. The act requires the state to maintain and update a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. It’s because of Prop 65 that the note about the lead paint was even included in the packaging of my desk. To sell their products in California, companies are legally required to disclose if the pieces contain certain ingredients that the state has deemed toxic, which means most major U.S. retailers disclose relevant Prop 65 warnings.
“The legislation in California has been extremely impactful,” says Alison Mears, the director of the Healthy Materials Lab at the Parsons School of Design. “I’m hopeful that with the new presidential administration coming in and making the environment more of a priority, we might begin to see national legislation. We know that the future is people wanting healthier places to live.”
In learning about material toxicity’s sheer and daunting complexity, it can be easy to get discouraged or ignore the issue altogether. But designers are in a unique position to broker change on this matter. “I think part of this does come down to our purchasing power,” says Hodges. “You can make the choice to only buy from companies that are transparent and are prioritizing this. We might not have full control, but we can show that design doesn’t have to be tied to toxicity.”
Designers are also in a position to educate their clients about these issues and become part of the trickle-down effect that’s crucial to spreading such knowledge. “The key is not to overwhelm people (or yourself) with too much information at once,” says New York–based interior designer and SFC ambassador Anelle Gandelman. “You don’t want to throw everything at them at once, because then they might just ignore it all. But if you’re talking about paint, you might mention that you don’t use brands that off-gas. You can make it seem like a value you’re adding. If everyone is talking about it, it will become commonplace and we won’t remember a time when we weren’t concerned, like with organic food.”
Similarly, Mears suggests that designers who are newly trying to phase out things like VOCs and PFAS begin with one instead of trying to cut them all out. “Learn from [the process] and talk to your clients about it,” she says. “Most of them won’t know about any of this and they’ll be glad that you’re looking out for them and their families.”
She also points out that topics like sustainability and health in design only recently started being included in design school curriculum. “The next generation of designers are absolutely aware of these issues and are demanding change,” says Mears. “While it may seem bleak right now, I’ve started to see indicators of change that lead me to believe we’re at the tipping point. I’m starting to see the light.”