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What is sustainable furniture?

What is sustainable furniture?

The concept of sustainability

It was the Brundtland Report of 1987 that first introduced the concept of sustainable development to a global audience. This hard-hitting World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report described some of the upcoming challenges for humanity and explained the importance of preserving the earth's resources for future generations.

Since then, designers and manufacturers of sustainable furniture have aimed to play their part in these ecological challenges, but what qualifies as sustainable furniture?

Renewable, recycled and reclaimed materials

At the very least, sustainable furniture should be made from materials that can either be replenished or that are already in use through the circular economy.

For example, a stave of wood from an FSC-certified forest is sustainable because the trees in that forest are harvested responsibly, meaning there is no net loss of forest over time. The forest from which that stave originated should still be providing wood for our great-great-grandchildren.

Another example is reclaimed wood. For example, many of the tables, benches and desks sold by 7Magok are made from reclaimed scaffolding board, reducing the demand on raw materials while preventing wastage.

To be truly sustainable, the piece of furniture should also be recyclable. This is often not the case for materials such as particleboard and composites. While no item of furniture will last forever, single use items put pressure on the environment by requiring more manufacturing.

Some single-use materials can also cause ecological damage, when thrown away, by physically or chemically contaminating land or water sources. This is ultimately unsustainable.

Sustainable manufacturing 

When any piece of furniture is made, energy is used. To be truly sustainable, manufacturers have to look beyond the materials they use to the processes they follow to get their products to market.

This includes all the raw materials they use (what percentage are recycled?), the source of their energy supply (how much is renewable?) and how much waste they generate. Are materials located close to the workshop or is a lot of fuel used to transport them there? Are the chemicals used in upholstery, glues, oils, varnishes, etc. low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or will they pollute the environment?

Packaging and delivery is another factor. Is the furniture lightweight, minimising transport pollution? What materials are used for packaging?

Sustainable quality standards and style

Sustainable furniture is often handmade by real craftspeople rather than factory workers or robots. This results in a more durable and aesthetically pleasing piece which can be passed down the generations, sold or donated to charity after use. Again, this supports the circular economy.

Even the style and function of a piece of furniture will impact its sustainability. Simple designs with natural finishes are relatively timeless whereas trendy pieces with bright colours and glossy finishes are not only vulnerable to the whims of fashion but are difficult or impossible to restore. In the worst cases, there is planned obsolescence whereby an item is designed to be replaced or upgraded after a certain amount of time. Pieces of furniture with complex or highly specialised functions are also less sustainable than those with a basic, time-honoured design.

Sustainability also goes hand in hand with wages and working conditions. Content, well-paid workers will not only produce better furniture, they will be better able to provide for their families. This contributes to the wider goal of social sustainability envisioned by the WCED.

If you're on the lookout for sustainable handmade wooden furniture, you've come to the right place. Find out more about our responsibly sourced and reclaimed pieces on our dedicated Sustainable Furniture page.

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