With the exception of those taking the minimalist lifestyle to the extreme, furniture is an essential feature of every household. There are many ethical issues that arise in the production of furniture, particularly in relation to timber, cotton, leather and toxic flame retardants. A beautiful dining table is likely to lose its charm if you find out the wood was illegally felled from tropical rainforests. And how comfortable can a sofa really be if the cotton that covers it has been picked by the hands of forced labourers? Despite these difficulties, there are several options when it comes to sourcing ethical furniture.
In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 28 furniture shops.
We also look at timber, leather, shine a spotlight on the ethics of IKEA and give our recommended buys.
About Ethical Consumer
This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.
What to buy
What to look for when buying furniture:
Is it second-hand? If you purchase second-hand furniture you can be sure that your money has not directly contributed to the felling of forest, slaughter of animals or mistreatment of workers in the depths of the supply chain.
Is it reclaimed or recycled? There is a growing trend for reclaimed and recycled furniture. Not only does it look rustic and soulful, but it also makes better use of resources, creating less demand for the felling of living trees.
Is it 100% FSC certified? Although the FSC has been rightly criticised, it is still the best certification standard for preventing unsustainable forestry, especially for wood coming from outside the EU. Just make sure that what you are buying is labelled as 100% FSC and not FSC Mix, which could contain non-certified wood.
What not to buy
What to avoid when buying furniture:
Is it uncertified? If the furniture you are buying is not second-hand, or made from reclaimed wood, does it have FSC certification? If it doesn’t, then it is likely to be coming from unsustainable sources. This is of particular importance when the wood is sourced from outside the EU.
Is the cotton organic? Cotton is a wonderful material, but its production often entails a host of issues, particularly around workers’ rights, the use of pesticides and GM cotton. Ideally, go for organic cotton, and avoid companies who do not exclude cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in their sourcing policies as these countries harvest cotton using forced labour.
Is it leather? The purchase of leather contributes to an industry that is responsible for the deaths of countless numbers of animals. It also has a great environmental cost, in part from the raising of livestock, but also from the toxic chemicals used in the tanning process.
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Sustainable forestry, for example, has the potential not only to mitigate negative effects, but to be a positive industry, particularly in relation to environment. The wood that you have in your home is storing carbon and preventing it from spilling out into the atmosphere. Also, as a natural product, at the end of its lifetime wood will biodegrade, causing minimal damage to the environment (unless of course it has been treated with toxic chemicals).
Timber in deforestation
As demand goes up, forests come down – at a shocking rate. In 2017, the rate of deforestation globally was such that every second more than one football pitch of forest was destroyed. Furniture production is a significant driver of the timber trade. In 2017, IKEA alone used 16.5 million m3 of wood in its products, which was almost 1% of all the industrial wood produced globally that year (wood in the rough, not used for fuel). However, it is important to recognise that it is not merely demand for timber that is leading to the razing of the world’s forests, but also demand for soy, beef, palm oil and other commodities.
Despite a strong forestry sector in the UK, consumption of wood greatly outweighs domestic production. In 2017, total consumption of sawnwood stood at an estimated 11.4 million cubic metres, whereas production was 3.8 million cubic metres. Companies therefore rely heavily on imports to plug the hole, making the UK the third-largest importer of forestry products in the world. Most of the UK’s softwood timber material is imported from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia, whereas most hardwood timber comes from south-east Asia and areas of central and western Africa, as well as a significant proportion of temperate hardwood coming from Russia and the US.
Illegal and unsustainable forestry
It is estimated that illegal logging accounts for about 15-30% of all wood traded globally, and is worth between $51 billion and $152 billion annually. The problem is significantly greater in key producer tropical forests such as those of the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and South-east Asia, with illegal logging, according to Interpol, estimated to account for between 50-90% of all forestry activities. The wide-ranging statistics around illegal logging, as with any black market, reflect the difficulty of monitoring a activity that operates in the darkness of illegality.
Illegal and unsustainable forestry have a number of negative environmental, social and economic impacts. Loss of natural forests leads to a loss of biodiversity and threatens the habitat of countless species of wildlife. It also accelerates climate change as forests play a vital role in the carbon cycle. Thriving forests capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, releasing oxygen in exchange, whereas deforestation leads to the release of carbon if the forest is burnt and less carbon capture in future if it is replaced with agricultural crops.
Unsustainable forestry also threatens the livelihoods of the 1.6 billion people – 60 million of whom are indigenous peoples – that rely on the world’s forests either as a source of income or as a home. Illegal logging also deprives governments of tax revenue needed for the delivery of vital public goods and services.
Timber sourcing policies
In order to receive Ethical Consumer’s best rating for their timber sourcing policy, a company’s policy would have to meet at least six out of a possible ten necessary criteria. These criteria included: exclusion of illegal timber; a discussion of how the company ensures this; clear targets for sourcing timber from sustainably managed sources; use of reclaimed or recycled wood/paper; and a high total percentage (50%+) of FSC-certified timber.
Although the FSC has been heavily criticised, it still provides the best assurance that timber, especially timber sourced from outside the EU, is responsibly sourced.
There were twelve companies who were considered to have a best timber sourcing policy, as illustrated in the Timber Sourcing table below. Of particular note is IKEA, the only company with a timber sourcing policy that met all ten of Ethical Consumer’s necessary criteria. B&Q also had an extremely strong timber sourcing policy, as did Marks & Spencer and J Sainsbury Plc.
Reclaimed and recycled wood was at the heart of the two smallest companies in the table, Green Woods Furniture and Sustainable Furniture, although neither could give an exact figure as to what percentage of their timber was reclaimed.
Although Barker and Stonehouse received our worst rating for its timber sourcing policy, 20% of its dining and bedroom ranges were made from reclaimed wood.
Companies that had at least one range of reclaimed/recycled furniture were given half a mark for Product Sustainability.
What can be done about unsustainable logging?
Forest Stewardship Council
Within the timber sector are a number of organisations claiming to promote sustainable timber sourcing. The most influential and well known of these is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a multi-stakeholder organisation founded in 1993. The organisation has received considerable criticism over the years. In 2018, Greenpeace, a founding member, announced that it would not be renewing its membership, stating:
“When implemented effectively, FSC certification can protect people’s rights and improve forest management, but we no longer have confidence that FSC alone can consistently guarantee enough protection, especially when forests are facing multiple threats.”
Despite the criticism it has received, the FSC remains the organisation with the most credibility and potential to guarantee sustainable forestry. After second hand, reclaimed or locally-sourced timber, ‘FSC 100% certified’ wood products are the next best bet.
PEFC & other schemes
The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is the world’s largest forest certification system. It has long been regarded as a far weaker accreditation system than the FSC and, therefore, was not part of Ethical Consumer’s accepted criteria for an adequate timber policy.
FSC-Watch, a website dedicated to monitoring the FSC, states that it does not bother to monitor the PEFC and other, industry-driven, certification schemes because they have no credibility: “No NGOs, people’s organisations or indigenous peoples’ organisations were involved in setting them up. Why bother spending our time monitoring something that amounts to little more than a rubber stamp?”
The Environmental Investigation Agency, in 2017, pointed out the case of Austrian timber giant Holzindustrie Schweighofer as, “the most recent example of PEFC’s inability – or unwillingness – to act against a member company in the face of clear and undeniable evidence of extensive sourcing of illegal timber.”
EU Timber Regulation
In 2013, the EU Timber Regulations (EUTR) came into force, making it illegal to place, on the EU market, timber that has come from illegal sources. According to the EU’s 2018 report, “Almost all countries comply with the EUTR.” This was not always the case. In July 2014, there were 18 non-compliant Member States but, by June 2015, this was reduced to only four. However, despite this progress, “continuous efforts are needed to ensure a uniform and effective application of the EUTR across countries.” There are also certain products that are omitted from the legislation, including books and musical instruments. These legal loopholes allow timber from illegal sources to creep onto the market.
The Timber Retail Coalition was founded in 2010 by European retailers Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer, IKEA and Carrefour Group. It seeks to raise awareness and support clear and pragmatic regulations and legislation to ensure that timber and timber products in European markets are legal, responsibly sourced and sustainable.
In 2014, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched its Forest Campaign which aimed to make responsible forest trade the norm in the UK market. This included asking companies to pledge to source 100% of their timber from “sustainable” sources by 2020.
Among the companies in this guide, those that have publicly made this commitment are: IKEA, John Lewis, B&Q, J Sainsbury Plc, Marks & Spencer, and Nobia AB, while Oak Furniture Land’s commitment is by 2022. However, it should be noted that included in the WWF’s definition of “sustainable” is wood that comes from the “PEFC or other certification scheme”.
Since 2015, the WWF has published its biannual Timber Scorecard which assesses 128 UK retailers on their timber-buying policies. The 2017 scorecard showed an almost even split: “whilst half the companies we reviewed are on the journey to being fully sustainable for their timber products and progressing well, the other half has failed to take appropriate action, and need to change swiftly and meet their responsibilities to sustainable trade.” These findings are supported by our own research, as the Timber table shows.
Another key material used in furniture is cotton, which throws up a host of issues. According to Anti-Slavery International (ASI) website, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were two of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, and every year their governments forcibly mobilise over one million citizens to grow and harvest cotton. There is, therefore, a high likelihood of a company using cotton produced under forced labour.
The majority of cotton production also entails the use toxic and harmful chemicals. According to the Organic Trade Association, in July 2018 cotton covered roughly 2.78% of global arable land but accounted for 12.34% of all insecticide sales and 3.94% of herbicide sales. Genetically modified (GM) cotton is also pervasive, accounting for 80% of cotton grown in 2017, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit pro biotech organisation.
With the prevalence of these ethical concerns in cotton production, we expected furniture companies to have a robust cotton sourcing policy. As companies focusing purely on fitted kitchens, Magnet, Gower and Wren Kitchens were not found to be using cotton, so were not expected to have such a policy. Of the companies using cotton, only Green Woods received our best rating for its cotton sourcing as all its cotton products, namely bedding and mattresses, were certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), thereby guaranteeing not only that the cotton was organic, but also that it was not produced using forced labour.
Most companies had inadequate or no policies around cotton. Only IKEA, Marks & Spencer and Next guaranteed that they did not source cotton from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Of the larger companies, IKEA had the most impressive cotton sourcing policy and came first place in 2017 in the Sustainable Cotton Ranking, followed by Marks & Spencer which came fourth. The Sustainable Cotton Ranking is a yearly report, released by WWF, PAN UK and Solidaridad, which assess the performance of 75 of the largest cotton-using companies across the globe. For more on cotton, see our in-depth report, The Ethics of Cotton Production.
Use of leather is common in the furniture trade, with most companies in this guide offering leather products such as sofas. A common argument is that leather is merely a by-product of the meat industry; however, this is not entirely true. While most of a cow’s monetary value comes from the sale of its meat, its hide does account for about 10%. The global value of leather goods is also far from insignificant: in 2016 the market was worth approximately $217 billion. To purchase leather is to contribute to an industry that is responsible for the death of countless numbers of animals each year.
Although it may appear that leather is a natural product and therefore one with little environmental damage, this is not the case. The negative environmental impact comes not only from the effects of cattle farming, but also the cocktail of harmful chemicals used in its production. These include formaldehyde, arsenic and cyanide. Workers in tanneries often work with minimal protection from these harmful chemicals and suffer greatly as a result.
All companies using leather were marked down under the Animal Rights category. Only a few companies had leather sourcing policies, and several, such as John Lewis, J Sainsbury Plc and Marks & Spencer collaborate with the Leather Working Group, a multi-stakeholder group that aims to promote sustainable and appropriate environmental business practices within the leather industry. IKEA has taken steps to map the whole of its leather supply chain and, since 2016, has ensured that chrome, a toxic chemical often used in the tanning process, was not used in the creation of any of its leather products.
For some companies, such as Futon Company, Myakka, and Sustainable Furniture, leather was only a very small part of their business and was found in only a few products. Green Woods Furniture did not sell any products containing leather.
For more on the ethics of leather see our shoe guide.
All domestic sofas and mattresses in the UK need to comply with the most stringent fire-safety regulations in the world. Surely a good thing, right? On the contrary, government regulation in this sector is a prime illustration of the law of unintended consequences, or rather, the unintended consequences of the law. In order to comply with regulations, most manufacturers treat fabrics and fillings with a host of toxic chemicals, particularly those under the umbrella of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are considered the most harmful.
While these chemicals are meant to prevent ignition and slow the rate at which fire spreads, research has found that the effectiveness of BFRs is negligible and the smoke they produce far more toxic. After the Grenfell Tower Fire, a dozen residents were treated for cyanide poisoning. But the problems do not stop there. As flame retardants are semi-volatile, they are always seeping out of your sofa, and from there they find their way into the bodies of humans and wildlife. These chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems, including cancer. That breast milk from women in the UK contains the highest levels of flame retardants in the world is a telling indication of this.
UK furniture remains far more toxic than furniture from the US or the EU, where regulations are designed to make flame retardants less necessary. For example, the UK is the only country in the world to require a separate furniture fillings test, meaning that more flame retardants have to be added into the body of a UK sofa than its European counterpart.
So why does the UK lag behind when it comes to reducing the toxicity of furniture? According to Terry Edge, former head of the review of UK furniture regulations, corporate power is trumping the concerns of citizen safety:
“The hugely powerful chemical industry is manipulating UK law so that their products get into our sofas and mattresses in huge amounts – around 30-50 kgs per household (not counting those in carpets, curtains and electrical goods).”
So how do you avoid harmful flame retardants?
Avoiding all flame-retardant chemicals is near-impossible in the UK. If you are desperate to do so, you could buy products that are 100% organic and natural. However, as furniture and mattresses still need to meet regulations, make sure you buy from a supplier you trust, as it is quite common, claims Terry Edge, for manufacturers to cheat: “they either use flame retardants and lie about it or they do not test their fillings to the correct test.”
IKEA leads the way when it comes to policies around flame retardants, with the vast majority of companies saying very little, if anything on the issue. The company strives to refrain from the use of any flame retardants in its furniture, instead favouring techniques and materials with flame retardant properties. It is the only company in the guide to have phased out all BFRs, considered the most toxic flame retardants, from its furniture. Although, for its UK furniture, it still uses some harmful flame retardants in order to comply with regulations.
If purchasing a sofa, you can avoid the worst flame retardants in cover fabrics by purchasing those with a Schedule 3 interliner, a special fire-resistant material placed between the outer cover and the filling material. But be aware, there will still be flame retardants in the fillings. Or you can buy from outside the UK, bite the bullet when it comes to the delivery charge, and rest a little easier knowing that your sofa may not be as dangerous as it could be. For more information, see Terry Edge’s website Toxic Sofa.
Green Furniture Directory
The most environmental choice when it comes to furniture is to buy second-hand, repair or upcycle, or make it from scratch – provided you use reclaimed or recycled wood.
Here are a few places to start your search:
Antiques have long been regarded for their aesthetic value, but they are also an environmentally friendly option. Antiques Are Green was founded in 2009 in order to promote the green credentials of antiques, and now has over 1,500 antiques and vintage businesses in its network.
With shops all around the UK dedicated to second-hand furniture and other household items, it is easy to pick up an ethical bargain while also contributing to a good cause. The British Heart Foundation operates widely but continues to test on animals for its research.
This large network is aimed at reducing poverty, tackling waste and offering a brighter and better future for the most isolated individuals in society. See the Reuse Network to find a reuse centre near you where you can source affordable furniture and other goods.
Freecycle is unbeatable for free furniture and other treasures.
Preloved sells second hand furniture, or sometimes offers it for free.
Upcycling is the word of the moment in the furniture world. For those who didn’t pay enough attention during their school design technology classes, there
are many independent upcyclers around the country.
Reclaimed & recycled
For those keen to upcycle their own furniture, or start completely from scratch, we recommend using as much reclaimed and recycled timber as possible.
The National Community Wood Recycling Project was founded in 2003 to help set up and develop a nationwide network of wood recycling social enterprises. It aims to save resources by rescuing and re-using waste timber, and create sustainable job, training and volunteering opportunities for local people.
Leave the label on!
Any furniture that does not have a fire-safety label cannot be resold in the UK. Around 50% of sofas end up in landfill because they do not have this label. So, even if it looks a little ugly, do not cut it off, or your sofa will likely find itself as part of landfill – which is far uglier!
Full Grown produces furniture like no other. Instead of being composed of different pieces of timber chopped to size and pieced together, the furniture is harvested from the ground, already fully formed. Over several years, Gavin Munro and his team guide and manipulate trees, usually willow, into amazing forms and configurations: chairs, tables, lampshades. The final piece, each of which is one of a kind, is more of a work of art than a functional object.
The ‘quickest’ way to acquire a piece is to commission one, but with orders for chairs booked up until 2029, you will have to exercise some patience. Although at £5000 for a single chair, the decade waiting time will give you the chance to start saving up the pennies. In early 2019, the company will unveil its ‘Shares for Chairs’ opportunity.
Company behind the brand
Founded by Ingvar Kamprad in Sweden in 1943, IKEA has grown to be one of the world’s best-known furniture brands, with 422 stores across the globe and revenues of €38.8 billion in 2018. Despite its gargantuan size, IKEA remains a privately-owned business and, although its founder died in early 2018, the Kamprad family is still at its heart.
IKEA is essentially split into two entities, which are, at least from a legal standpoint, completely separate: the IKEA Group, (owned by the Netherlands-based Stichting Ingka Holding BV); and the Inter IKEA Group (owned by the Liechtenstein-based Interogo Foundation). Inter IKEA is the owner of the IKEA concept, and sells the IKEA brand to franchises worldwide, the biggest of which is the IKEA Group. Think this all sounds a bit dodgy? You would not be the first.
IKEA’s complex structure has been a focal point for accusations of tax avoidance. A 2016 report, IKEA: Flat Pack Tax Avoidance, commissioned by the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, accused IKEA of avoiding an estimated €1 billion in missing tax revenues over the period 2009-2014. In December 2017, the EU launched an in-depth investigation into the company’s tax affairs.
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