top of page

Choosing Sustainable Seating: Sofas, Chairs, and More

Sustainability is a bit of a buzz term. We hear a lot about sustainable products, clothing, home goods, and more. But what does that really mean?

If you're selecting the safest items for your home (and for the planet), you may be looking for sustainable seating, like sofas and chairs. Whether it's for your living room, home office, or bedroom, sustainable, eco-friendly options can look great and lessen your environmental impact. So, how can you find sustainable seating options? What do manufacturers mean when they call chairs and sofas eco-friendly?

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

Getting the Sustainability Balance Right

Many toxins exist in our home goods and even in our home construction. A variety of materials, from carpet to paint-treated wood, can off-gas toxins known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs and chemicals in our environments. While not all home chemicals we encounter are deadly or even very dangerous at first exposure, over time, these small amounts of toxins can really build up in our systems and impact our health.

Many people sensitive to home toxins experience headaches, increased illness, achiness, breathing problems, more allergies, sleep disruption, and much more. These chemicals can contain carcinogenic properties and hormonal disrupters in some of the worst cases. None of this is ideal for a place where most of us spend a large portion of our time.

But there are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about non-toxic furniture and sustainable design in home decor. First, it's crucial to understand that everything has a chemical makeup. Not all chemicals are harmful or bad. Similarly, not all organic, non-toxic materials are better for us. It would be unwise (and impossible) to try to eliminate our exposure to every chemical.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

Secondly, nearly everything we encounter in any living space contains some type of finish, coloring, or scent that may not be completely healthy. We run into these tiny hazards constantly, every day, and with everything we use. It's not possible to be perfect. It's also exhausting to aim for perfection. Give yourself a break and just do the best you can.

Finally, even finding home decor items that are stylish, comfortable, and healthy can be challenging. It’s hard to find eco-friendly furniture pieces that strike the perfect balance of wellness, sustainability, craftsmanship, and design.

On a similar note, when we talk about sustainability, most items aren't entirely sustainable or made without at least some environmental impact. The word sustainable is often synonymous with "eco-friendly" or "green." But those are often simply buzzwords that manufacturers use to promote their products.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

Is It Even Possible to Find a Sustainable Option?

Given the information above, you might be wondering if it’s even possible to find sustainable seating like couches, loveseats, and chairs. The goal of sustainable practices is to look at the big picture.

Whenever you select home goods, office furniture, or pieces like accent chairs, you should look for items made of the highest quality materials and construction. When we purchase items that are made to last, we automatically are doing something better for the planet. We're keeping items out of landfills by avoiding "fast furniture" and cheaply made products.

On a similar note, look for timeless designs and neutral colors. If you opt for trendier choices, they can start to look dated surprisingly fast. So, it’s often better to choose the classics, especially with prominent pieces like chairs and sofas.

What makes a chair or couch sustainable (or at least an eco-friendlier choice)? Chairs and sofas that feature recycled content and materials can be a good choice. Look for materials certified by an independent third party or those who disclose the percentage of recycled materials used in their products. Some pieces may claim to be made with materials like plastic bottles, but it only counts for a small portion of the makeup.

Photography: Caroline Sharpnack

Whenever you shop for eco-friendly items, seek companies that stand behind their sustainability claims. For example—if they claim that the hardwood was sustainably harvested, they should define and explain the claim on their website. Check out claims for using renewable energy, closed-loop solutions, and other sustainability practices. While a company may tout its awareness of greenhouse gas emissions, or its positive impact on the environment, there's a wide range of adherence to practice across the furniture industry.

Similarly, remember that natural materials are almost always less toxic and more sustainable, especially when discussing seating, chairs, and sofas. There is a wide range of natural fabrics and a variety of sustainable materials, including organic wool, cotton, linen, and hemp. Many types of seating contain synthetic foam filling, but there are plenty of alternatives, including organic latex, wool, and coconut fibers. Look for materials with sustainable harvesting methods and companies that share high environmental standards.

When it comes to seating and furniture design, it’s not just the fabrics that make a product sustainable. Consider the wooden trim, legs, and frame, as well as the covers and cushions. Wood furniture should feature non-toxic finishes and low-VOC products.

Image: Roweam | Photography: Zack DeZon

Ensuring Safer Seating

If you aren’t sure about the materials or finishing of a sofa or chair, you can allow it to sit for a few weeks to off-gas before bringing it into your home. New materials likely have some compounds that can lower the air quality in your home.

Many times, seating is shipped with a plastic cover, which protects the product from dirt and moisture while it travels. Even if you choose a local item that doesn’t need to be shipped far, it will likely come wrapped in plastic. The plastic traps VOCs and doesn’t let the chair release these compounds.

How long does a piece of furniture need to off-gas? It really depends. There’s no hard and fast rule. Many items like sofas and chairs can release the highest levels of VOCs in the first several months after manufacturing. Off-gassing takes longer if the product is immediately wrapped in plastic. Plastic furniture can take a very long time to release chemicals.

The off-gassing process for some items might take a few months. Others might take a year. Some pieces could take five years or more to release all the VOCs. It’s hard to know, and unfortunately, a “sniff test” doesn’t really tell you. Some products continue to release VOCs long after that new smell is gone.

If you want to help your furniture off-gas faster, be sure to uncover it completely and remove all plastic the moment you receive the item. Store your couch or chair outside (a garage is fine). Sunlight will speed up the off-gassing process but be sure that the sunlight exposure doesn’t damage or fade the fabric in your piece.

If you need to bring a piece indoors soon, open windows or use an air purifier to help reduce the exposure to VOCs. Alternatively, you can also store new furniture in a spare room for a few weeks. Warmth helps to speed up off-gassing as well, so storing a piece in your warm garage or another protected outdoor space is a great option.

Photography: Jennifer Lavelle

Reducing the Likelihood of Toxins

VOCs and other toxins in furniture like sofas and chairs aren't just bad for you; they're also bad for the environment. So, if you want to reduce the toxins in the environment and your home, there are a few other options.

Look for furniture that hasn’t been treated with stain-resistant chemicals or fire retardants. Both of these fabric treatment features may sound good in theory, but they increase the likelihood that furniture was treated with toxins. Shopping with sustainable furniture companies needn't be a daunting task, but it's always a good idea to read labels and pay attention to a company's business model.

My biggest advice is to go vintage, especially when shopping for occasional chairs, dining chairs, and similar pieces. Vintage, storied pieces like chairs were constructed well and usually have great "bones." The chairs have had plenty of time to off-gas and release toxins, making them a safer choice.

Photography: Jennifer Lavelle

The great thing about vintage is that it’s almost always the most sustainable choice for the earth too. Vintage products keep items out of the landfill, they don’t create additional emissions in the manufacturing process, and they result in less waste in general. Even if pieces require restoration, it’s often a much more sustainable process.

I especially love going vintage for occasional and dining chairs. In my own home, we've selected vintage dining chairs for our table, and I'm so excited about them! Look for estate sales and consignment or specialty shops if you're sourcing vintage pieces. Some of these spots will have an in-house restoration specialist so that you can get those chairs in top condition. Vintage is especially lovely for hard chairs, benches, and other seating options. Round Top Antiques Fair is one of my personal favorite vintage sourcing destinations—hosted every spring and fall in the tiny but charming town of Round Top, Texas.

Personally, I probably wouldn’t go vintage for a sofa, loveseat, or another upholstered piece unless I had plans to take the piece down to the frame and reupholster it. The fabric and filling may already be degraded and hard to restore in these vintage upholstered pieces without a full reupholster. Instead, I would buy a new modern furniture piece, but pay careful attention to the construction and materials (look for organic cotton, hemp, linen, and similar materials). It’s a good idea to shop in-person whenever possible, so you can check the details carefully and inspect the quality if you aren’t already familiar.

No matter how you source your seating, consider shopping as locally as possible for the best sustainability. Domestic production is often more transparent, with lower carbon emissions in manufacturing. When you shop locally, you'll also avoid emissions from shipping and enjoy a lower carbon footprint. The closer to your home, the better—although this can definitely be a challenge in some areas.

If you prefer to shop online, a few places to find great vintage items include Chairish, 1stDibs, and even occasionally eBay, Facebook marketplace, and Etsy. However, you may have even better luck shopping with local consignment sellers and estate sales. Many towns have specialty furniture restoration shops that can be an excellent resource for finding the chair of your dreams!

So, what is your dream seating? Is there a sustainable seating company you love? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

X Lauren

bottom of page