Question

I'd like to buy a "green" sofa that will hold up well with our two young children and not cost me $8,000. Suggestions?

Asked by Nancy McIlvaine
Napa, CA

I also need to reupholster two slipper chairs for the same living room. Fun, durable, reasonably priced fabrics exist that are "green"?

Answer

Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

September 19, 2011

The price on large upholstered pieces vary widely; it is confusing for a homeowner to figure out what is a good value. Making it green adds another layer of complexity.

Many of the sofas on the market are very low quality. The cost of an entry level sofa has not kept pace with inflation since the 1970s.

  • As manufacturers are sensitive to the price concerns in the market, they have found increasingly cost effective ways to build sofas.
  • Many high quality features are labor intensive and have dropped by the wayside.
  • The large retailers have enormous power to leverage the economy of scale to their benefit, and can afford to sell a sofa of under $2,000, most green manufacturers cannot.

Buy what you will love for a long time

I have heard statistics that consumers change their cars about every five years, that they move about every 7 years, but that they tend to keep their sofa about 20 years. And yet they expect their sofa to cost less than one months rent or 1/10th the cost of a car.

So my first piece of advice would be to choose a piece that you will be able to love for a long time, and then buy quality.

Quality construction starts with the frame

Much of the quality of a sofa is in the frame.

  • If you are buying new ask if the frame is made of hard wood, and is blocked at the corners (for strength) and screwed and glued at joints.
  • Some frames are nailed, stapled, or only glued.
  • At the bottom of the market, some frame sections might be made of styrofoam, or even cardboard.

The legs in a quality frame should be integral to the frame, rather than screwed on, if the style of the sofa allows it.

The greenest frame would be made of FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified hardwood. Cisco Brothers and Ekla Home both make their frames this way,

Springs

The next place that there are different quality choices is in the springs of a sofa.

  • Sinuous springs make an repeating S shape usually running front to back under the cushions. They are actually fairly resilient, but can lose their S bend and stretch or sag over time.
  • Coil springs look like the springs inside of a mattress. They are individual spirals that are tied to each other. This requires more metal, and also are usually hand tied, creating an additional labor cost.
  • As most steel in the world now has recycled content, this portion of a sofa does not have a "greener" option, so your choice is in quality.

Cushions: foams and wrap

The next component of a sofa is the cushions, and here the green choice both adds cost and is important.

Currently, all foams used in upholstery are treated for fire resistance. They are a petroleum product and thus burn well.

  • This includes "soy" foam which is less than 25% soy, with the balance being conventional foam.
  • The chemicals used to treat foam are in a class known as Halogenated Fire Retardants. These are biologically available, and are associated with environmental and health issues.

The way around this is to use latex foam, and wrap it with either wool, or a fire barrier cloth.

  • Therefore, one of the reasons a green sofa costs more is that latex foam is more expensive than petroleum foam, wool wrap is more than polyester batting wrap, and the fire barrier cloth adds additional cost and labor to manufacturing.
  • I prefer my clients to avoid flame retardant chemicals whenever possible.

Upholstery fabric

Finally, fabric is the final component of an upholstered piece. Here you have many price options, and what drives the price up tends to be visual preference rather than quality.

  • The very bottom of the price range fabrics can be woven so loosely that the would stretch when used as upholstery.
  • These fabrics are backed to make them more dimensionally stable. As this backing can be flammable, this is another source of flame retardants. For this reason I tend to stay away from foam backed fabrics.
  • Beyond that I favor organic textiles and hemp and linen, which are grown with minimal pesticides.
  • Some green designers only like natural fibers, but I actually love polyester fabrics for their performance characteristics, as the green architect Bill Mcdonough says, "We have plenty of petroleum, if we would stop burning it in cars!"

Polyester is durable, cleanable, and can have a very delightful texture. My only concern, and one that is true of even natural fiber textiles, is whether the dyes and textile treatments are safe.

Your slipper chairs

I can probably give you some good choices for reupholstering your slipper chairs. 

I love Maharam, they do modern fabrics and have a large selection with green qualities.

  • They have a very clear definition of the different ways their textiles might exemplify reduced environmental impact in their policy statement here.
  • Because they do a lot of commercial upholstery, they have very durable and cleanable fabrics, and a broad price range of textiles.

O-EcoTextiles have very clean, environmentally sensitive and pure textile options, that are gorgeous and luxurious.

Design tex designs and creates textiles that have lessened environmental impact, and again, commercial fabrics are designed to be washable and long lasting.

I often will choose a heavyweight organic cotton or hemp for upholstery. There is a selection available online at sites like Near Sea Naturals. This is a very reasonable choice, but make sure you select a heavy weight weave, probably over 20 oz. a yard.

Your sofa will probably be expensive...

Unfortunately the combination of buying a high quality, long lasting sofa, and selecting green materials will probably mean that your sofa will be expensive.

I expect some of the cost of being green will come down as green products become more mainstream. Quality construction will always cost more, but will last longer, and perform better while you have it.

Good luck with your projects! 

 

For more information:

Read "Any recommendations for a healthy leather sofa that won't offgas?" a Q&A answered by Kirsten Flynn.

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