Dear Umbra,

I work in an academic library that has just received funding to purchase new furniture for the first time in over 20 years. As such, the committee examining this is very interested in purchasing stuff that will last a long time and be attractive and comfortable well into the future. We are purchasing a combination of comfy couches and chairs along with more austere study tables and chairs. Other libraries in the area that we’ve visited have frequently gone with vinyl. I want to steer clear of that, but I’m at a loss as to what will be a good alternative. Wood isn’t comfy enough for all of our needs; microfiber is made from petroleum; cloth, not durable enough I fear; and leather offends my vegetarian lifestyle. What to do? We likely won’t get this funding again for another 20 years or more, so we need to be careful with what we purchase.

Mary Beth
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Dearest Mary Beth,

Furniture shopping is fun, but furniture purchase by committee? I don’t envy you. Perhaps the focus on sustainability will add an air of pleasure to the proceedings.

Dewey know what’s best?

Photo: iStockphoto

First I want to be sure that you know of the Green Libraries website, “dedicated to documenting the greening of libraries.” The site provides resources and lists of green libraries, reasons to green your library, and general goodness in the combination of environmentalism and libraries. While the rest of this column will point you to resources related to better materials, the library site may be able to help with procurement and durability concerns. Today, furniture; tomorrow, the world!

As you know by now, Grist is the center of the environmental news nexus, and we have covered a bit of the green furniture world. But when I want to dig deep into Green Fashion (is this where we say “Eco-Chic”?), I hop on over and search Treehugger. We are mutual admirers, and I want to credit their green furniture summations with getting us started on your library furniture project.

In fact, let’s just start with Treehugger’s guidelines for what might make furniture “green.” Those guidelines address your very concern: no material is perfect. Good choices include items made with bamboo, certified sustainable wood (as from the Forest Stewardship Council), or recycled materials including wood, metal, and plastic. Furniture that is durable, easily mended if broken, and perhaps even recyclable itself is also of course superior to shoddy stuff that must be thrown away when it breaks. Used furniture is also good, although perhaps not appropriate for a library. One last green notion is to seek less-toxic furniture, made without volatile organic compounds such as flame retardants (common on fabric) or formaldehyde. The VOC concern relates to your non-wood materials dilemma: obviously organic cotton is better, vinyl is worst, but overall when seeking out soft furniture the main issue on the table is the VOCs. You’ll have to argue with your furniture committee over leather vs. microfiber — see my shoe ballyhoo for a little more on that issue.

It seems like a lot of research to seek out furniture of any kind that might meet these guidelines, let alone furniture appropriate for your library. But wonderfully, amazingly, hopefully, there are companies making furniture that meets these guidelines. There are also certifying organizations that set standards for furniture manufacturers, and there is appealing green furniture to be had, for home, library, and office. It can be found fairly easily on the internet. Our world is changing.

Since your furniture will be indoors, if it does contain VOCs, these will offgas and affect indoor air quality. Greenguard Environmental Institute certifies products with low emissions, such as … furniture! They have a product listing on their website. Scientific Certification Systems also focuses on air quality and has a furniture list. Other resources include the EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing website; under Hands-On Tools they have a database listing vendors. The Canadian EcoLogo program certifies a huge range of items as environmentally better, including office furniture, so you may find a few pieces through their list.

Although you might want wooden items certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, searching on the FSC website gets you to the original manufacturer, not retailers, so it can be a little frustrating. Instead, visit the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program and click through to certified products and companies to get their SmartGuide to furniture, which includes FSC-certified woods. Good old Treehugger also keeps a list of their online window shopping, which is fun to click around. Best of luck with your shopping, and hooray for libraries — which, as you know, are close to my heart, as well as my elbow, down here on floor 2B.

Bookishly,
Umbra