Dear Umbra,

I am in the market to buy a new couch (our current couch is older than me — it’s 27!). Is it better to buy a “green” couch, a couch from a mainstream vendor, or a used couch? If used is the way to go, do you have any suggestions for finding one that isn’t disgusting?

Nora Burton
Seattle, Wash.

Dearest Nora,

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Long have I waited for this moment, when I will at last learn the difference between a sofa and a couch. My dictionary says a sofa is a long upholstered seat usually with a back and arms — ooh, from the Arabic “suffah” — while, let’s see, the first definition for couch is … “a sofa.” Anticlimaxerific.

Put a little spring in your seat.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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I had a fabulous experience hiring someone to reupholster my old, disgusting, greasy-although-cute sofa, and now I believe My Way Is the Best Ever. However, leaving no path unexplored, let’s peek at sustainably made couches.

Sofas laying claim to sustainability will eschew PBDEs — polybrominated diphenyl ethers — which are the main environmental problem in furniture. Used as fire retardants in polyurethane foam and in fabric, among other things, PBDEs — aka “the next PCBs” — disperse in the environment, bioaccumulate in our fatty tissues, and probably make our children dumb. Sure, I could relate that in a sophisticated way, but I get paid to boil things down for you, and the essence of PBDE news is: support efforts to limit and ban them. Read more than you ever wanted to know in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Other furniture-related concerns will be the source of the wood frame, the glues used to create laminate, the cushion material, and the upholstery. I found long lists of purportedly eco items at Viridian Design and Treehugger. From thence, two randomly picked furniture sites: EcoSofa has some decent pieces made of organic fabrics, latex cushions, and Forest Stewardship Council wood, full couch starting at $5,000. Cheaper, and perhaps local to you, is the Greener Lifestyles line, making equal eco-claims save the organic fabric, and with sofas for less than $2,000. (Then there’s the site that asks you to email for the price, only they say “to inquire about this work.” Right. How many hours would I have to work to own this work?)

Before laying down the cash for new, remember our handy guidelines for eco-life: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Which takes us back to my own sofa, poster couch for the eco-dwelling.

A new couch in my (low) budget range would probably have been one with webbing instead of springs, with cheap materials, and with uncomfortable padding. That’s not the biggest environmental problem, you say — but durability is important for the eco-shopper. These things are poorly made. Just go ask at your local reupholsterer shop. They will give you an earful about the excellent craftsmanship in older sofas, the importance of springs, maybe even the “good bones” of your old sofa, and the shoddy construction of newer sofas — the affordable ones, anyway.

I had a couch with good springs and a nice style. Eleven yards of non-retardant fabric was $200, two new cushions were also around $200 (though cushions are where Do As I Say might be better than Do As I Did — I didn’t look too far into sourcing at the cushion shop), the upholstery work was $700. I reduced and I reused, but I did not recycle the repulsive, disintegrated old cushions. No trees were felled, no springs were forged, local craftspeople made a dime (7,000 dimes, in fact), and I got that rare, rare feeling of doing something right without feeling confused.

In short, yard sales, rummage sales, estate sales, and flea markets will eventually yield a sofa with good bones. Choose your dream fabric, and voila! Sofa eco-facelift!


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