The email query came not from you, dear reader, but from a staffer at the Mothership: “Grist is moving offices this spring, and we’re looking into environmentally friendly office furniture,” it read. “I’ve been tasked with researching some companies, and it was suggested you might be able to identify good places to look into. Any thoughts?”

Any thoughts, indeed.

A Grist staffer hard at work.

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Photo: iStockphoto.

Buying eco-friendly desks, chairs, cabinets, space dividers, and other furniture is getting easier. With government agencies, universities, and corporations specifying greener products, furniture makers have been fairly quick to put environmental options on the table. Both large and smaller companies offer furniture made from sustainably harvested woods and recycled, bio-based, or nontoxic materials, and made with glues, paints, foams, and other ingredients that don’t give off noxious odors.

Why bother with green furniture? What environmental harm could office furniture possibly cause?

Not much while you’re sitting there, yakking it up on the phone. But furniture making has traditionally been a problematic source of emissions. And in this eco-conscious world, there is growing consideration given to what happens to furniture after it fulfills its useful life. In recent years, the major makers of office furniture have undertaken big changes. You should too.

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Spit and Polish

Consider air pollution. Traditional manufacturing processes create emissions of volatile organic compounds from glues, stains, and finishes. VOCs are a major contributor to indoor air pollution and outdoor smog. Greener solutions include powder-based finishing coats, which not only are VOC-free, but require less energy and create less waste. About 95 percent of powder ends up on the product, compared to only about 60 percent of paint in traditional wet-spray processes.

And then there’s wood. With increased pressure to reduce the use of hardwoods from poorly managed forests, companies have had to scrutinize their suppliers’ sources, sometimes even tinkering with their most cherished product designs. Several years ago, Herman Miller shook up the industry by announcing that some of its top-of-the-line furniture, including its classic Eames lounge chair, would switch from rosewood and Honduran mahogany to walnut and cherry. (For a recent anniversary edition of the chair, the company used Forest Stewardship Council-certified rosewood.)

At the Knoll Group, another wood-sourcing leader, designers have committed to identifying wood producers “with the best overall forestry practices,” according to a company spokesperson. Knoll works to verify lumber companies’ sustainable practices and seeks out reclaimed lumber. For example, it has used red birch obtained from logs that sank in Midwestern rivers and lakes during turn-of-the-century lumbering operations.

Recycled materials, once shunned as second rate, are becoming much more common as well. Steelcase uses a growing amount of recycled content in its steel and particle-board products. Knoll uses material made from recycled soda bottles in some chairs. Guilford of Maine, a leading supplier of fabrics to the office-furniture industry, also offers a line of upholstery fabrics made from recycled soda bottles.

Thinking beyond the factory floor, leading-edge companies are also designing for disassembly — that is, making furniture that can be easily taken apart and fixed or recycled. Over the past few years, for instance, Herman Miller has adapted a “protocol for sustainability” that includes a rating tool for new products, a materials database, and disassembly guidelines and training procedures.

The idea, says Scott Charon, commodity manager in new product development at Herman Miller, began with customers’ growing questions about green attributes. “We wanted to develop a tool to bring products to market that customers are asking for,” he says. “This is an area where we wanted to be a leader.” Charon noted that some larger customers are now putting environmental considerations ahead of cost.

Don’t Table the Issue

So how do you choose green furniture? It helps to have some specifications of what you want — and don’t want. For example, the Denver office of the U.S. EPA is moving to a new green building this year, and developed a set of environmental standards for the shift. Among other things, furniture must meet the certification standards of Greenguard, a nonprofit that evaluates products’ effects on indoor air quality.

In addition, EPA is requiring that work-surface substrate (the base material beneath the laminated finish on desks and tables) be made from non-wood agricultural fiber, that wood used elsewhere be FSC-certified, and that laminated surfaces be adhered using water-based or bio-based glues. The specs also call for non-toxic dyes, fabric finishes made with recycled PET plastic, and recycled material in tiles and panels.

If new isn’t for you, consider the refurbished route. Increasingly, companies are using refurbished desks, chairs, and space dividers, and a whole industry has grown up around providing these things. With good reason: each year, U.S. companies buy about 3 million desks, 16.5 million chairs, 4.5 million tables, and 11 million file cabinets. Experts estimate that about half this amount is thrown away annually; according to one estimate, that’s enough to furnish all the offices in Boston.

Open Plan Systems, a “re-manufacturer” based in Richmond, Va., is a typical example of this trend. To offer lower-cost, recycled workstations, the company cleans and repaints metal, replaces fabric, and recycles used materials. Open Plan uses low-VOC coatings, fabrics made from recycled plastics, and other environmentally friendly processes.

Today’s technology can work magic on furniture, turning ugly ducklings into — well, if not beautiful swans, at least birds of another feather. With a bit of paint, new fabric, and some adjustments, it is possible to remodel an entire office using its original furnishings.

It’s the environmental way: everything old is new again.

A Leg to Stand On

The state of California offers a useful list of green furniture specifications. The U.S. General Services Administration — aka the federal government’s landlord — publishes a vendor list of green furniture companies and a database of related products and services. TerraChoice, the Canadian eco-rating organization, provides an office furniture guide. And GreenBiz features a report titled “Recycled Office Furniture: Good for the Environment, Good for Business.”