The Complete Guide To Buying Sustainable Home Goods - Whatever Your Budget

Fair warning: this is a long post! It took me a little while longer to put together than planned, but I wanted this to be as comprehensive as possible so you can be confident going out to buy furniture sustainably. I hope you enjoy!

When we upgraded to a king bed we chose a linen duvet cover with bamboo sheets and African mud-cloth throw pillows. The lamps and nightstands were handed down from my grandmother. We haven’t gotten an actual bed yet because the four-poster I want won’t fit underneath the ceiling fan. #renterproblems

When we upgraded to a king bed we chose a linen duvet cover with bamboo sheets and African mud-cloth throw pillows. The lamps and nightstands were handed down from my grandmother. We haven’t gotten an actual bed yet because the four-poster I want won’t fit underneath the ceiling fan. #renterproblems

We nearly doubled the size of our house during our last move. Not only that, but we also went from being students to working professionals and our needs changed. Until now we’d lived with second- or third-hand furniture that was gifted to us when we were married (7 years ago) and I was oh so ready for an upgrade. So we had some shopping to do. And my favorite kind, too! But being on the tail end of our student loans meant we had a minuscule budget.

I wanted to buy sustainable products where at all possible.

Sustainable home goods are not usually budget-friendly. It can cost a pretty penny for reclaimed wood or organic fabrics. When I worked at a high-end residential firm in Dallas we sourced the majority of furniture custom from an excellent local maker. When the furniture was complete, we’d have movers bring it straight from his shop to the client’s home; there was no packaging to worry about and we knew exactly the [extremely high] level of quality we were getting. Most of us cannot afford custom local furniture, so our ability to avoid shipping, packaging, and other issues are limited. But, the cause is not hopeless. If you know what to look for and where to look you can choose better products that are - at least a little - easier on the environment wherever you shop.

I had to call on all my design knowledge, creativity, and patience as we tried to source our own furniture. My husband turned to me one night after browsing for side tables for hours and said to me, “a designer is worth the money just for taking all of this searching off someone’s plate.” Yes! Thank you! It is real work! Now, I didn’t hit the green mark on every purchase, but knowing what to look for got me pretty close.

So what do you look for?

Shopping for sustainable furniture can work similarly to the process for clothes shopping described in Wear No Evil by Greta Eagan. Greta uses a baseball analogy, but for furniture the markers are a little different, and I’m putting my own spin on it to keep things as simple as possible.

There are different markers that can help a piece be considered “green,” including:

  • second-hand (including vintage and antique)

  • natural materials

  • organic

  • Fair Trade certification

  • local

  • water-based stains

  • low-impact dyes

  • low-waste packaging

  • reclaimed

  • FSC certified

  • social justice causes

  • hand-made*

Now, whatever you buy has to hit the style marker or you wouldn’t be considering it, so we’re going to say that the piece automatically gets 1 point (for style). Each additional green marker the piece fulfills is an additional point. The goal is to try and get a minimum of 2 points: style + a green marker listed above. If you can get to up to 3 points then you’re really making a difference, and if you can get 4 then you are a green furniture warrior!

As an example, I bought a down pillow with an unbleached and undyed cotton cover from Malouf, and part of my purchase went toward fighting child sex trafficking. That would be 1 point for style, 1 point for natural materials, 1 point for unbleached+undyed, and 1 point for social justice causes, for a total of 4 points. Nice!

Linen is a natural material made from flax. Over time it develops a beautifully soft wrinkled look, which is perfect for bedding because it invites you to jump right in and get cozy.

Linen is a natural material made from flax. Over time it develops a beautifully soft wrinkled look, which is perfect for bedding because it invites you to jump right in and get cozy.

What do each of these “green markers” mean?

Not all of these green markers are created equal, so you may want to prioritize which ones are most important to you. Let’s talk about them a little more in depth.

  1. Second-hand. Second-hand means getting furniture or home goods that are pre-loved - they’ve been used once or more. You can find second-hand furniture anywhere from antique, consignment, or thrift stores to buy-and-sell sources like Craigslist and free from family/neighbors/off the street. Used furniture is almost always going to be better eco-wise, because you are extending the life of something already here; no additional energy or materials go into production because it’s already been made. There is next to no packaging, only transportation emissions which are relatively small compared to something being shipped from across the country. These pieces are usually a lot less expensive than buying new (antiques excepted).

  2. Natural materials. Man-made materials have a plethora of environmental issues (story for another post). Avoid all of the associated impact by buying furniture made of natural materials. For rugs, choose ones made of wool, cotton (organic, if possible), jute, hemp, or sisal. For bedding, blankets and upholstery try to find linen, cotton, bamboo, or wool. For case goods (i.e. desks, tables, cabinets, etc.), avoid laminates and wood particle board. Opt for real wood (reclaimed or FSC certified for bonus points) or stone where possible. Hardwood and stone options are usually more expensive, so case goods are a good place to thrift. Natural materials will always look and feel better in your home than synthetic.

  3. Organic. Organic fibers, cotton being the big one, mean that those plants are grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can be detrimental to the soil and other plants as the chemicals leech and run off into other areas, not to mention affecting us when fibers with the residue of those chemicals end up in our homes. The land organic fibers are grown on is maintained to replenish soil health, and the harvested fibers are safely bleached without chlorine bleach. So you can see that while regular cotton might be better than nylon, organic cotton is much safer for our homes and better for the environment than non-organic cotton.

  4. Fair Trade certification. Fair Trade works with companies and their suppliers to ensure that workers are paid a fair wage, have safe working conditions, are building sustainable livelihoods, and are able to help their communities. This empowerment of people who might otherwise have no protection from companies who would take advantage of them benefits everyone. It is important to be sure that the goods you are purchasing are not made by underpaid workers in unsafe conditions and especially not child laborers. Look for the Fair Trade certification and logo when purchasing.

  5. Local. Finding local makers for home goods supports your local economy, prevents transportation emissions, and protects the environment as smaller makers often work more sustainably and in smaller batches. You can find local artisans through farmers markets, craft guilds, galleries curating local art, state and county fairs, and even corner stores carrying local products. These items are worth the splurge. They feel more luxurious and you have more of a connection since there’s a story behind them. Some of the products I especially like to get locally are soaps, candles, ceramics, and art.

  6. Water-based stains. Water-based stains are wood-staining products that use water as the binder instead of oil and petroleum distillate like oil-based stains. They are less irritating to be around and pollute less than their counterparts. You will not likely find this information on a large online retailer’s website, instead look for it from companies that already have a focus on sustainable design or from local makers.

  7. Low-impact dyes. Fabric dying can devastate local environments and communities when the dye runoff, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals are released into the water ways, a practice which is all too common. It is also uses a huge amount of water - they say it takes 713 gallons of water to make one t-shirt, so imagine what it takes for one duvet cover. Low-impact dyes have a higher absorption rate, meaning they use less water in the rinse process and less of the dye runs off. They also don’t contain any heavy metals or toxic chemicals. If you find home goods that use low-impact dye you’ve struck gold, because this can be hard to find. You will more often find this from highly sustainably focused companies. Alternately, unbleached, undyed fabrics are on the rise, avoiding the issue altogether.

  8. Low-waste packaging. If your furniture has to be shipped, it is very difficult to avoid packaging. They have to protect the piece from damage, and although there are some options out now for recyclable packaging, there is no way to ensure packing materials used will be sustainable. So the best way to ensure you’re minimizing waste is to pick up the item yourself. Second-hand pairs very nicely with low-waste packaging, but you can also consider in-store pickup options or floor models (which usually come with a good discount) from traditional stores.

  9. Reclaimed. Reclaimed materials means they were sourced from other applications and reused in a new way. The most common reclaimed material is wood, which can come from old barns, empty warehouses, old decks, and any other number of other places. An example is the burger joint Shake Shack’s use of flooring from old bowling alley lanes as a wallcovering in their Dallas location. This is a great way to save virgin resources and use something that could otherwise go to waste. Reclaimed materials have the added benefit of character, which can really add to a space.

  10. FSC Certified. FSC is the Forest Stewardship Council, and FSC certified wood means that is was grown in forests that meet strict requirements for environmental, social, and economical management or that it is from post-consumer waste. FSC monitors everything from soil health to the method for felling trees and keeps tabs on lumber all through the supply chain, so if you see this certification (look for their “tick tree” logo - it looks like a check mark that turns into a tree) you can be confident that the wood has been sourced responsibly.

  11. Social justice causes. This is referring to when your purchase of a product helps support a cause through the a company’s partnership with a non-profit organization. Tom’s shoes are a classic example from the fashion industry, where one pair of shoes is given to people in need for every pair purchased. There are increasing numbers of home goods companies doing similar initiatives. In buying from these companies, you are using your dollar to support a social justice cause and show that social justice initiatives are important to consumers.

  12. *Hand-made. I hesitated to include this as a green marker, but I think it does deserve a point if done right. Hand-made, hand-tufted, hand-loomed, hand-printed or any of the other hand-done words used to market a product to you does not necessarily mean that item is made sustainably. It can mean you’re getting a high quality product with a human touch while supporting safe jobs for skilled artisans with fair pay and small businesses with sustainable manufacturing processes. But it could also mean your item was made by underpaid or child laborers in unsafe working conditions. Be very wary if you see low-priced items from big retailers that say they’re hand-made; chances are there is something underhanded going on. To be sure you’re not supporting those types of manufacturers, look for an additional green marker like Fair-Trade certification. Getting local hand-made items is even better; often you can meet the maker or even see their process.

Eventually, I’d like to update the nightstands and art above the bed and add a woven throw.

Eventually, I’d like to update the nightstands and art above the bed and add a woven throw.

A few of my favorite Shops

Armed with the green markers above, you can find better products wherever you shop, whatever your budget. But it does help to have a starting point, so I’ve gathered a few of my favorite stores for you. And for the furniture and home goods you’re replacing, find out how you can get rid of them responsibly right here.

CITIZENRY

What they sell | furniture, pillows and decor, rugs, bedding

Where to Buy | online only

Price | $175 for a hand-knotted wool throw pillow / $825 for a handcrafted rosewood chair

A direct to consumer home goods shop with a focus on global style and fair trade standards. They collaborate with artisans in various countries to create small quantity batches of exquisite products, and ensure those artisans receive fair wages, good working conditions, and sustaining grants.

WEST ELM

What they sell | furniture, pillows and decor, rugs, bedding

Where to Buy | online, in person

Price | $399 for a 5x8 wool rug / $1099 for a reclaimed wood dining table

I love how transparent West Elm is about their products. They tell you on their search pages if a product is Fair Trade, made of natural materials, or handmade. Their wood products are sourced responsibly, and if you go into their stores you will often see display featuring local artists and makers.

VIVATERRA

What they sell | indoor and outdoor furniture, home goods of every sort

Where to Buy | online only

Price | $39 for a large recycled glass vase / $379 for a handcarved wooden drum accent table

You can find nearly everything you need for sustainable living at VivaTerra. They have a distinct bohemian aesthetic and plenty of beautiful wood furnishings.

CISCO HOME

What they sell | furniture

Where to Buy | in store

Price | inquire here

Furnishings thoughtfully made in Los Angeles, CA using FSC certified and/or reclaimed wood and natural textiles, with a laid-back but timeless California vibe.

CHAIRISH

What They Sell | vintage furniture

Where to Buy | online

Price | varies

Chairish is a full-service online shop for buying and selling chic vintage furnishings. This is not Craigslist; you’ll only find high-style goods here that are carefully screened and curated by their team.

COYUCHI

What They Sell | bed, bath, and table linens

Where to Buy | online

Price | $548 for a queen linen sheet set / $68 for a cloud loom organic bath towel

Absolutely beautiful organic bed, bath, and table linens in soft earth tones and luxurious textures. They are focused on high quality, sustainably sourced and ethical goods. They also have a circular program for their linens called Coyuchi for Life, where for a monthly subscription fee you can receive new linens periodically and return the old ones for them to renew, recycle, or upcycle.

PARACHUTE HOME

What They Sell | bed, bath, and table linens

Where to Buy | online

Price | $169 for a queen linen sheet set / $29 for a classic cotton bath towel

A direct-to-consumer company that takes pride in the high quality and special details of their linens. Their products have a beautifully clean, modern aesthetic and are made without harmful chemicals or synthetics. They also partner with “the United Nation’s Nothing But Nets campaign to send life-saving malaria-prevention bed nets to those in need.”

ETSY

What They Sell | various hand-made and vintage items

Where to Buy | online only

Price | varies

Esty is an online market where makers from all over the world sell their products. If you’re willing to sift through the options, you can find real gems. Etsy also offsets carbon emissions from each shipment.

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