Sofa Saga, Part 4: Some Success! Two Great Sources for Greener Sofas

I know from some questions I’ve gotten that folks were worried about my sofa sitch. So for all (two of you) who were wondering: are Laura and Maya sitting on the floor amidst all those toxic dust bunnies? Or am I stuck in mid-air, in a yoga chair pose, hyperventilating as my thighs complain louder than an oddly persistent toddler at (twenty minutes past her) bedtime?

Your fears can now be put to rest. We will soon have someplace actually and truly non-toxic on which to rest our weary dogs at close of day.

In fact, I’m happy to report that I found a few affordable options for furniture free of chemical flame retardants! And you’re the lucky reader who gets to hear all about my quest.

(If you’re new to this blog or topic, look here, then here and here for the exciting earlier stages of my formerly sad sofa saga. It will be worth your time, I promise. Even if just for the image of our “family doctor.”)

There may be other folks out there who do this in the big wide world as well. As it turns out, a possible trick is to find a custom furniture manufacturer who will work with you (or already has purged the chemicals), and then to decide the foam or filler that’s right for you. The trickiest part of the trick is that, if you don’t happen to be, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, you may also have to convince that individual to give you a decent price.

Or the next time you need a new piece of furniture, you could just contact one or both of the companies below who make greener custom items.

Without further ado, then, I present the options: Tah-da…

Option 1:  A Nice Man from North Carolina Does Right By Me

Any attentive readers of the earlier parts of the sofa saga may be cheered to learn that my initial assessment of one Mr. Kenneth Fonville as a truly good guy was not at all off-the-mark.

Mr. Fonville, owner of Eco-Select Furniture, was kind enough to scan and send me his furniture foam’s Certipur label, knowing fully that I would run it by flame retardant toxicity expert and environmental scientist (and fellow North Carolina resident) Heather Stapleton. Stapleton, as anticipated, promptly analyzed its fake-ish assurances of eco-safety with aplomb, revealing that the label, in truth, said nothing at all reassuring on the topic of flame retardants.

I cheekily shared her analysis with Mr. Fonville, who checked into the issue further with his foam supplier. He reported back that he was able upon request to purchase foam without flame retardants in it, and that his fabrics were similarly untreated.

The offerings from Eco-select Furniture are largely traditional designs, covered in leather, hemp or other materials, with many green features, such as locally harvested sustainable hardwoods in the frames. They do use some soy-based foam in the furniture, rather than latex, for durability reasons. (Note that his blend is 25-30% “soy-based” feedstock and the rest is petroleum-based, which may be significant information for those wanting an ultra-green sofa or chair.) Their prices are also generally aligned with regular, non-“eco” furniture.

Mr. Fonville started his company fairly recently, in 2010, and his background was in traditional furniture companies, having worked more than 30 years in the industry. He began the new venture because he had become disappointed in the poor practices in the industry and the reduced quality of many imports, and he knew he could do better. His most popular furniture designs are these:

I will likely be ordering a new leather club chair to replace the icky Ikea one we have downstairs, and will look here as well for other furniture needs as they arise.

Option 2: (Green) Sofa of the Stars

Robert Craymer, of RCGreen, was once, quite literally, a rock star. Or was at one time, anyway, according to this 4-minute video featuring his eccentric ways, as well as some of his modern furniture designs. He also offered me a good price (which I promised not to reveal) on a new sofa:

Robert’s turn toward all things green first came about in 2006 when he was asked to design a novel lounge for the premiere showing of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a tragi-comic documentary about how Detroit utterly screwed up its best opportunity to innovate on energy usage in cars. (As an advocate who watched the industry commit hari-kari over fuel economy standards all through the early aughts, this movie artfully broke what was left of my heart.)

At any rate, Robert took the themes of the film seriously, designing what was, for its time, a truly groundbreaking lounge, with furniture and items made sustainably and responsibly. Here are some of his other designs:

On foams and fillers, he was quite helpful in explaining the options. Basically, for the foam inner core, most furniture makers use: latex, soy blend, standard U.S.-made foam or foam made overseas (often in China). For cushions, options are latex, soy foam wrapped in cotton, cotton alone, or wool interior with a cotton bag on the outside.

For RCGreen designs, customers can choose the foams and fillers they like, but the materials do have disadvantages and advantages (also, he says he doesn’t use any foreign-made foams).

For example, a wool-wrapped cushion or seat can feel, as you might expect, lumpy and it will likely become harder over time. Latex, he said, is reported by some customers as having an odor (though Robert doesn’t smell it), and is more rubbery or bouncy, even though in his shop it’s wrapped in cotton. Soy-based foam, also wrapped in cotton, has been free of customer complaints. All of these are available without flame retardant chemicals.

I’m still weighing the options on fillings. There’s good evidence that soy foams may not be that much greener than traditional petrochemical foam, and many “soy-based” foams  actually have only a small percentage of soy in them, meaning that the manufacturing process that produced the rest of the foam is still a problem in that it makes nasty chemicals as a byproduct. And soy is mostly a genetically modified product, with terrible environmental costs in places like Brazil. I’ve asked both of these companies about the percentages of soy to traditional, petrochemical foam. (The EcoSelect answer is above, RCGreen’s soy foam is 22 percent soy.)

The “greenest” answer on fillings is therefore likely wool, though it settles and can become hard, or natural latex (rubber). I’m a bit allergic to some types of wool, so that is not great. On latex, the notion of a sofa made of rubber (even if wrapped in cotton) doesn’t thrill me — both for comfort and because both of the furniture makers I talked to raised issues (Mr. Fonville talked about its lack of durability; Robert about a reported smell and some level of customer dissatisfaction). Even with the price break, it’s still a real investment for us to get a new sofa, and I don’t want to have to do it again. So I’m a bit stuck on this one.

Robert gave me a substantial price break on the sofa before he learned I had a blog or would write about it in any way (I swear!). That’s because he indicated he’s accustomed to working with people who are dealing with serious chemical-related illnesses or extreme allergies, and he regularly offers them deals in the same way he did for me.

[Update:  Some commenters — including a few friends — have complained about serious customer service issues with RC Green (and some additional public reports are linked to below in the comments).  He does require payment in advance in cash, which is not a sound or defensible consumer practice.  In addition, I should have indicated that I have no way of substantiating whether our sofa is free of FRs.  Please also see the comments for more sources for furniture claimed to be free of FRs.]

The Up-Shot:

It was stunning how difficult and time-consuming it was to find decent, chemical-free options.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned: harmful chemical flame retardants are in most foam-based products, including mattresses and sofas. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t help to reduce fires, according to Stapleton and they may even increase the risks of a fire as people inhale dangerous chemicals when they burn. Despite this rank stupidity, they are very hard to avoid, which means that hundreds of millions of people are needlessly exposed, every day. The scale of this is actually hard to take sitting down.

More Sources for Sofas:

Just today, I also found this new post from another eco-blog with a few more companies that make chemical-free sofas — including from Eco-terric, Furnature, and Eklahome — most with hefty price points, and most latex-based. (I appreciated the input in the comments on that blog pointing out the eco-issues with soy-based polyurethane foams.) I’ve since found one more, Green Nest, with prices topping a whopping 5K for sofas.

There’s always the sources for greener furniture that I identified in Part 2 of the Sofa Saga series. For the real DIY-er, here are directions to somewhat affordably make one using an “organic” mattress. For reupholstering furniture with more eco-friendly fabrics, you could check out Harmony Art and Organic Leather.

If you have the dough, for really artsy “green” items (with prices to match), you can also check out a new environmentally focused artists’ market, Ecofirst Art (for lamps and similar decor, there is also has a lower-cost boutique that sells smaller items, EcovolveNow). I would be sure to inquire with all of these sources about how to ensure what you order is flame retardant-free.

I would also refer you to the comments, which include an informative dialogue on fillers and foams, fabrics, greenwashing, transparency and related topics.

if you know of any other sources for custom-made goods or truly green furniture, please do share them in the comments!

If you most understandably lack the budget for new furniture, here are 10 tips to reduce exposure:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your childrens’ hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to, as we did!);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products among children’s items whenever you can (most polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton). Just last year, California evidently revised its rule on juvenile furniture to clarify that strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers are now exempt from the requirement for flame retardants, but older items, or those that have not been redesigned since this change in the law last March, may still have the chemicals (for example, a recent test from an environmental group found them in My Brest Friend nursing pillows);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or strollers with foam padding);
  7. Look for furniture from before 1970 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  8. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117” or “Complies with TB 117” or some such nonsense;
  9. Write to lawmakers in California telling them to ditch this stupid law;
  10. When you do need to replace your mattress, sofa or upholstered chair, consider going FR-free! I’ve done some of the research for you, anyhoo, all you have to do is make the call.

Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga… Part 2

In which our heroine searches in vain for someplace safe and healthy to sit. Should be simple enough, right?

If you read my last post, you’ll know that, just as Dr. Seuss says, there’s a Bofa on my sofa.

So what am I going to do about it? Well, the Sofa Situation is still evolving, but here’s what I know so far:

First, there’s a lot of green-washing on the question of what is an “eco-sofa.” The vast majority of “green” sofas may have sustainably harvested wood, which is great, and may even have traded some soy-based foam for petroleum foam, which I suppose is good (I haven’t looked at the climate tradeoffs, but it seems likely to be better to use fewer petrochemicals).

But they don’t often mention the issue of chemical flame retardants. With a few rare exceptions, you basically have to corner a customer service representative who actually knows the answer to your nutty questions, and even then, they may be reading from a document with more relation to the periodic table than to typical customer service scripts.

Nonetheless, the answer, pretty uniformly, is that an idiotic California law called California Technical Bulletin 117 requires anything sold in California (i.e., almost anything sold by any seller of any size in the U.S.), to have these harmful chemicals in it.

This law is defended every year against attempts to take it off the books by a shadowy chemical lobby group masquerading as a fire safety squad, and so a chemical dictate from the crunchy state of California ends up polluting homes and people all over this great nation. Of course, if they didn’t make all the foam in things out of, basically, solidified gasoline, then they might not need to douse it in toxics just to keep us from blowing up the house. (But see: fire retardants do bupkis to improve fire safety.)

Second, if I read one more post from a green living Web site about the new “eco-fabulous” green design options, I’m going to toss my sprouts. There are, it turns out, a few incredibly pricey options for chemical flame retardant-free sofas, if you’re willing to auction your first-born to get them. Since I only have one child, that’s not really an option.

If you want a sofa without chemicals in it, you’re all in on the green thing – you can’t go halfsies, because they won’t let you. You’ll get the certified sustainably harvested this, and the hemp fabric that, which I suppose would be ok, except for the fact that you’re paying a hefty upcharge for all of it. (The menu option of “I’ll just take one without the added side-dish of toxics” is basically a non-starter.)

One company requires – and I’m not joking here – a doctor’s note saying you should be allowed to order your sofa chemical-free, because of, you know, your mentally questionable insistence on not wanting to breathe toxic chemicals while watching Game of Thrones.

Here’s what didn’t work:

1)    Crate and Barrel and West Elm have a number of attractive options marketed as “green sofas.” But when I called customer service, they said that they complied with the California law by including a “chlorinated phosphate” in the fabric and foam, which sounds like Tris to my uninformed, and admittedly paranoid, ears. (If someone else has a better guess, please let me know.) At any rate, phosphates = chemicals.

2)    Despite overly enthusiastic referrals from an eco-design Web site, Overstock was similar, but with even less clear information and even more of a green tinted hue concealing the facts. Even their more environmentally friendly options often only had one “green” thing about them, for example, this “eco-sofa,” which was allegedly green because it “uses environmentally friendly soy based foam that offers improved durability, strength, support and comfort versus conventional foam cores.” To be fair, the one reviewer did say that there was minimal off-gassing, which can’t be a bad thing, but I’m still concerned that they believed the product is more environmentally healthy than it actually seems to be from the information provided.

3)    An outfit called Greensofas.com seemed promising, given the reasonable prices, despite the California location. But when I called the phone number on the site (there was no way to place an order online), I got the phone company operator saying that it was an invalid number. Hard to place an order there.

4)    Here’s my comically uninformative exchange with “The Sofa Company” via their Livechat option: “You are now chatting with ‘thesofaco.’ you: Is it possible to buy an eco-friendly sofa without any flame retardants in the fabric or foam please? thesofaco: No at the moment there is still about 60% off flame retardants in the foam”

5)    Broyhill Furniture’s Customer Service representative told me over the phone that “to comply with furnishing and fire safety regulations…all coverings and fillings are cigarette and match resistant.” ‘Nuff said.

6)    A couple other companies, such as If Green, were nice enough to talk with me but were no longer producing furniture. Q Collection these days seems to be a fabric-only company. Pure by Ami McKay appears to be a bedding line for Bed, Bath & Beyond, with no sofas in evidence.

7)    I even called two custom furniture places in my area. One didn’t get back to me. The other makes knock-offs of designs from other furniture places on the cheap. They checked on the issue, and couldn’t get supplies without chemicals due to the fact that everything came from – you guessed it – California, which seems to be some kind of chemical-cabal couch clearinghouse with a lock-down on the national market.

Drum roll, please.

Here are the 5 options I found for  “green” sofas without (known) chemical flame retardants:

Option 1: The High-End Winner

The sofas that I liked best were from Ecobalanza, which offers a number of styles to choose from. Here’s how that conversation went:

Hello,

I am very interested in purchasing a sofa, in particular, the Eli in dark brown Hemp, the Mai in crimson, or the Round-d in crimson. What are the prices and shipping charges please? Please confirm that you do not use any chemical flame retardants, including PBDEs or Tris.

Thanks!

Laura

Hi Laura,

Thank you for your interest in our furniture line. We pride ourselves in the purity of materials, craftsmanship and love that goes into building our sofas. We do not use any chemical fire retardants in our furniture. In fact, we only use natural and organic materials. Synthetic materials would only be used in case you requested a recycled polyester upholstery fabric. Below I am including a pdf with a more about how we build our furniture and some photos.

For fire retardants, we use 4 different types of wool, 2 of which we have developed in collaboration with local farms and artisans:

1. Local felted wool covers all wood and flat surfaces
2. Certified organic German wool for cushions and smooth backs.
3. Local breed specific wool for back cushions filled with hand fluffed kapok.
4. Thick wool padding over springs

Let me know if you have more questions and if you would like swatches sent, we work with a broad range of fabric options that are not currently shown on the website.

Pricing for the pieces you are interested in are as follows:

Eli in dark brown Hemp: 72 x 36 x 36 $3775

Mai in crimson (priced in wool, but other fabrics available): 75 X 40 X 32 $5880

Round-d in crimson (priced in wool, but other fabrics available): 72 x 35 x 34 $4375

Did you get a chance to check out additional photos of our work? You can view them on Facebook. Thank you and hope your day is wonderful,

Sincerely,

Aimee

888.220.6020 | F. 888.503.0535

PO Box 17183

Seattle, WA 98127

www.ecobalanza.com

Passionately committed to contributing to a healthier home, community and environment.

###

She also estimated shipping, in a later exchange, at around $500 for curbside delivery. So even the cheapest option from this company clocks in at over 4K.

On the other hand, her response was refreshingly thoughtful and thorough. And the designs from this company are modern and stylish, so at least they also look spendy.

Option 2: The Green Slouch

For about the same amount of money, you can also buy a sofa from Dalla Terra. There’s really only one style, plus a matching club chair. There is also a loveseat and sectional. You have the choice of 4 colors of hemp fabric and 4 wooden trim tones. For the sofa, it’s 5K plus shipping.

They are a little schlumpy for that pricetage, in my view. But they do look comfy, and they are free of chemicals:

Hi there,

I’m looking to order an environmentally friendly sofa. Would you please confirm that your natural foam latex and other materials in the sofa foam or fabric are not treated with any chemical flame retardants? Thanks so much!

Laura MacCleery

From: EcoChoices Natural Living Store
Date: April 9, 2012 7:30:54 PM EDT
To: ‘Laura MacCleery’
Subject: RE: Dalla Terra Freight Quote Request

Dear Laura,

Yes, that is correct. There are no fire retardants on our sofas. Please let us know if you have any questions.

Best Regards,
Christopher
Customer Service
EcoChoices Natural Living Store
Helping people live greener & healthier lives since 1997.
http://www.ecochoices.com/

Option 3:  The Latex Solution

Another company, Viesso, offers a chemical-free upgrade to their basic sofas, which already do already have eco-friendly features. These include, according to their Web site:

– locally sourced hardwood frames
– natural jute webbing and a wool deck
– fabrics that are natural, recycled, or both. you can filter by “eco-friendly only.”

If you pay a significant up-charge and select “Extreme Green” from the foam menu, you also get a sofa with 100% natural latex on the arms, back, frame, and cushion filling. (Latex is essentially rubber, and I have concerns about whether it’s really the most comfortable thing to stretch out on. In addition, due to a later conversation, I’d also now want to ask whether the latex itself is treated with anything, which I have not yet had time to do.) You can also add goose down inside the seat and back cushions around the latex, to make it softer, again for a surcharge.

I asked the customer service fellow, who was very helpful, about the fabric. He said that you can choose to cover the furniture with untreated “organic cottons and hemp,” and that some of the polyester fabrics did have flame retardants in the stain-resistance treatments.  There are a significant number of styles to choose from, and a lot of fabrics, and those without flame retardants are indicated in the fabric menu. Shipping would range from $290 to $390 per item.

Fiddling around with the site, it also became clear that all of the more reasonably priced items were in-stock furniture that did not include custom options like my eco-upgrade. With the upgrade and shipping included, these sofas also topped $3K, and most were above 4K.

Option 4:  With a Note from Your Doctor, Crazy Lady.

Cisco Brothers, which has a “greener” outlook on furniture, allows customers to choose an “inside green” construction option for an up-charge.  Inside green construction uses 100 percent wool, organic cotton, and latex. There are a lot of styles and fabrics to choose from.

But in order to get the latex free of any chemical treatments for flame resistance, I would need a note from my doctor, which they allegedly keep on file in case there’s a fire in my home and I want to sue them for selling me a healthier sofa.

I asked the Customer Service representative for a sample form for such a note, but she didn’t have one. So here’s my draft:

Dear Company,

My patient would like to have her toddler’s bodily fluids remain as free as possible from IQ-lowering chemicals.

Zank you very much,

Dr. Strangelove

I asked how many times this is requested per year, and she said “five or so, not very often. It’s mainly if you have a chemical sensitivity, or something…” Her voice trailed off, her question mark just hanging in the air.

They don’t sell directly to the public, and there’s not a retailer near me, so we didn’t get into pricing. But they do have floor models out in New York City at the enormous style emporium, ABC Carpet, and I might get a chance to pop by next time I’m up there for work, which happens fairly often.

Given that an ashtray at ABC is out of my price-range, I’m not hopeful. But at least I’ll have someplace decent to sit while I’m visiting the store.

Option 5:  The Mystery Chemical that Is, Sadly, Likely Not OK. 

A very nice man, Ken Fonville, runs a small eco-furniture concern in North Carolina, Eco-Select Furniture. He seemed genuinely troubled when I told him that a fellow North Carolinian, Heather Stapleton, had identified toxic chemicals in young children that likely come from furniture.

He did mention in passing as part of our convo that latex-based furniture degrades under UV rays. He also pointed out that it tends to, as he put it with a slight drawl, “take a set, after a while” meaning, I guess, that it would eventually show (un)shapely indentations.

I have no opinion on whether this is true, but it didn’t seem to come from a competitive place. He was merely reflecting on why he didn’t use latex in his upholstery.

I liked his furniture because it is covered in leather. With a toddler and stain resistant chemicals off the table, all this hemp coverings business gives me real pause. And his prices are in line with what furniture normally costs.

His products use soy blend for 25 percent of the foam, and his lumber is locally certified. He read me the chemical tag for the foam, which indicated that there were no PBDEs, and no Tris. So his might be the Firemaster kind? I’m guessing. Without a test by Ms. Stapleton, we’ll never know.

It’s too bad, really. He was that nice. He was an owner who answered the phone and patiently listened while I basically lectured him on the risks to children from flame retardants in his furniture. He’s obviously really trying to get it right.

And so I really wish I could buy his couch.

###

What’s the upshot of all this?

Basically, we’ve got to cough up enough dough that we’ll have to forgo the next few vacations and then some, or continue sucking it up with old Ikea.

I suppose that instead of traveling the world, we’ll just hang out on our new couch, basking in how eco-fabulous we truly are. We’ll have to cancel cable, so we’ll just stare at the wall.

Seriously, what do you think I should do? Do you know of any other options for a truly green set-to?

Until then, I wish the Bofa would just move over. Just a little bit. There.

[Update: For more options on chemical-free furniture, please see the post and discussion in the comments for Sofa Saga, Part 4.]