I'm often asked if there is such a thing as environmentally friendly furniture. The answer is yes and no.
"Green" can simply refer to the materials used in the end product, or to the entire manufacturing process, from the raw materials through to the energy used to ship the item to a customer. How far to take the green story is up to the individual, and shoppers should be aware of "greenwashing", where companies use buzzwords to convince customers that products are environmentally friendly but don't offer the real story behind the manufacturing process.
The easiest way to make environmentally considerate furniture choices is to buy the best quality you can afford. Well-made furniture will last a long time. It can be refinished or recovered to update the look or sold to someone else who can enjoy it for years to come. Cheaply made furniture can seem like a good idea, but usually doesn't last and ends up in a landfill. Then there are the environmental resources consumed to make the new furniture you have to buy to replace it.
Buy furniture made from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Lumber taken from managed forests has been responsibly grown and harvested, avoiding damage to delicate ecosystems.
While fast-growing bamboo is often touted as an environmentally friendly substitute to wood, it often comes from South East Asia, where growing conditions are poor, pesticide use is unregulated and it takes an immense amount of resources to get the product to our front doors.
Buy furniture made from recycled and repurposed materials. Many UAE shops carry furniture made from old building materials, so no new trees are cut down. Even furniture partially made from recycled materials reduces the amount of energy needed for production and diverts trash from landfills.
Find locally made furniture. This reduces the energy used for shipping and helps to sustain local businesses and jobs. Look for furniture with low- or non-toxic finishes. The "new smell" we associate with our recently acquired furniture is actually the off-gassing of chemicals used during manufacturing. Foam fillings and adhesives are major offenders. Check new furniture to see if it has been Greenguard certified (www.greenguard.org). Home testing kits can be bought online to test paint for lead content.
Finally, consider vintage or used furniture. It is often better made and provides character.Chemicals used in producing it will have dissipated long ago.
Robert Reid is a professor of architecture, art and design at the American University of Sharjah.