EDENTON, N.C.—Five leaders in a growing movement to encourage the elimination of harmful chemical inputs to consumer products, have come together for an initiative that will encourage the elimination of dangerous substances common in furnishings products. The “What’s it made of?” initiative launched last month.
The Initiative consists of a simple Pledge to ASK, and an online tool to support signatories to the pledge in seeking assurance that their suppliers are fully disclosing information on production inputs. The partners plan to expand their efforts with seminars and training sessions within the industry and with consumer outreach.
David Levine, CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, discussed the “What’s it made of?” Initiative at the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s 10th Anniversary Celebration last October, noting that we are at a turning point for business and our economy, with businesses recognizing that they can be financially successful as they also provide social and environmental benefit. He said that transparency about material inputs and operations policy is key to that. Levine joined SFC Executive Director Susan Inglis in inviting guests to sign a Pledge to ASK, “What’s it made of?” Over 300 individuals signed on immediately. The pledge can be signed at the SFC website. It reads:
“As a business leader I am concerned about the health of our world—my employees, customers, communities, and the global environment. I am committed to reducing the use of chemicals that pose harm to human health and the environment. As a first step, I commit to ask my suppliers about the presence of chemicals of concern like flame retardants, fluorinated stain treatments, antimicrobials, vinyl and VOCs including formaldehyde, that may be present in the products that we produce/specify/purchase.”
Focus on Raising Awareness
Coming together for this Initiative, SFC, ASBC, CEH, HML, GCI and others are building upon efforts they have been making individually. As a group and individually, the organizations are focused on raising awareness, educating, and providing guidance to consumers as well as within industry. The partnering organizations offer a range of resources useful for consumers as well as for furnishings professionals.
The chemicals of concern most common in furnishings products present well-known problems:
1) Volatile Organic Compounds, including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen, are used in adhesives, finishes, paint, coatings, and many other products in order to dissolve other chemical constituents. Furniture containing composite wood is particularly prone to being VOC-laden. Many of these organic solvents release vapors that humans inhale and absorb. Some are associated with neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and carcinogenic effects during short-term high level exposure and over prolonged periods of low level exposure.
2) Flame retardant chemicals as used in residential furniture have not increased fire safety. Instead the flame retardant chemicals have been found to migrate out of furniture products and get into our air, dust and ultimately our bodies. Flame retardant chemicals have been detected in most Americans, with the highest levels found in children. Some flame retardant chemicals have been associated with endocrine disruption and reproductive, neurologic, and immune impairment as well as cancer.
3) Fluorinated stain treatments, common in upholstered furniture and carpeting, persist in the environment and have been detected in humans and other organisms all over the globe. In humans, some highly fluorinated chemicals have been associated with kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disruption, elevated total cholesterol, and obesity.
4) Polyvinyl chloride, known as PVC or simply as vinyl, is used in rigid and pliable forms. The rigid form is commonly used in outdoor furniture construction. The more pliable form, created with the addition of phthalates, is used in upholstery fabrics, imitation leather, inflatable products such as stow-away mattresses, etc. The production and combustion of PVC emits dioxins, a potent carcinogen which is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions, and when it is made pliable with phthalates these dangers are increased.
5) Antimicrobials may be added to mattresses, finishes, glues and upholstery fabric. These chemicals, such as triclosan and triclocarban, which have been banned recently from soaps and rubs, can be absorbed through the skin and are detected in most Americans. They also persist in the environment. They are a concern because they are associated with adverse endocrine, thyroid, and reproductive changes and their use can lead to resistant strains of bacteria.
Goal is to Accelerate Innovation, Improvement
Susan Inglis, Sustainable Furnishings Council Executive Director, commented, “SFC is very pleased to launch this initiative with august partners that bring a wealth of expertise to work that clearly supports a healthy future, inside and outside. The Pledge to ASK ‘What’s it made of?’ starts the conversation between manufacturers and buyers about dangers currently present and the need to look for solutions. As the initiative evolves, we will be using our strong educational platform to help industry better respond to consumer concern, as well as working to make it easier for consumers to find the products they want. We are confident that the effort will accelerate innovation and improvement throughout our industry.”
“More and more, consumers and businesses want to know what is in products,” says David Levine, CEO, American Sustainable Business Council. “The big concern is, are they safe? Our polling found that 82 percent of businesses agree that businesses should be required to share chemical ingredient information all along the supply chain. Transparency is good for business, which is why we and the businesses we represent strongly support the ‘What’s It Made of?’ Initiative.”
“We’re pleased that manufacturers and other upstream businesses in the furniture supply chain are adopting a disclosure model that will equip them to answer a crucial but surprisingly difficult question: ‘What’s it made of?’ Consumers usually assume that furniture and other products are made from safe materials, but unfortunately that is often not the case. This simple but forward-thinking question creates incentives not only for disclosure but also for choosing materials that keep workers and consumers safe at each point in a product’s life-cycle,” says Judy Levin, Pollution Prevention Director, Center for Environmental Health.
“When wellness and health are considered in the design and manufacture of furniture, then homes will be the havens that we know them to be,” says Jonsara Ruth, Design Director of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. “As designers we consider the full experience. By asking suppliers what ingredients are in products, we are fulfilling the desires of consumers to make the best, healthiest home furnishings products. We admire SFC’s leadership in the home furnishings industry, and we are happy to be part of this initiative advocating for systemic change.”