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Updated: 16 Feb 2022

How to buy sustainable furniture

New wooden furniture should come from sustainable sources. Find out what to look for when shopping.
Olivia Howes

Find out what certification schemes to look for, as well as the checks you can do to try to ensure the wooden furniture you buy isn't harming the planet.

Timber is a vital natural resource, as are the forests it comes from. It is possible to harvest wood sustainably and responsibly for human use. But if it's not done in this way, the detriment is vast. 

Deforestation and forest degradation threaten our eco systems and biodiversity - forests are home to 80% of land-dwelling species of animals, plants and insects. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) states that 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation and forest degradation. 

Timber for furniture and paper isn’t the only commodity contributing to deforestation. Beef and the farming of soya – the majority of which is fed to livestock – are far bigger drivers. But it’s still a significant issue and if you're shopping for wood-based products, it's important to know what to look for.

Here's our guide to help you choose furniture that is more responsibly and sustainbly sourced.

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What is fast furniture?

Cheap furniture, like the textiles dubbed 'fast fashion', can be environmentally damaging. That's usually for three reasons: firstly, it might (though not necessarily) be made from wood from unsustainable sources; secondly, if it's made of composite materials it may be hard to recycle; and finally, it's often viewed as more disposable by its owners, making it more likely to soon be thrown away and replaced. 

The simple fact is, it’s better to reuse or recycle furniture rather than buy it brand new. There are plenty of second-hand furniture options available, whether you’re au fait with online marketplaces or prefer to browse through second-hand shops. 

But sometimes you may find buying new is your only option. If that's the case, read on for our tips.

What is sustainable wood?

Sustainable wood comes from sustainably managed forests, and this often means the forest will be certified under a recognised international scheme such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

The most commonly used softwoods and some species of plantation hardwood grow relatively quickly and may be more easily replaced. But the timber should still come from sustainable supplies. 

More valuable, slower-growing hardwoods are more likely to come from land that that must be very carefully managed. The NGO Earthsight says to try to avoid all new hardwood if you can, including oak. The FSC counters that certified hardwoods can be sustainably grown and harvested.

If you're worried about accidentally buying a banned or endangered wood species:

  • The CITES (Convention on Internation Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) appendices are a list of woods that are either banned from importation (appendix I), or must be very carefully controlled with import and export permits (appendices II and III). 
  • There's also the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species.

Some retailers have specific policies around avoiding all woods on these lists. Likewise, credible certification schemes such as the FSC will exclude such species. 

But you can also be assured that most of the woods on these lists are rare and therefore very expensive - so you are unlikely to come across them in a typical furniture retailer.

In general, you should ask questions of your furniture retailer about the products they sell. We asked retailers if they were able to supply country of origin and species information to customers if requested, and nearly all said they would be happy to do so. But they also commonly said that they had never been asked for this information. If retailers see there is a demand for information, they may start making it more accessible to customers.

FSC logo

8 tips for buying eco-friendly furniture

We interviewed experts in the field including Dr Constance McDermott, leader of the Ecosystems Governance Group at the University of Oxford, NGOs Earthsight, Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and certification body Preferred by Nature for their advice.

  • Try to find local craftspeople who use reclaimed, recycled or locally sourced wood. Not only will you avoid many of the emissions caused by production and transportation, they’ll probably know more about the wood they use.
  • Avoid items that are poor quality, as their lifespan is likely to be shorter. Equally, avoid fashionable trends that you think will soon go out of date. 
  • Ask questions. Retailers should know where their wood originates from as this information is required under the UK Timber Regulation (UKTR). 
  • Bear in mind that a ‘made in’ label doesn’t tell you where the wood came from – it’s likely just where the furniture was manufactured. 
  • Choose wood that is certified. FSC is viewed as the preferred certification but PEFC is commonly found too. Choose FSC 100% over FSC Mix where possible. Read more on FSC below.
  • Look for retailers' timber sourcing policy and responsible sourcing statements - they should be on their websites. While policies don’t guarantee good practice on the ground, they’re a good start, and show an understanding of the issues and risks in the supply chain. If you can't find information, be wary and try to find out more from the retailer directly.
  • If you need to get rid of furniture, sell it or pass it on rather than take it to the tip. Second-hand marketplaces or local social media groups are usually a good place to start finding a new owner for your unwanted items.
Pile of felled logs

Timber risks

Interpol estimates that between 10-30% of the global timber trade’s value comes from illegal logging. In some individual tropical countries, 50-90% of the total wood trade is believed to be produced in ways that are not recognizised as legal. 

The UK Timber Regulation (UKTR) tries to minimise the risk of illegal wood ending up in consumers’ purchases. It requires businesses trading timber in the UK to have conducted due diligence of their supply chains. While this provides some assurance against illegal timber, the risk remains higher when wood is imported that is uncertified and harvested from, or processed in, countries with poor governance or high corruption.

There are also some odd omissions to the current UKTR, including seating (such as sofas and chairs), books and newspapers, musical instruments and tools.

Retailers should be conducting their own due diligence and carrying out checks to assess the risks of wood coming from potentially illegal sources. This could include using Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI)  More than two thirds of countries score below 50 in the latest index, which indicates they are failing to tackle corruption effectively.  

Certification body Preferred by Nature has a world map of countries colour coded by their timber risk score. It's designed for organisations and businesses and not consumers, but gives an interesting insight.

What is FSC and should you trust it?

In short, yes - it's the best option. But trying to find out more about the origins of the wood you buy is still worthwhile. 

The FSC is the best-known certification scheme and label in the UK and has two separate strands - forest management and chain of custody. 

It has come in for some criticism, and campaigners have criticised its lack of transparency, but it remains the best option available for buying certified sustainable wood.

  • Forest management means that the forest is independently audited to check it is operating responsibly. Wood from those forests can then carry the FSC logo.
  • Chain of custody means that every stage of the journey of a piece of timber has been checked to ensure that FSC-certified products have been kept separate from non-FSC sources so the end product can truly be labelled FSC.

Products can be labelled as FSC 100%, FSC mix or FSC 100% recycled wood.

  • FSC 100% means wood is definitely from an FSC-certified forest.
  • FSC mix means that the product is certified under one of two systems: percentage or credit. It won't be clear from the label which it is.

The percentage system means the product will contain at least 70% FSC-certified wood, and the rest is controlled wood. This is a set of criteria meaning it is unlikely to be illegal or harvested from high conservation value forests, among other things.  

The credit system means that a percentage of that product that the retailer sells is be FSC-certified and the rest will be controlled wood. You won’t know whether the exact product you buy is made of FSC-certified wood or not.

To complicate things further, a business can hold an FSC chain of custody certificate but still sell uncertified wood alongside certified wood. So the product you are buying should actually carry the FSC logo on it or its sales documentation. Labels and claims should include a unique FSC code - you can then look this up on the FSC website to confirm it is legitimate.

The best scenario is to buy a product with its own 100% FSC wood label from a business with full FSC chain of custody certification.

What's the difference between PEFC and FSC?

PEFC is another well known forest certification scheme. It's actually the largest in terms of forest area. Its main difference to FSC is that it accredits national schemes rather than applying its own criteria internationally. This has led to it generally being viewed as a weaker scheme by environmental campaigners. Retailers will often state in their timber policies that they favour FSC-certified wood sources where possible.

man looking at cupboard

What should you do with unwanted furniture?

Sending furniture to be recycled is better than adding to landfill, but it’s far better again for items to have a second life where they can.

Good quality items 

Pass these on - you could give them away on the Freecycle Network or a local neighbourhood Facebook group, or sell them through a second-hand marketplace. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you can make back. 

The British Heart Foundation and Emmaus organise free home collections of good quality furniture, or you can arrange to drop them off to their stores. Upholstered items must carry appropriate fire safety labels. The Reuse Network website suggests other local options, some of which collect. 

Retailers may also have takeback schemes when you buy like-for-like items and, if possible, then donate them to charities or repurpose them.

Badly damaged items

Some larger retailers offer special deals to take away old furniture with waste clearance companies such as Clearabee and Speedyclear. You can also book these directly, or find a reputable local private waste clearance company. 

Daniel Long, managing director of Clearabee, says that while currently largely an ‘end of life’ solution (ie the product will be usually be recycled) reuse and repair is increasing. Clearabee has plans to reupholster and repair better quality items to sell from its Birmingham warehouse.

Alternatively, take items to your local waste recycling centre or use a council collection. They will likely be recycled rather than reused, though some centres have shops attached where the best items are rescued and sold. Council collections usually charge a fee.

For more eco-friendly tips, head to our sustainable living advice