The Benefits of Eco-Friendly Furniture

Eco-friendly sofa with accent pillows

Pel Sofa by Stem

One of my goals for furnishing my house is to buy as few brand-new items as possible. I enjoy giving old items new life and the treasure hunt aspect of finding just the right thing in an unexpected place. However, secondhand furniture isn’t practical for every situation, which is why it’s important for manufacturers to start producing furniture in a more environmentally-friendly way. Travis Nagle is the co-founder of Stem, a furniture company that does just that. Stem specializes in high-quality furniture made from natural materials and no toxic glues or varnishes. Travis wrote the following post describing why the materials that go into our furniture matter for our health and the planet. — Julia


The idea of eco-friendly furniture has been around for a long time, though it hasn’t always been identified as such—think back to the days before particleboard and synthetic fillers. Big industry and economic pressures advanced society in many positive ways, but also created an atmosphere where a lot of home products are designed and built solely to maximize efficiency and profits. So where does that leave consumers today? For the most part, there has been a trend over the past 25 years towards building overseas, using lower quality materials, and prioritizing volume. On the other had, there are a handful of companies like the brand I founded called Stem that take the opposite approach: furniture built in the US using eco-friendly materials. While this can mean a higher price point, the pieces last a lifetime and help create a healthier home. Let’s take a look at some key benefits of eco-friendly materials.

No Unnecessary Toxins Added to Materials

For many years it was required by law to add fire retardants to upholstered goods like sofas and sectionals. After some hard fought battles, California finally revised their state law so that they are no longer required, which has led more manufacturers to produce furniture without them. This is great news because fire retardants, while actually not doing that much to add a level of safety, have been linked to a variety of health issues. Many companies have removed fire retardants, but you can confirm with each product you shop for by asking the manufacturer or referring to the label.

In addition, many companies layer stain repellants on top of fabrics. While these can help in the short term, they may also lead to serious health issues with consistent exposure. In short, it’s best to get your furniture free of the standard stain repellent products in the market. If you do, choose a fabric that is more forgiving or even a slipcover for the cushions to protect them from stains.

Modern eco-friendly chair next to window

Rondi Chair by Stem

Building Without Harsh Chemicals

A lot of furniture looks great in terms of style, but it’s hard to know what they are finished with. Eco brands typically will use 100% natural wood versus plywood. In addition to solid wood being better quality and more durable, plywood can contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. In terms of the outside of the pieces, eco-friendly sofas use clear coats, paints and glues that are all low- or zero-VOC. These final layers of material can potentially impact the air in your home and some may even be carcinogenic.

Natural Materials

A big part of furniture building that has gone out of fashion is focusing on natural materials like cotton, wool, and solid wood. These materials will not only offer a product with less toxins but also are biodegradable. It can be difficult to find materials that are certified organic, but there definitely are some fabrics out there that comply. In addition, some brands like Stem offer eco-friendly furniture that is made of 100% natural materials from the inside out including natural latex and jute instead of poly-based options.

Sustainable Resources

In addition to being better for your home, non-toxic furniture is also better for the environment. To be sustainable, solid wood should be from either FSC or SFI certified sources. The main focus here is on how the wood is harvested and replenished with use, and treating the forests for long term viability. There are also some great products out there that utilize reclaimed wood, many times taken from torn down buildings or old discarded lumber. Extending the lifespan of the natural resources does a lot for the environment. In addition, some synthetic materials are also repurposed like fabrics that are made from recycled materials. The longer the lifespan of a material for any type of product, the better off we all are.

Since the market is still relatively young for these type of products, the prices are sometimes higher than conventional furniture. As the demand grows the materials and practices should be more readily available, and hopefully all companies will do their best to incorporate sustainable and healthy practices. Until then, it might be worth taking a little extra time to ask brands about their products so you can make sure you get a quality item and know what you’re bringing into your home.


Thanks again to Travis Nagle of Stem! Want to check out some other eco-friendly furniture options? Our friends at The Good Trade have an additional list of 14 sustainable furniture brands.

Everyday Silver Necklace

Necklaces are my favorite item of jewelry by far, and I’ve recently developed a fetish for simple, delicate designs. A few months ago I bought the simplest, tiniest gold necklace on Etsy, and I wear it constantly. I decided I wanted a silver equivalent as well and perused my local fair trade shop for options.

The necklace I ended up getting (the Cubed Necklace in Silver from Ten Thousand Villages, purchased at Global Gifts) is not nearly as minimalistic in design as my gold necklace, but it’s equally neutral (though it does actually sparkle quite a bit, which I didn’t expect for a necklace made of matte cubes). It’s adjustable in length, making it even more versatile.

Close-up of Julia wearing cubed silver necklace

Even though I’m happy with this necklace and have already worn it a bunch, part of me still wants a more delicate silver necklace, for when the surprising bling of the cube necklace is a little much. I found some other ethical silver necklace options for your inspiration, and my potential shopping list:

Montage of simple silver necklaces

  1. Tiny Dot Sterling Silver Moissanite Pendant Necklace (Etsy) – Handmade in Tennessee with recycled silver and lab-created moissanite
  2. Silver Infinity Necklace (One World Fair Trade) – Handmade by fair trade artisans in Indonesia
  3. Silver Little Pebble Accent Necklace (Etsy) – Handmade in the U.S. with recycled silver
  4. Flat and Round Silver Necklace (Mira Fair Trade) – No specific artisan info is available for this product, but Mira Fair Trade is a Fair Trade Federation member and is a Green American Gold Certified Business
  5. Encircled Necklace (Ten Thousand Villages) – Handmade by fair trade artisans in Peru
  6. Fine Silver Dainty Disc Necklace (Etsy) – Handmade in Wisconsin with recycled silver

I’m drawn to number 3—it’s a completely odd little charm, and if you click through to the listing, you’ll see how super-tiny it is! Number 1 is pretty great too. What’s your favorite?

Ethical Shoes with Free Return Shipping

I’ve talked before about my love of free return shipping. For me it’s the key to a satisfying online shopping experience, especially for shoes. I’ll sometimes roll the dice on a shirt or dress without free return shipping, but never with shoes, since there’s a 70% chance I’ll have to send them back due to fit.

In the ethical shopping landscape, it can sometimes be hard to find free return shipping, as many retailers are small, independent companies. However, I’ve found several ethical shoe options that ARE available with free return or exchange shipping! From cute flats to rugged boots, these brands offer a wide variety of styles that you can order and try on without worry.

Ethical shoes with free return shipping - shoe images

1. Oliberte – This brand is the only shoe manufacturer Fair Trade Certified by Fair Trade USA. They offer rugged leather styles for both men and women. NOTE: Order through Zappos for free exchanges and returns. The Oliberte website only offers free exchanges.

2. Munro American – This made-in-USA brand skews more conservative in style, making them a great option for the office or for the more traditionally-minded fashionista. Order through Zappos for free exchanges and returns; the Munro American website offers neither.

3. American Apparel – A trendier made-in-USA option, with styles for both men and women. American Apparel offers free return shipping for all returnable items. NOTE: Sale items are not returnable.

4. Modavanti – This ethical storefront carries many different brands that are required to meet a minimum sustainability threshold. Exchanges and returns are free if you sign up for an account (also free).

5. The Root Collective – Each pair of flats from The Root Collective is handmade in Guatemala. Exchanges due to fit are free, but returns are not.

I have not personally worn shoes from any of these companies (though I did order and free-return a pair of shoes from American Apparel last year), as I tend to get most of my shoes at the thrift store. That’s another great ethical option with no shipping woes!

Have you tried any of the brands above? Do you know of any other ethical shoe brands with free return shipping?