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Jan Lee headshot

Corporate Furniture Procurement Stamps Out Toxic Flame Retardants

By Jan Lee

There was a time when flame retardant chemicals were an assumed part of our home and office furniture's composition. A safe sofa was one that was resistant to fire; a good night's sleep was thought to be enhanced by knowledge that the mattress you slept on had chemicals that made it  fireproof.

These days of course, informed consumers know that there's more to the story. Thanks to researchers and years of testimony by scientists, fire fighters and others, we know that there's a down side to living with flame retardant chemicals in our couches, carpets, mattresses and tapestries.

That realization, which has helped to inspire a whole new class of furniture, owes its renaissance in part, to a nonprofit called the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland, Calif. organization that is often credited with boosting consumer voice in both Sacramento and in Washington, DC.

This week, the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council recognized those contributions by including the CEH in a list of organizations that it says have "leveraged institutional purchasing power to advance the long term health and vitality of society, economies, and the planet."

Thirty-six organizations, government agencies and individuals were recognized by the SPLC on Monday, calling attention to their innovative purchasing strategies and research to help encourage better consumer decisions and increase industry investments in sustainable products. CEH was recognized for its part in incentivizing companies to choose flame-retardant-free furniture and educating consumers about new research about toxic chemicals. Its case study, "Kicking Toxic Chemicals Out of Office Furniture - Getting Rid of the 'Hazardous Handful'"  helped jumpstart a movement to get the state and federal governments to drop requirements for chemical flame retardants in commercially sold furniture.

In 2014 the organization's efforts were picked up by Kaiser Permanente, which announced it would no longer be purchasing furniture that contained flame retardant chemicals for its hospitals and offices. That sent a palpable ripple through the healthcare industry. It also delivered a wake-up call to furniture manufacturers, some of which rely on large contracts from large medical facilities. Other organizations soon followed Kaiser's example.

Since then, an increasing number of furniture manufacturers have announced that they are going chemical flame-retardant free, either by developing exclusive lines or by dropping the chemicals in their product lines altogether.

In 2013, California passed TB117-2013, giving furniture manufactures a choice in how to ensure that the products they sold would pass the state's required "smolder test." The passage of that law has given fuel to new production methods that take advantage of naturally flame-resistant materials in commercial furniture. Although Congress has not matched California's efforts yet, consumer support for furniture that doesn't contain chemical retardants continues to impact and shape the kinds of products now being sold on the market.

SPLC also acknowledged case studies by a wide range of organizations and individuals that it says helped increase support for sustainable purchasing practices. The recipients include EarthCheck, for its case study on sustainable supply chain mechanisms; Ecomedes for its research into ways to streamline sustainable procurement; HP, for its investigation into the circular economy; and Shaw Industries Group for its efforts to increase recyclable content in carpet production. The SPLC also recognized nine individuals for their contributions to sustainable procurement, including Alicia Culver of the Responsible Purchasing Network, Melissa Yusilon of the City of Los Angeles, and Sanjay Kumar of the Ministry of Railways, the Government of India.


Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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