You’ve probably never seen the inside of your sofa, so how do you know what it’s made of? There are many considerations that go into deciding what to fabricate upholstered furniture out of, and just as many considerations for you the consumer when buying a new piece. Consult the following guide when shopping for upholstered furniture for your home to make sure you bring home something that is both safe for your family, and a durable investment of your money.
THE NOT-SO DISTANT PAST
The upholstery techniques used in furniture have not changed much since upholstery started to become quite popular and available over 400 years ago. Frames, springs, and fabric covering techniques look mostly identical now to antique pieces. Filling materials, on the other hand, have changed a lot.
Before 1900, sofas and chairs were filled with straw, horse and hog hair, and moss, which provided cushioning compared to solid wood furniture. These materials are also very durable, hardly degrading over decades. Even now, old heirloom pieces that undergo reupholstery to replace worn fabrics will often reuse the horsehair and straw filling, because a century later, it still has its shape and moisture.
COLONIZATION AND THE RISE OF RUBBER
Latex is the word we use to describe the sap that comes from rubber trees, and with the west’s discovery of latex, upholstery fillings changed.
Latex had the benefit of being easy to use in its final form; it could just be cut into whatever shape needed padding. An article for National Geographic in February of 1940 described rubber as the “most versatile vegetable product”, and it quickly became the standard for use in tires, swimsuits, erasers, and of course, sofas.
Latex still has quite a long lifespan, in the realm of decades when used in upholstery. Its relative elasticity has allowed for a lot of creativity when it comes to upholstered design.
PLASTIC TAKES THE WORLD BY STORM
Then in the 50s, plastic was suddenly introduced as the much cheaper alternative to almost every material. Polyurethane entered use as a cushioning material because of its amazingly low cost: synthetic plastics like polyurethane could be produced at a fraction of the cost of naturally-derived latex. But using polyfoams comes with risk:
A DANGER FOR FIRE
One of the surprising, or maybe not so surprising, by-products of filling upholstered pieces with petroleum-based plastics like polyfoam is the danger they pose to homes in a fire. “Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as ‘solid gasoline.’ When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes,” shares Patty and Leigh Anne of Two Sisters EcoTextiles.
If a polyfoam sofa is at the center of your house fire, the response time a firetruck has to get to your home isn’t enough anymore to get flames under control before they spread, and the likelihood of survival for you and your family drops dramatically.
A DANGER TO WORKERS
Worse yet, the process of producing plastics like polyurethane is a much more toxic one to workers than latex production, and has been criticized by the EPA and OSHA for exposing workers to carcinogenic substances. A 2013 article by the New York Times found that workers manufacturing polyurethane pillows in the US were suffering from severe nerve damage thanks to glues that had been used-- nerve damage that led workers to lose feeling in their limbs, unable to walk.
A DANGER TO HOMES
While production of polyfoams has been shown to be toxic to workers, consumer worries lie in the safety of post-production polyfoam. Polyurethane continues to show toxic effects even post-production on household air quality. While straw and horsehair underwent almost no change in quality even after over a hundred years, polyfoams change density in matter of years, becoming lighter as they break down and catch a ride on dust particles in the air. As Len Laycock, CEO of Upholstery Arts, explains, “research […] indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”
EVALUATING THE SOY ALTERNATIVE
What soy foams don’t mention is the fact that polyurethane still makes up more than 50% of this product. In some soy foams, soy actually makes up less than 5% of the cushion. Buying soy foam doesn’t address the concerns of flammability, because all that polyfoam will still light up. It doesn’t address the breakdown of those poly materials into dust. It doesn’t go far enough when it comes to decreasing use of petroleum products. And it raises serious concerns over the cultivation of soy: increased focus on soy production in South America has been a serious cause of deforestation, species endangerment, and social policy concern as indigenous groups are chased out of ancestral homes, or exploited for labor.
WEIGHING THE OPTIONS
Polyfoams are still the primary filling in sofas being produced today. Production of polyfoams is dangerous, and polyfoams themselves provide a serious risk to your health and home. Despite all of this, polyfoams dominate because they are cheap. When you pay less than $2k for a full-sized sofa, you’re getting that price because plastics are cheap to produce, and cheap sofas sell.
But if you are convinced of the hazards of polyurethane, consider turning back the clock and getting a piece made with organic naturally-derived latex. Not only does this send a message to furniture manufacturers that dangerous and unsustainable materials aren’t welcome, it provides you with a piece that is of higher quality and more durable than the alternatives.