The furniture industry is becoming better attuned to environmental issues, because of both increased concern on the part of consumers and stepped-up governmental regulations and guidelines.
In addition to concerns about the use of tropical woods harvested from endangered rain forest areas, the industry is facing questions about chemicals used in the manufacturing process.
Recent revisions to the Clean Air Act require furniture manufacturers to limit emissions of volatile organic compounds -- known as VOCs -- used in their plants, including those from solvent-based paints, stains and lacquers.
Many manufacturers have begun experimenting with methods that would meet the guidelines, either cutting the number of finishing steps or using water-borne -- rather than solvent-based -- finishes that are less harmful to the environment.
Results have been mixed. Cutting the number of finishing steps produces a low-sheen, natural look, as do most of the water-borne finishes being tested. That's fine for some styles of furniture, but traditional dark finishes require a high sheen that is difficult to obtain without the use of solvents.
Larry Runyan, director of manufacturer services with the American Furniture Manufacturers Assn., said both the Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with enforcing the Clean Air Act, and the furniture industry itself are currently looking for ways to reduce VOC emissions.
There have been some recent breakthroughs, though, including fully water-borne finishes and a hybrid water-borne system that may prove to be the best alternative, Mr. Runyan said.