The Drake sofa is a mid-range couch with a mid-century modern aesthetic designed, produced, and sold by West Elm. The design closely follows the trend of mid-century design in homewares and provides a slim and stylish option for young professionals and middle-class consumers. It has clean lines, tufted back cushions, and supportive seats. The cushion upholstery can be removed and cleaned. However, in terms of sustainability and ethical metrics, the Drake Sofa is lacking clear benefits. West Elm’s sustainable and ethical initiatives are best described by West Elm: collections. As with many other retailers, West Elm offers a relatively small number of sustainable and ethical options. They are making strides towards more sustainable and ethical practices, but those actions are in no way comprehensive. West Elm markets their initiatives as more widespread than they are, and there is a lack of information on any product that does not meet any of those criteria. The certifications West Elm uses are well-recognized and are generally good metrics for sustainability and worker rights. If you are looking for sustainable products from West Elm, you should stick to products that receive these certifications. All the other products, including the Drake Sofa, do not have any obligation to rigorous standards. If you are looking for a reasonably priced sofa with a certain aesthetic, the Drake is a good option. If you are looking for a well-made sofa with fabrics from natural threads, then look to secondhand furniture or a sofa with cotton, linen, or leather upholstery. If you are looking for a sofa with non-toxic materials, you will have to pay a premium to buy a non-toxic certified piece or take your chance with a regular piece of furniture. Most furniture has risks of toxin off-gassing, so maintenance and cleaning of common products is the best route to mitigate any health risks.
West Elm has 8 main quality, ethical, and sustainable criteria. Of those criteria, the Drake sofa qualifies for one: “Assembled in the USA”. The frame is made of solid oak and engineered hardwood, and the legs are made from solid wood. While West Elm offers products made with Sustainably Sourced wood, the Drake sofa does not qualify for this certification. The frame also has metal springs for support and comfort. The cushions are made of polyurethane foam, a common material in sofas, chairs, and mattresses. The main components of Polyurethane foam cause health risks including asthma, lung damage, and respiratory problems. These health effects are most dangerous during production, which means that the workers producing the foam are at high risk. To the consumer, there is a health risk from flame retardants in the foam. These flame retardants bioaccumulate (build-up) in humans and animals and could cause health risks. The main risk is to the nervous and endocrine systems, and the risk is highest for developing children. This issue is difficult to mitigate, and there are not many “safe” options, especially in the mainstream furniture market. Additionally, it is not clear which products contain the flame retardants, so it’s best to assume your products do contain the harmful chemicals. The best course of action is to take care of your furniture, frequently dust your room (dust contains the chemicals), and vacuum the furniture with a HEPA filter. These are the best preventative measures considering the information around flame retardants and consumer products. West Elm allows customization of furniture, offering a range of fabrics for their upholstered products. There are “in-stock” options that are sold at a lower-cost and with a lower lead time. There are also premium fabrics with a $100-400 additional cost. The consumer is thus allowed a wide range of options for the fabrics, a step up from a lower cost retailer that may only offer two or three upholstery options. The two in-stock fabrics are a Platinum (Gray) Twill and an Ink (Navy) Distressed fabric. The Twill is 73% polyester and 27% acrylic, which are both synthetic fabrics made with plastic threads. The Distressed Velvet is “63% virgin polyester, 37% recycled polyester”. The recycled polyester is made by REPREVE recycled polyester. Both fabrics (as well as most of the premium fabrics) are GREENGUARD Gold Certified, meaning they are tested for VOC emissions and are at a level deemed safe by the California State Department of Health’s Section 01350 standards.
Since West Elm has publicly advertised that they are working towards better working standards, any products without the various certifications could potentially raise flags. While West Elm has some Fair Trade and Certified Non-Toxic products, the Drake Sofa is not one of them. Additionally, the sofa is “hand-assembled and upholstered in the USA”, but the components themselves could be manufactured in countries with lower standards. Therefore we could assume that there was no effort towards workers’ safety in the production of the materials for the sofa. There are health risks involved in the production of polyester fabrics, acrylic fabrics, and polyurethane foams, which means that the health of workers and those living near those plants is put at risk. The sofa is assembled in the United States, which has better worker standards than other countries. West Elm says that they assemble the furniture in the USA to bring “top-notch quality without the middleman or markup”. They are not so forthcoming with their production chain pre-assembly. West Elm is a mid-range furniture company, and there are issues with quality-control. There are consumer complaints about the quality of various pieces.
West Elm is a mid-range furniture retailer operating under Williams-Sonoma, Inc. The brand’s ethos is “Good Design, Good for You, and Good for the Planet”. Williams-Sonoma, Inc includes some of the most well-recognized home goods brands including Pottery Barn, West Elm, and Williams-Sonoma. Their overall brand is linked to a middle-class luxury ideal. Williams-Sonoma, Inc has published its sustainability report that includes a handful of concrete goals, as well as some less-defined objectives. There have goals for 100% responsibly sourced carbon by 2021 and 50% FSC certified wood by 2021. Williams-Sonoma Inc also works to project an image of a diverse and ethical workplace, from the factory worker to the CEO. There is nothing extremely remarkable or commendable about their objectives, as they are in-line with what other major retailers work towards. West Elm, while more expensive than Ikea or another low-cost furniture company, is still cutting corners on furniture production. The quality of some pieces is only marginally better than the lowest-cost options. At West Elm and similarly priced retailers, you will be paying for the additional aesthetic, not the increase in quality. West Elm is using these design initiatives to make the consumer think more of their products are ethical than they really are. The West Elm website has various resources that account for sustainability, including some well-known third-party certifications. Under “Collaborations” a consumer can choose to narrow down results by several metrics: Organic, Sustainably Sourced, Fair Trade Certified, Handcrafted, GREENGUARD Gold Certified, or “Local”. West Elm may have been the first home retailer to join Fair Trade USA, but that does not mean that all of their products are Fair Trade Certified. These are criteria referred to as “Commitments”, yet it is not required of a product to follow these metrics - only 60% of their products qualify for at least one of the initiatives.