How to enjoy your outside space while respecting the environment.
Spring has finally arrived, so many of us are starting to think about sprucing up the garden – something that’s almost certainly at the top of our to-do lists this year given the major role gardens will play in our ability to socialise in the coming months. After more than a year of limited contact with friends and family, we’ll all be jumping at the chance to get people around for drinks in the evening sunshine. And for a lot us, this is going to mean buying new garden furniture, so how do we do this in an eco-friendly way?
There’s a huge range of choice here, from cheap, plastic chairs and flimsy rattan seating, to grandiose hardwood tables and imposing wrought iron benches – there are garden furniture options for every taste and budget. But there’s more to consider than style and price. While garden furniture may be designed for optimal enjoyment of the great outdoors, without proper care and consideration its existence can actually have a detrimental impact on nature. This guide explains why, and gives you everything you need to know to ensure your garden furniture is environmentally-sound and sustainable.
What are the main sustainability issues with garden furniture?
- Garden furniture is often made of problematic materials such as plastic, which can’t be recycled, or aluminium, which uses huge amounts of energy to produce.
- Garden furniture needs to be durable to withstand the British weather. For example, rain can lead to mould and rust, while heavy winds can blow furniture over and cause breakages. Without proper care or adequate durability, items will need to be replaced more frequently, which uses additional resources and contributes to the growing landfill problem.
- Garden furniture is often cheap and mass-produced, creating a sense of ‘disposability’ about it. Instead of investing in more expensive, long-wearing items, it’s easy for people to replace their garden furniture every year, which again leads to environmental harm.
The solution? Choose garden furniture that you’ll want to keep, that’s made from sustainable materials (more on this below) and – more importantly – that will stand the test of time. Think of it as a long-term investment, and map out your budget accordingly. You could spend £500 on good quality, durable furniture that will last for 10 summers, or you could buy cheap items that you need to replace regularly.
What are the most sustainable garden furniture materials?
As with so many facets of sustainable living, there’s no clear-cut answer here, although some options are definitely greener than others! Let’s explore some of the more common garden furniture materials.
Wooden garden furniture
Wood is a pretty common garden furniture material. It’s attractive, it’s reasonably durable and it’s usually a solid choice sustainability-wise, because it’s technically renewable and can be easily repurposed and/or recycled. However, there are some big caveats here that you should be aware of if you opt for wooden items.
For a start, any wooden furniture you buy should come from responsibly-managed sources – this means that it’s not been involved in illegal logging or deforestation practices. This is a simple enough check: just look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo – this is a non-profit, international organisation that independently audits forest management and every stage of processing.
Next, consider where the wood has come from. Even if it is FSC-certified there’s a carbon impact involved in transporting it across the globe. As such, more locally-sourced wood items are the better option. In the UK, good choices include Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar. The latter is technically a softwood, but it behaves rather like a hardwood in terms of its durability. Oak is also a good choice, but check its provenance – oak imports from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine can be linked with the destruction of ancient forests and illegal logging.
Local carpenters will make use of timber sourced from nearby forests or arboriculturists (tree surgeons) and although these may be more expensive, they will be unique pieces.
Avoid teak. Environmentally-sound teak is hard to come by, and probably comes from Burma, which is the only country that still exports teak from natural forests.
Other woods to avoid include murbau, sapelee, wange and ebony, which count as exotic endangered timbers. Mahogany is also generally problematic across the board.
Bamboo is grown in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, North Australia and the Americas. Light and strong, it needs comparatively less water to grow than conventional timber and is also very fast growing, being harvestable in 3-7 years compared with 10-20 years for most softwoods. It’s a popular choice for outdoor furniture, but again, it’s important to check the provenance of the item.
The cheap white plastic patio chair is synonymous with British gardens, but it’s definitely the least environmentally-sound. Producing plastic garden chairs like these uses a raft of valuable resources – that includes electricity and water as well as the plastic’s main ingredient: oil. They’re often poorly made and not well suited to environmental extremes, so they won’t last very long, and they can’t be recycled either, so they end up in landfill. Generally speaking, try to avoid plastic garden furniture.
That being said, if you like the convenience of plastic furniture, and the fact that it’s reasonably easy to care for, you could investigate furniture made from recycled plastic waste. Choosing a recycled product means you’re not using any virgin materials, and you’re saving existing materials from going to – check out our recommendations below.
Rattan and synthetic rattan
The so-called ‘rattan’ furniture you often see in shops and supermarkets is not actually rattan in the true sense. Authentic rattan is the name given to roughly 600 species of climbing palms that can be weaved into different things, including furniture. It’s sturdy and durable, but not commonly found in the UK as it tends to rot when exposed to damp conditions.
Synthetic rattan, on the other hand, is the name given to the plastic material (commonly PVC, PU or PE) which has been manipulated and designed to look like genuine rattan. Compared to the ‘iconic’ white plastic chair, synthetic rattan can offer a number of benefits. More expensive versions are durable and weighty, and will offer protection from UV rays, so the furniture won’t fade. Cheaper versions, however, are often flimsy and prone to easy breakage. However much you spend, though, this type of furniture is still ultimately plastic, which means it’s required a lot of resources to produce, and it can’t be recycled down the line.
‘Metal’ is a bit of a catch-all term here, since metal garden furniture can be made from wrought iron, cast aluminium or even stainless steel. But the main pros and cons are true of whatever type of metal you choose. For a start, it’s tough and durable – the kids will have a hard time accidentally breaking a metal patio table! Secondly, it’s easily and efficiently recyclable, which is a major plus for sustainability.
But there are some pitfalls, too. Some type of metal garden furniture – cast aluminium and stainless steel, for example – are quite lightweight, which makes it vulnerable to strong winds. Secondly, some types of metal – wrought iron in particular – will require intensive maintenance to prevent rusting. You also need to consider comfort! A poorly-designed metal chair won’t make for the most pleasant seating experience, and of course blazing temperatures could make the furniture hot to the touch, too.
The soft furnishings element of garden furniture is often overlooked, but it’s just as important as the structural side of things. While cushions and padding can be bought inside when the weather turns nasty, the fabrics used in items like patio parasols and awnings need to be durable enough to withstand whatever the weather brings, while remaining a sustainable choice. Here, avoid cheap plastic or resource intensive cottons and look at more innovative fabrics that combine performance and environmental consideration. Recycled polyester, regenerated nylon and recycled polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) are all durable, waterproof and designed for long-term outdoor use, and they all give back to the environment by mitigating the use of virgin materials and keeping used material out of landfill.
The best places to buy sustainable garden furniture
For stunningly-crafted one-off pieces made from reclaimed wood in the South West and Wales.
For beautiful, long-lasting wooden garden furniture with FSC-certification, made in the UK.
For a massive selection of wood and steel garden furniture and soft furnishings, all of which meet the highest sustainability standards.
For maintenance-free, long-lasting and recyclable aluminium garden furniture in a wide range of styles and configurations.
For high-end, design-led outdoor dining sets fashioned from sustainable concrete.
For high-quality, handcrafted benches and outdoor dining sets made from recycled plastics.
But do you actually need to buy new garden furniture?
After the year we’ve all had you’d absolutely be forgiven for wanting to splurge on something new for your home – especially if it’s the precursor to seeing friends and family again. But before you make any big purchases, check out the likes of Preloved, Freecycle and Gumtree to see if anyone nearby is selling (or giving away!) what you’re after – this is the most sustainable way of furnishing your garden. It’s also a good way to get your hands on good quality, long-lasting items you might not be able to afford otherwise.
What impact does the weather in the UK have on garden furniture?
It’s no secret that the weather in the UK can be unpredictable – and climate change means that it’s only going to become more extreme and changeable. In the future, we can expect more frequent, longer periods of drought, more violent storms with stronger winds, and a great deal more flooding. So it’s important you choose garden furniture that can withstand these stresses. Factors to consider include:
- Rain and moisture
Water can physically degrade furniture material and lead to mould, mildew and rot which can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation. Metal furniture, meanwhile, is vulnerable to rust and corrosion, particularly in coastal areas where salt in the air accelerates the corrosion. Materials that allow water penetration can also dry unevenly, resulting in warping of the original shape. This might be imperceptible at first but over time it can distort material, misalign seams and loosen the screws used to hold furniture together.
- Sun and heat
Prolonged sun exposure can cause materials to fade, while some materials will noticeably expand and contract when exposed to drastic temperature fluctuations – this can cause cracking, splitting and warping. Additionally, some materials (metals and plastics, for example) can retain heat in a way that makes the furniture uncomfortable to use on a hot, sunny day.
A lot of garden furniture is designed to be light and easily moveable – after all, no-one wants to put their back out dragging a patio parasol or set of chairs around the garden! But increasingly strong winds in the UK means outdoor furniture needs to be heavy enough that it doesn’t tip over or blow away. Alternatively, you’ll need to store away and secure items when they’re not being used.
- Cleaning and care
Unfortunately, there’s no single type of garden furniture material that’s entirely impervious to the elements, and some level of maintenance will be necessary whatever furniture you choose. Some materials require very little effort – perhaps just a wipe down with soap and water after the winter season – while others need more time-intensive care. Wooden furniture can be varnished to last longer, for example. Be mindful of this when you’re buying new furniture – if you can’t look after an item properly then it won’t last as long as it could.
The bottom line
Spending time outdoors is great for both body and mind, and it helps to reaffirm our connection with the natural world. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be comfortable while you’re doing it – especially if you’ll be getting friends and family over to join you! Make sustainable choices with your garden furniture, and you can rest easy knowing you’ve done your bit to help preserve the environment you’re enjoying.
We would love to hear your comments and stories about the issues raised in this article:
- Comment below or on our Facebook page
This information is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.