When considering green or sustainable cabinets, you first need to determine if you or your clients are purists. Purists will insist on the full menu of sustainable attributes: durable; locally sourced (within 500 miles); made with renewable, recycled, or certified sustainable materials; made without formaldehyde; emitting no volatile organic compounds (VOCs); made by a company with stellar environmental procedures; delivered with environmentally responsible packaging; and perhaps fair-trade-priced to ensure a decent living for all those involved in the process.

Neil Kelly Cabinets combine style, quality, and healthy materials.
PhotoDesign Neil Kelly Cabinets combine style, quality, and healthy materials.

A good example of purist cabinets are those in Bill and Becka Doering’s home in Santa Barbara, Calif. Keen to protect their children from environmental toxins and to produce the least burden to the planet, the couple sought the greenest cabinets they could find. Their solution: boxes made of wheat board, and doors milled from acacia trees that their neighbor had recently taken down. Plus, the cabinets were coated with no-VOC paints and outfitted with energy-saving undercabinet LED lights.

Most remodelers and homeowners, however, are not hard-core purists and must decide the shade of green that makes practical sense for them. The factors that most often come into play when considering green or sustainable cabinets are:

• No added formaldehyde;

• No- or low-VOC finishes;

• Materials derived from certified-sustainable sources.


At the bare minimum — according to Tom Kelly of Neil Kelly Cabinets, a Portland, Ore., pioneer in green cabinet manufacturing — a green kitchen cabinet should have no urea formaldehyde added to the plywood or pressboard. “It’s a known carcinogen,” Kelly says.

Ned Kelly Cabinets
www.butterflymultimedia.com Ned Kelly Cabinets

Formaldehyde in furniture was outlawed by the European Union in 2006. But it is still widely used in this country, and its effects gained media attention when the trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina survivors were found to be toxic due to their formaldehyde levels.

The green certification system developed by the Reston, Va.-based Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturing Association (KCMA), states that: “75% of particleboard, medium density fiberboard, and plywood used in the cabinets must be third-party certified to meet low formaldehyde-emission standards.”

Kelly finds that unacceptable. “The industry needs to have a conversation about the continued use of formaldehyde in the binding process,” he says.

At Neil Kelly Cabinets, wood products come from Columbia Forest Products, which has replaced all formaldehyde with PureBond, a soy-based binder. Kelly’s cabinets were featured in the 2008 Vision House, a green demonstration home at the International Builders Show in Orlando.

Low-VOC Finishes

Second to formaldehyde in the hierarchy of what makes green cabinets green is the use of less-toxic finishes. The concern driving this, as for formaldehyde content, is occupant health.

Hansen Living offers high-style furniture-look cabinets made of solid wood and treated with natural oil finishes.
Hansen Living Hansen Living offers high-style furniture-look cabinets made of solid wood and treated with natural oil finishes.

“What’s most important to people is indoor air quality and return on investment,” says Michael Chandler, owner of Chandler Design-Build, in Mebane, N.C. For clients who request a green home, the remodeler steers them toward cabinets such as those from Merillat, which meet the KCMA’s certification program, and toward low-VOC finishes.

Natural oil finishes without VOCs are part of the draw of Hansen Living, a line of Danish green cabinets represented in North America by Susan Serra, a certified kitchen designer in New York City.

For upscale clients who can afford the architect-designed kitchen units, which look like sleek furniture pieces (and can cost tens of thousands of dollars for each stand-alone unit), there is some comfort in knowing that the cabinets are made entirely of solid wood with no new or emerging products. Serra says her clients “don’t want to be guinea pigs for products they are not familiar with.”

certified sustainable sources

Along with air quality and health issues, consumer concerns about the well-being of the planet play a role in evaluating green cabinets. Neil Kelly Cabinets offers, as an option, wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), arguably the strictest of the certification programs. Hansen Living uses only FSC-certified wood.

Other sustainable materials include fast-growing bamboo, wheat board, and wood-fiber products that contain no added formaldehyde and are laminated with FSC veneers.

Also important is the cabinet’s durability. A cabinet that will wear out or be torn out in 10 or 15 years cannot be considered green unless the quality is such that the cabinet could be reused in another location.

Another consideration is how far the cabinet must travel from manufacturer to end user. For some consumers, cabinets that are green in every way lose sustainability points if they must be shipped long distances.

For Neil Kelly Cabinets, shipping from the West Coast to the Midwest or the East Coast is in opposition to the common definition of sustainability, and the company is exploring ways to license its process to cabinet shops in other parts of the country.

“In every product, there are shades of green,” Serra concludes. “Does it have to be all or nothing?”

Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelancer who writes about remodeling. www.kathyprice.com.