Buyer Beware

As much as the hue and cry about over-regulation of American industry has been justified, a compelling argument can be made that there are some industries that might benefit from not less but more regulation. A classic example? The furniture industry.

Somehow, in this age of consumer protection, when almost every product must undergo the most draconian scrutiny, months and years of testing and certification, the furniture industry has been able to sneak in under the bureaucratic radar.

Not entirely, of course. Like other businesses, this $100 billion-a-year business is subject to the Federal Trade Commission Act, which presumably means that when you buy a bed or sofa, you can rely on certain things — such as production standards, safety requirements, truth in advertising, truth in labeling … you know, truth.

Well, the truth is that the FTC guidelines on furniture are so broad you could drive a moving van through them. The FTC forbids “unfair or deceptive acts,” but lacking more specific rules and regulations, lots of unfair and deceptive acts are being perpetrated on American consumers all the time. Such specificity did exist; but in 2002, the FTC rescinded its specific guidelines for the household furniture industry. The result has been enough to make people lose their faith in Naugahyde.

As Jennifer Litwin, an expert in the field, said recently: “In my 20 years working in the furniture industry, I have seen standards relaxed as a result of the FTC changes. This has hurt consumers shopping in both the low-end and high-end markets.”

For example, it seems that it is perfectly legal to call something “oak,” even if it is only stained oak or clad in oak veneer. The same goes for maple, cherry, or any other wood of distinction. The average consumer might never know or even suspect that the inside was composed of anything other than that fine, sturdy and expensive hardwood.

But if you’re professionally suspicious, like consumer advocate Elisabeth Leamy, you might discover the unvarnished truth. She had a handy fellow wielding a chainsaw slice her “dark cherry” table in two in order to see for herself. It turned out to be nothing but particle board and plywood. Similar internal inspection of a nightstand labeled “horizon maple” and a desk supposedly made from “brown cherry” yielded the same horrifying results.

Needless to say, this sort of swindle goes on all the time. Nor is it limited to wood products.

Beware of “bonded leather.” Here, though, it might be partly the purchaser’s fault for not asking the obvious question: “What’s bonded leather?” The correct answer to the question (if given) is: “It’s not leather, at all. It’s just a thin plastic covering, a fabric middle and ground up leather particles on the back.” This chicanery is possible because the FTC leather labeling guideline, which requires disclosure of the amount of ground leather in bonded leather, doesn’t specifically apply to furniture, according to Leamy.

Foam is another fraudster favorite. In recent years, polyurethane foam has fallen into disfavor because of its unprogressive derivation from petroleum. Hence, the politically correct “soy foam.” The name conjures up visions of eco-conscious farmers serenely harvesting fields of soy to be made into the finest 100-percent-natural foam for your sofa or pillow. It’s a sweet dream. More likely, you’re resting your head on a hybrid, containing much more polyurethane than soy.

Stricter guidelines are clearly called for. But “more regulation” is really a misnomer. It may not be necessary to do more than reinstate the former FTC rules. As in the case of wood, the former FTC guideline prohibited manufacturers from using wood names on their labels unless the piece was made of “solid wood of the type named.” Similar requirements for a solid statement on the label attesting to the content of the product would improve the situation significantly.

So, actually, it’s not more regulation that’s needed; it’s only a matter of going back to what was. Nor would it take a whole new bureaucracy to revise the official guidelines to bring back the good old days when “wood” meant solid wood and not plywood or particle board.

In the meantime, for the reasons spelled out above, don’t rely too much on labels. Ask questions, do some research. It only takes a few minutes to check for additional information in brochures or on websites. To feel like an expert (or at least not like a foolish amateur), run a hand on the wood surface: If it’s smooth, sans grain, it’s probably plastic laminate.

As for leather, know that “genuine leather,” “bonded leather,” “bicast leather” and “PU leather” (translation: polyurethane leather) are not the real thing. “Full grain” or “top grain” is more likely to be actual leather, though it’s no guarantee either.

Incidentally, Naugahyde was not, as the ad campaign once claimed, named after a creature called the nauga, which, unlike other animals, didn’t have to be slaughtered for its hide, but could shed its skin without harm to itself. The truth is, Naugahyde, a rubber-based artificial leather, was invented at the U.S. Rubber plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut.

Caveat emptor.