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John Lewis's sofas have been flammable for nearly 30 years and they know it

(29 Posts)
jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 12:18:33

Recently I put questions to John Lewis, along the lines of:

1) You add a fibre layer between the cover fabric and filling materials of your sofas. This negates the effect of the legal test which contains no such layer, with the result that your sofas are flammable when they shouldn't be. What are you doing to protect consumers?

2) You use a lot of materials in your sofas that don't need to pass the test but which are highly flammable, like hessian. What are you doing about this to protect consumers?

They didn't reply the first two times; then delayed by passing my third request around. Finally, they came back with the response you can see at the bottom of this post. My response is above it.

Dear Connor,

I know your products meet the requirements of the Furniture Regs. That's not what I asked you. What I asked you, in effect, was what are you doing about the fact that because the current Furniture Regs are inadequate you are selling the public unsafe products.

You clearly know what goes into your sofas. You are well aware that you use a lot of hessian and that it's highly flammable. You also use a fibre wrap layer between the cover fabric and filling materials of some of your models.

You are also aware that the government published a consultation document in August 2014 which exposed the fact that a fibre wrap layer means the cover fabric in the finished product is ignitable when it shouldn't be. The same document also pointed out that many of the materials used in sofas - like hessian - are highly flammable and it proposed a new test that would put right both the fibre wrap and other flammable materials issues.

So, when you say you are unable to assist further with this query, you really mean you are unwilling to, presumably for fear of admitting the truth and that that will get exposed.

I find it appalling that a company which trades on its consumer care policies is continuing to knowingly sell unsafe products that will almost certainly have caused deaths and injuries from unnecessary house fires.

From the cowardly evasiveness of your reply, I will assume you have done absolutely nothing to persuade the government to bring in these changes to the Furniture Regulations. And have also done absolutely nothing to reduce the flammability of your sofas.

How incredibly dishonest of you to not answer these questions.

I'll take this to the press.


- Original Message -
To: jenny.morientes@xxxxxxxx
Sent: Saturday, June 25, 2016 11:30 AM
Subject: Your enquiry, CASE-03952322

Dear Ms Morientes,

After passing on your comments to our buying office they have responded with the following statement.

' All John Lewis upholstered products meet the appropriate flammability tests and comply with UK Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations.'

I am unable to assist you any further with this query.

Many Thanks,

Connor Crawford

LIZS Sat 25-Jun-16 12:23:56

Not sure what your point is. They comply to regulations. I doubt that any other sofa manufacturers do any different as many come from the same factories.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 12:35:51

My point is that the regulations don't work and John Lewis know that. Because of the way furniture is made, the flame-resistant effects of what passes in the test don't work in practice. John Lewis has known this since August 2014 but has done nothing about it. Yes, other sofa companies are guilty of the same thing. I chose John Lewis because they sell themselves as a company that cares more for consumers.

What I didn't mention in my letter to them is the fact that they (and other companies) use a lot of flame retardant chemicals in order to pass the test in question. Since August 2014 (at least) they have known that theses chemicals fail to make sofas flame-resistant in practice. Which means two things:
1) Chemicals are getting into house dust and giving us cancers and other illnesses yet aren't actually doing what they're supposed to do, and
2) Because fabrics are ignitable, when they catch fire toxic fumes from the chemicals are very quickly released into the home, and they are deadly.

HarrietSchulenberg Sat 25-Jun-16 12:49:14

If you're that certain that their sofas don't meet safety regs, wheel your settee into the back garden, leave something smouldering on and film it igniting and burning. Then use that to support your argument.
Otherwise it's pure theory.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 13:01:19

I didn't say their sofas don't meet the safety regs. They do. What I said is that it is widely known in the industry that the safety regs do not work or are inadequate. There are two main reasons why:

1) Many companies add a fibre layer between the cover fabric and the filling. This is not present in the test situation. What it means is that air is introduced in the final product and so when the cover catches fire burning continues when it should extinguish.

2) Many companies add all sorts of materials to their sofas which are highly flammable but not covered by the current test.

None of this is theory. It has all been proved by the government's own research and scientific reasoning. The proof is available online. This proof has not been disupted by anyone in the industry. The government came up with a new test that put these problems right in August 2014. It is being blocked, however, by a combination of the very powerful chemical industry, risk-averse civil servants and retailers who do not want it to become public that they have been selling unsafe products for many years.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 13:05:19

Actually, there is a third reason many sofas fail the safety regs in practice - also exposed by the government's own research. This is the wide scale practice of undertreating. Ironically perhaps, many sofas are not treated with as much flame retardant chemicals as they should be. One of the dodges employed here is that the fabric supplier sends a compliant roll to the test lab to get a pass but supplies undertreated fabric to the manufacturer who receives a lower price as a result. And of course manufacturers know why they are getting it cheaper.

Palomb Sat 25-Jun-16 13:06:29

Thankfully JL are not the only sofa retailer in the world.


HarrietSchulenberg Sat 25-Jun-16 13:09:40

Well, you seem very convinced so you now just need to prove it.
It would be a very good idea to keep a fire extinguisher on standby while you do it.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 13:11:43

True. However, the kinds of fabric JL tends to use - mid-range quality, mixture of natural and man-made - are far more flammable under this problem. Again, they're not the only ones to supply mixed fibre fabrics. If you want to avoid chemicals in your cover fabrics go for a sofa that uses cellulosic fibres - it will contain an fire-resistant interliner layer instead. Unfortunately, this also contains chemicals but at least they're not quite so close to your skin and some believe they're not quite as bad as the ones used in cover fabrics. They should also be fire-safe. Ask for a sofa which contains a Schedule 3 interliner. Or buy leather which doesn't need to be treated with chemicals to pass the cover test.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 13:15:39

"Well, you seem very convinced so you now just need to prove it.
It would be a very good idea to keep a fire extinguisher on standby while you do it."

I thought I'd said that it isn't me who proved it; it was the government in its published research. It's more for you to not prove it, if you're that interested. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to find out where you can buy a sofa that is both fire safe and not full of flame retardants that are doing very little except damaging our health and the environment.

And if you need more proof, check out what happened in the US. A good place to start is here:

As a result of the campaign by the Tribune, US firefighters (who noticed they were getting more cancers than normal), the Green Science Policy Institute and others, US furniture should be flame retardant-free in future. Here, however, civil servants are sitting on the solution.

ItsAllGoingToBeFine Sat 25-Jun-16 13:23:03

Surely you should be petitioning the UK/ EU government to change the regulations then - JL are not doing anything illegal.

anotherdayanothersquabble Sat 25-Jun-16 14:09:26

Interesting subject. Flame retardant chemicals may well be highly toxic and are no longer required in California by law so perhaps the risks aasociated with the chemicals are greater than the risks aasociated with fire.

I would love to find a low chemical sofa that was also relatively low risk from going up in flames quickly. I need to look into this and am intrigued about the trade off...

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 14:17:07

As said, the UK government came up with the solution, working with the country's experts in furniture testing. In August 2014 they published the proposed new test which would fix all the problems. The responses to the consultation were mostly positive. However, the chemical industry and its friends orchestrated pressure on the key civil servants. They 'compromised' by saying that the new test needed more work. However, two years on and no further work has been done at all; because it doesn't need it. The situation is very bad. For example, Trading Standards were hugely supportive of the new test. When it didn't come in they informed the government that they could no longer prosecute - because the legal test doesn't work in practice, i.e. they didn't think they could prove to a court that a manufacturer was producing unsafe products - because the law doesn't allow for the way actual finished products are constructed. Because of this, a lot of illegal, highly flammable sofas are getting into the UK due to suppliers knowing they won't get busted.

The problem for the civil servants is that they dare not now do the right thing and introduce the new test, because that will expose the fact they've done nothing for two years - and people have died in the meantime (because sofas are flammable when they're not supposed to be).

Again, JL may not be doing anything illegal but they are fully aware they are selling dangerous products and are doing nothing to get the government to put the situation right - or informing their customers of the danger.

In fact, they may be acting illegally as it happens. Because they are changing the structure of their product after its been tested.

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 14:21:48

"Interesting subject. Flame retardant chemicals may well be highly toxic and are no longer required in California by law so perhaps the risks aasociated with the chemicals are greater than the risks aasociated with fire.

I would love to find a low chemical sofa that was also relatively low risk from going up in flames quickly. I need to look into this and am intrigued about the trade off..."

I believe the risks from chemicals are indeed often greater than from fire. Flame retardant producers have for decades pushed the line that their products create more escape time from fires. However, recent research (and there has not been any before really) seems to contradict this: shows that the escape time of 12 mins or so often claimed is in fact just seconds. Also, the FR producers ignore the fact that if you're asleep in a room above a room with a sofa that ignites, the toxic fumes released by the FRs will kill you before the flames will.

The only mattresses/sofas that I know of which are both FR-free and legal are produced by Cambridge Natural Mattress. I believe they are soon to produce a sofa; for now they make sofa beds. I do not work for them but can vouch for their integrity.

poocatcherchampion Sat 25-Jun-16 14:36:32

Its a mildly interesting point but I think your approach is all wrong.

You want to work with JL to encourage them to be market leaders in improving their product, by engaging with their leaders.

Sending veiled threats to customer services makes you sound bonkers. Connor is hmm at you

Palomb Sat 25-Jun-16 14:47:51

Are you a disgruntled ex JL sofa factory worker?

jennymor123 Sat 25-Jun-16 15:20:12

"Its a interesting point but I think your approach is all wrong.

You want to work with JL to encourage them to be market leaders in improving their product, by engaging with their leaders.

Sending veiled threats to customer services makes you sound bonkers. Connor is at you"

Actually, JL's leaders were worked with on this issue. They adopted a head in sand approach. Part of the problem is that no retailer wants to be the first to put their head above the parapet; don't want to be the VW. They were approached by concerned environmentalists and gave them the brush-off (while not actually denying there is a problem).

It's not a veiled threat. It's a threat.

"Are you a disgruntled ex JL sofa factory worker?"

No. I had a lot to do with the new test. But even if I was a disgruntled ex-JL worker, I don't see that changes the nature of the problem.

As said, this affects the vast majority of furniture suppliers. Some have been more ostrich than others.

specialsubject Mon 27-Jun-16 13:43:39

Go buy second hand , all the toxic gases will have long gone. Problem solved.

jennymor123 Mon 27-Jun-16 15:13:50

Actually, that's not necessarily true, unfortunately. There are two main problems: 1) most cover fabrics are coated on the underside with a chemical paste containing flame retardants. If this is poorly applied, the FRs will rub off quickly and get into house dust pretty soon after buying. If it's applied better, then the FRs will gradually wear off with increasing effect as the fabric wears over time. 2) There are also flame retardants in the filling material which are protected to an extent by the cover; therefore, they will wear into your house dust gradually but increasingly with age. In other words, a second hand sofa could be just as toxic as a new one.

Better to avoid FRs if you can in the first place. One way is to buy over the internet from a non-UK country. This is perfectly legal although you wouldn't be able to later sell it on or give it away in the UK (because you then become a supplier, not a consumer).

anotherdayanothersquabble Mon 27-Jun-16 15:19:22


anotherdayanothersquabble Mon 27-Jun-16 15:24:39

Some good discussion on here Ethical Living Thread from a few years ago

peggyundercrackers Mon 27-Jun-16 15:28:50

I have no idea why you have mentioned JL by name and not other retailers? surely JL do what every other sofa retailer in the country does?

jennymor123 Mon 27-Jun-16 15:33:09

I wrote to Ecosofa recently to ask them how they manage to pass the flammability tests without using FRs. After much faffing around they told me that they use interliners (which is permissable with cover fabrics that are 75% or more cellulosic, e.g. cotton) and that they use no FRs in their sofas. I said that almost all interliners contain FRs. They then sent me a certificate from a test house that they claimed proved their interliners don't contain FRs. However, the certificate shows that the test house pre-washed the interliner which is only required if it contains FRs! I wrote back to point out that their certificate actually proves my point, not theirs, at which juncture they threatened me with libel!

jennymor123 Mon 27-Jun-16 15:35:37

Why shouldn't I mention JL by name? Yes, other suppliers are doing the same thing. However, JL have done more than most to prevent this new test coming in. You can see the evidence for that online, where the government published the responses to the consultation on the new test. JL came up with numerous objections, not one of which had any validity. They were trying to avoid doing the right thing, essentially.

jennymor123 Mon 27-Jun-16 15:45:36

I have some sympathy with retailers. It's possible they did not really know that the current small flame test for cover fabrics doesn't work in most cases, not until the government published the findings of its researches in August 2014. Also, they had been set up prior to the government consultation by the chemical industry who don't want the new test to come in (because they will lose millions). They sold a TV programme to the BBC 'Fake Britain' series a few months before the consultation which involved testing a lot of big retailers' mattresses and sofas to find they failed the tests (although there were lots of errors with they way they went about it).

This made retailers very nervous, understandably, at a) supporting a change to safety measures which would save them money (via less FRs), and b) reluctant to admit in public that for years (even if unknowningly) they have been supplying unsafe products.

The chemical industry is very big business and very powerful, and knows who to buy and when.

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