The Government has introduced a voluntary policy which it hopes will urge furniture manufacturers and retailers to find ways to make safer products.
Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi today announced a Product Safety Policy Statement (PSPS) had been enacted (but not into legislation) to reduce safety hazards around foam-filled furniture and the dangerous amount of smoke foam emits in fires.
The PSPS will essentially be a labelling system to help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing a product, similar to energy efficiency labelling found on appliances.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has consulted the furniture industry and will monitor uptake of the PSPS over the next two years.
Faafoi said the PSPS was Government's first step to improve the quality of furniture sold on the market - it hopes the policy will foster change within the industry, otherwise it would look to implement a "regulatory regime".
About 80 per cent of household furniture in New Zealand is foam-filled, including lounge suites and sofas, and mattresses and chairs, which are highly flammable.
Foam components in furniture catch fire at relatively low temperatures, it also burns quickly and intensely and emits poisonous smoke that can quickly spread throughout a home.
Foam-filled furniture is a significant domestic fire risk, Faafoi said.
"My hope is that manufacturers start adopting safer foam materials, retailers use better labelling and sell safer furniture products and importers bring in safer products," he said.
"Currently there is no requirement to inform consumers about the potential fire danger of foam-filled furniture products, or impetus for manufacturers to move to safer foam products. This gives a chance for industry to lead and deliver on this initiative without the need for regulation.
"If they don't act, we will consider enacting a regulatory regime."
The PSPS is supported by Fire and Emergency NZ insight and international research, which has identified foam-filled furniture plays a significant role in the speed and severity of domestic fires.
An average three-piece sofa suite has the combustible potential of 10 litres of fuel and is a high risk for harm or death through burns and inhalation of toxic gases.
Coroners' reports show more people die from smoke inhalation than of burns from flames. There were 177 deaths during residential fires between 2006–2016, and between 2012-2017 there were 1227 fire-related injuries.
First Retail Group managing director Chris Wilkinson said the PSPS should be implemented in the form of a star-rating system, similar to the energy efficiency labelling seen on appliances.
"Energy efficiency labelling you see on appliances, that has helped create awareness and interpretation by consumers and would have similar value in highlighting risks and benefits in the furniture category," Wilkinson said.
But he believes the PSPS would be unlikely to be adopted broadly.
"This is a fragmented sector with many of the retailers bringing their own products in directly and some with their own factories offshore. There are more supply sources and retailers in this space than the appliance marketplace, so we believe this would unlikely be adopted broadly unless there was a Government mandate."
Greg Harford, general manager of public affairs at Retail NZ, said not committing to a mandatory standard would send mixed messages to the sector.
"There should be a level playing field for everyone in the retail space. The downside of the policy statement approach is some people will comply and some people may not, and that potentially creates a price advantage," Harford said.
A result of this policy, though only voluntary at this stage, could increase the price of furniture increases at some retailers, he said.
"People will need to go out and talk to suppliers, it will mean that they may need to introduce new labelling that is not currently there, look at alternative products - all of that has a real cost, and it will ultimately flow through to consumers," Harford said.
"It becomes increasingly difficult for retailers to comply with rules when the rules aren't clear, and the issue with the policy statement approach is that the Government is saying what it thinks should happen in an ideal world but it's not actually saying these are the rules."
Retail NZ made a submission on the proposal stating there needed to be a cost benefit analysis to support regulation.
"We are concerned at what appears to be an increasing move by Government to say 'there might be an issue here but we don't think it's serious enough to warrant regulation' ... if there is a significant safety issue then the Government should be able to justify regulation and therefore the cost."
Unsafe foam components are found in all sorts of furniture, not only in cheaper furniture.