Research by the American Home Furnishings Alliance out of High Point, NC, reveals three interesting points about consumers purchasing furniture: (1) they are quick to show interest when the subject of sustainability is raised, (2) buying from local manufacturers and smaller enterprises is appealing, and (3) there is a perception that furnishings made in the U.S. are more durable.
CHANGING FURNITURE SCENE
The green movement has emerged as the most compelling story in furniture over the last few years, according to Jeff Hiller, owner of PROaction Marketing Group in Austin, Texas, and founding board member and marketing chair for the Sustainable Furniture Council in Chapel Hill, NC. The green idea, he says, is driving the industry to manufacture, bring to market, and sell products in a manner that minimizes negative environmental effects, is socially responsible in the treatment of workers, and allows the business to make a fair profit while supporting local communities.
A non-profit coalition of home furnishings manufacturers, importers, retailers, designers and major nongovernmental organizations, the SFC is spearheading the commitment to promoting sustainable practices. With nearly 250 members, the SFC was founded in October 2006 and published the first comprehensive set of industry sustainability standards based on the LEED model in commercial building. Its mission is education—to increase awareness, assist development and bring to market products that meet the consumer mandate for style, value and eco-responsibility.
While there is no standard definition yet for a “green” product, certain attributes arise, which include independent third-party verification; use of renewable, reclaimed, recycled, or sustainably harvested materials; little or no use of chemicals; local sourcing; and socially and environmentally responsible manufacturing processes.
The marketplace has been imaginative and responsive. Here are a few examples.
Health-driven concerns. A customer’s need for a healthy home environment gave one Boston area company a new direction. Barry Shapiro, the fourth generation in the Brighton Upholstering and Brighton Mattress Company, said the company got a request for a custom sofa from a woman with a compromised immune system who could not tolerate ordinary furniture.
After three years of research, the company developed a sofa using only chemical-free components. The satisfied customer spread the word among those with chemical sensitivities and requests poured in. What had been one project led to orders from around the world. Shapiro launched a new company, Furnature, in Watertown, MA, to develop the special products. The company makes furniture using certified organic fabrics, cotton canvas and wool, and water-based glues and stains without volatile organic compounds.
With proprietary information restrictions, he adds, “consumers often don’t know what they are getting,” Shapiro says. “We hear all the time about indoor air quality, sick building syndrome. These people are the canaries of our generation; their immune systems can’t tolerate these things. It’s all about health for people first and that ties in with health for the planet,” says Shapiro.
Stylish and sustainable. Knú LLC in Zeeland, MI, mixes the commercial office and healthcare furniture expertise of its parent company, Industrial Woodworking Corporation, with the creativity of its CEO and designer Brad Davis to create stylish furniture designs for the residential market.
Knú sells online (no printed catalogs) and through showrooms in Savannah, Boulder and Brooklyn. Director of Marketing Jerome Alicki notes that Knú uses FSC-certified wood whenever possible, which has been 100 percent so far. Knú uses a low-VOC varnish, furniture legs are of recycled-content steel and lead-free dyes that give bright colors to its children’s furniture. Wood components are produced from FSC-certified, multi-ply Baltic birch. Lamination uses a polyvinyl acetate adhesive that contains no volatile organic compounds. Alicki says Knú is dedicated to working with local suppliers who have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable, low-impact raw materials and 90 percent are within a 50-mile radius.
Its eco-friendly aspects go beyond the furniture. Knú and Industrial Woodworking Corp. teamed up with the Carbonfund.org to offset carbon-emitting forms of energy. For example, All electricity, natural gas, air travel, and vehicle use is offset using Green-e certified alternative energy credits and through its support of Carbonfund.org’s CarbonFree’ program.
Recycled and outdoor-ready. Impressed with the durability of components used in their previous business—creating skateboard parks for municipalities—one group of entrepreneurs started an outdoor furniture business. Loll Designs of Duluth, MN, uses the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) from recycled plastic milk jugs to create outdoor furniture and the paper-based composite Richlite (certified by the Greenguard Environmental Institute) for its tabletops.
CEO Greg Benson says the company creates the designs, cuts the shapes out of 5/8-inch-thick and one-inch-thick HDPE sheets obtained from a Georgia plastic recycling plant, and assembles them by hand.
Benson says the business is growing quickly with demand this year exceeding projections. People like the designs, he says. “I don’t know if they would buy it if it was just ‘green.’ ” Eco-friendliness also carries through the business. The company refurbished an existing plant on a former brownfield site, a property that had the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. It is also a member of 1% For The Planet a group of more than 1,300 companies that donates one percent of their gross sales to a network of more than 2,300 environmental organizations worldwide.
KNOW THE BASICS
Here are some important terms relating to green furniture:
Wood. Forest Stewardship Council certification has become the standard. Among other requirements, it prohibits the use of highly hazardous pesticides around the world, prohibits the cultivation of genetically modified trees, and respects the right of indigenous peoples. Pressed-wood products bonded with formaldehyde-based adhesives can pollute indoor air. Furniture with alternative adhesives is available.
Reclaimed wood. Wood byproducts gathered from manufacturing plants, trees cut from urban areas, trees removed as unproductive from orchards, or wood recovered from landfills can become furniture.
Renewables. Several alternatives to traditional lumber trees, such as bamboo, regenerate quickly and are versatile.
Recycled. Diverting materials from growing U.S. landfills offers a great option. Aluminum, glass, and plastics are among some of the many choices.
Upholstered. Consider products using minimally treated or organic wool, cotton or hemp fabrics, the use of recycled wire and metals in springs, and recycled textiles in batting or bio-based hybrid foams.
Used. Our throwaway society dumps some useful stuff. Check out local antique or secondhand furniture options. Consider reupholstering your existing furniture with eco-friendly materials.
“‘Sustainable’ and ‘green’ are great buzzwords, but they are also catch-all terms that do not sufficiently discriminate,” says Jeff E. Hiller, marketing chair for the Sustainable Furniture Council.
The practice of making environmentally oriented claims that mislead consumers has become such a problem it has a name: greenwashing. Hiller says “a recent study of over 1,000 products across a wide variety of categories found that 99 percent were guilty of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims.
So, what can a consumer do? Hiller suggests asking questions. For example, ask where the furniture is made. Local sourcing is best. The farther away your furniture is made, the less you know about its background and the more transportation is required (the second largest cause of emissions). Ask for local products and insist on FSC-certification or chains of custody from hot spots like Indonesia and the Philippines.
You may want to know what wood is in the furniture and if it is certified. Around the world, FSC-certified represents the most rigorous standards with on-site verification. If the wood is not certfied, ask for fast-growing and/or commercially harvested species such as bamboo and mango.
Learn what finish is on the wood. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are toxic pollutants in most finishes such as varnish, lacquer, and shellac. Ask for water-based finishes or natural waxes that have up to 85 percent less VOCs.
Ask whether the manufacturer has an energy reduction plan. Burning fossil fuels produces the most carbon dioxide (CO2), and generating electricity is the number one use.
Be prepared to hear “I don’t know” and “Let me check,” but keep asking.