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Sustainability Update: G-R-0-W-I-N-G Greener

Furniture World Magazine
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Article Summary: For these retailers, sustainable retailing is more than a marketing slogan. It is an ongoing process of self improvement.

View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone


For these retailers, sustainable retailing is more than a marketing slogan. It is an ongoing process of self improvement.

Furniture Trends by Janet Holt-Johnstone

In spite of our economic thrills and spills, calamitous happenings in the housing sector, political triumphs and tragedies and even that new spectre called “greenwashing”, the drive to create a better, more sustainable planet continues to grow. But it takes pretty powerful (organic, of course!) fertilizers and weed killers these days!

ROOM AND BOARD's Aggressive Initiatives

It’s a matter of deciding one’s level of commitment. Last year, Steve Freeman, Room And Board, and Standards Co-Chair of the Sustainable Furniture Council, told us that at the San Francisco store, “We have solar power and we’ve actually sold power to the grid!” This year, his customers can’t help but see Room And Board is, “Using more and more CFLs (compact fluorescents) for display lighting.” The purpose, to encourage consumers to utilize CFLs in their own homes. The Room And Board family of stores is located in California, Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota and New York.

He’s made great strides at his Distribution Centre, too. “We now recycle more than 99 per cent of all packaging. Our manufacturers have worked with us to make sure they get the product to us safely, but the packaging used can be recycled. Not only are we saving money and actually creating a small amount of income, but also we’ve reduced what was sent to landfills by over 50 per cent.

“We’ve installed many motion detector switches on lighting in our offices so lights go off and turn on only as needed. To reduce fuel consumption, we have incorporated new routing software in our trucks. We’re encouraging everyone to use car pools, bikes and scooters to get to work. We have lunch clubs at work so people think about bringing their lunch and not driving to a store or restaurant at lunchtime to eat.

“Every meeting with vendors includes a conversation on sustainability. Hopefully, they always leave knowing there is still more to do. We’ve seen all of our vendors inspired and making changes in their businesses. This is a primary Company Priority and gets discussed at every quarterly review. It has been a Company Priority for many years now. Each (store) location has a copy of “An Inconvenient Truth”; the staff has viewed the film, and had numerous discussions about what we can all do to help.

“The SFC has highlighted some manufacturers and their processes and products as suppliers of sustainable product lines. We still rely on our group of manufacturers and just educate and work with them on making product greener but, most importantly, with higher quality and timeless design so the product will last and not need replacing.

“We also source the vast majority of our products locally and from U.S. manufacturers. This year over 80 per cent of all furniture sold will have been produced in the U.S. from U.S. materials. These energy savings alone will greatly reduce our impact on CO2 emissions, and our use of fossil fuels.

“There has definitely been an upsurge in consumer interest, but I’d say more from a health aspect than from the green aspect. In other words, they want to be sure the product will be healthy for them and their family in their homes. They ask about chemicals, formaldehyde and other details about the materials and finishes.”

When consumers make the decision to subscribe to monthly and special emails from Room And Board’s website (www.roomandboard.com), they are asked if they choose to submit a personal profile. What a great way to add to a definitive knowledge of your store’s demographic! “The Internet is a huge resource for our customers to access information and details on our products. Our customers use the Internet to educate themselves about us and our products, as well as purchase products from us.” There’s plenty of well-presented and interesting educational material about bamboo, wood and joinery, as well as design.

Steve’s popular catalogue is produced only once each year, another energy saving, “printed on 30 per cent recycled paper with vegetable based ink. It’s mailed to customers right after the Christmas holiday season and is good until the end of the following year, no price changes.”

New Green Research From The SFC

Said Jeffrey Hiller, one of the founding Board members and Marketing Chairman of the Sustainable Furniture Council, “We’re encouraged to find that about half of the consumers describe themselves as very interested in global warming, and started doing what they can, which usually means buying green products... cleaning supplies, compact fluorescent light bulbs, paper and plastic products. They have purchased little to no green home furnishings, largely due to their perception that they do not yet exist.

However, when asked if they would be interested in buying these types of products if they were available, if they liked the style and if they cost about the same as other options (up to 10 per cent more), trial interest was 30 per cent, a very healthy number. This suggests that it is up to manufacturers and retailers to catch up by bringing more acceptable choices to market.”

SFC has just changed its name from Sustainable Furniture Council to Sustainable Furnishings Council, “better to reflect the diversity of its growing membership,” said Susan Inglis, Executive Director, and principal of From The Mountain. “The non-profit coalition of suppliers, manufacturers, importers, retailers and designers is now approaching 300 members, representing every facet of the home furnishings industry.” The SFC wants to make it clear they are capable of servicing the needs of such a diverse group. The results of their broad-based consumer study of awareness, attitudes and interests re green issues reveal that even though “The economy is not in the best shape at the moment”, there is a market for green home furnishings that will continue to grow over time. (Contact Susan at susan@sfcgreen.org if you would like to buy a copy of the study.) She is “excited about all we have in the works!”

And SFC President Gerry Cooklin, South Cone, adds, “True sustainability is a long way away from where the general consumer is today. It will take a long while to gradually guide the regular consumer (as opposed to the early adopters that have already jumped on the wave) to more sustainable consumption. I always use the analogy of the transatlantic liner and how it takes a long while for it to turn. But the turning has definitively already started. The SFC has already catalyzed the beginning of the turn of our industry, a huge step for us and we are proud of this. Now we are getting more and more attention from industry participants, we have an important and large job on our hands, but we have a team of passionate and diverse leaders who are very excited to take on the challenge. There is much work to be done fast, and we are very hopeful that the resources needed to execute our work will be provided along our journey.”

It would certainly seem that the 28 exhibitors of the Living Green Pavilion at the Las Vegas Market are off and running! Andrew Maiden, World Market Center, told us, “We had great participation, the largest residential eco-friendly pavilion in the country. And high quality traffic including many of the top 100. The participants reported strong sales, including notable success for Las Vegas first-time exhibitors like Harden Furniture and Eco Exotic.”

ABC Carpet & Home’s Solar Power Initiative

The extraordinary activities at Paulette Cole’s ABC Carpet and Home continue. Now their environmentally responsible packaging system uses starch based popcorn for small shipments. “It dissolves in water, and can be disposed of in the sink. We also recycle bubble wrap and use it only when necessary.” And furniture blankets are used rather than disposable packaging for furniture pieces in transit. ABC’s website asks consumers for “any suggestions you might have for environmentally responsible packaging”, a super touchy-feely way to remain in synch with customers on a vital issue.

Now, collaborating with Real Goods, ABC offers help to “solarize your home or office using clean, safe, reliable and cost-effective power from the sun”.

This Manhattan, New York and New Jersey legend in carpets and home furnishings has a “commitment to help its customers enhance how their homes reflect their values.” The creation of ABC Solar, operating as ABC Real Goods Solar, “brings full service solar system installation to consumers in both New York and New Jersey.” They hope, in a few months, to also “support the solar aspirations of our Connecticut customers”. ABC’s website describes how the consumer can take advantage of the States’ rebate programs saving up to 65 per cent of the cost. If you are intrigued, go to their website, www.abcrealgoodssolar.com. Retailers with vision!

ABC also launched, in honour of Earth Day, the “goodwood plant a tree” project. With each “goodwood” furniture sale within their store, ABC will plant a tree with The Green Belt Movement’s Carbon Poverty Reduction Program. The hope is to “measurably reduce global warming by planting five billion trees in the next 50 years”.

And you must read John Grant’s “The Green Marketing Manifesto”, hot off the press! A dedicated and knowledgeable environmentalist and marketer, Grant believes that green marketing is the next economic and social revolution after the Internet. Further, “Green marketing requires you to act with integrity. You must be absolutely sure that your business can and will live up to any standards you set for yourself because others will be watching you. Sustainability is complex. It’s also a moving target,” he stresses. “If you want to become a green marketer, you must be constantly up-to-date on the twists and turns in evaluating green claims.” His advice covers every market segment including, of course, home furnishings.

All this sounds a bit daunting. But he argues we should “go for it”, and provides nine “pathways” in his book to help us “get there”. Worth the $34.95!

Green Tips From Body Shop

Body Shop has been around for a long time and they’re now up-dating their image. Their plan involves, “outdoing the competition and being that much more green and ethical.” Marina Strauss for The Globe & Mail says, “That’s not a big change for a company whose blood runs green!” This cosmetics and toiletries icon offers tips to us all:

  • Don’t exaggerate your green attributes. Make sure you can back up any claims you make.
  • Be specific about what you do that is green. Being generic holds no credibility. Don’t just paint your packaging green. Everyone’s doing that!
  • Don’t oversimplify the issues. Provide context for consumers.
  • Make sure the environmentally correct product is priced well. Most people aren’t yet ready to pay a big premium for their eco-views.

“Greenwashing” is getting plenty of ink and airtime and the product range focused is astonishing, from household cleaners to, dare we say, home furnishings. But we’re dealing with it. Said Susan Inglis, “Certified sustainable products, from furnishings to food to buildings, continue to grow in brand value way faster than the average increase. Consumers are confused by many things about our movement, but they are also savvy to greenwashing and look (to us) for assurance. That’s why the SFC is of great value. It can clarify and educate.”

Certainly it’s gone international with spats popping up between furniture designers in New Zealand, a few scattered home furnishings retailers here closer to home, and golf course designers, believe it or not! And even revered wildlife organizations, food and biotechnology, personal care products, energy providers, car companies and, of course, the oil and gas industry, appear to be part of the greenwashing mix.

Steve Freeman has a healthy attitude. “I guess I am an eternal optimist and have lots of confidence in America’s ability to solve any problem. I just wish everyone would have been paying attention sooner, but it’s good that the issue has people’s attention now. We have ‘green teams’ in our business that encourage everything from riding a bike to work, to using reusable bags for shopping, CFL lighting, etc., etc. We have events that bring people together to talk about green initiatives and raise awareness and offer solutions and alternatives. If everyone takes a few small steps every month, we can make a huge difference in the world. Everyone brings good ideas of what they have done in their work and personal lives to share and inspire others.”

As does Jeffrey Hiller. “Every major product innovation across most categories face the same challenge, hybrid or high mpg cars, diet soft drinks, light beers, fluorescent bulbs... but in all cases, the concern proved to be invalid. Consumer behavior is a pretty deep-seated thing, and people are generally very understanding. They appreciate having the option, and applaud those who are at least trying to make a difference, just as they see themselves."

“Things they are a-changing.” And for the better! -JHJ


Starting A Green Program

  • Set goals and assign responsibility.
  • Hire or appoint a Director of Sustainable Practices. Giver her/him the job of working with operations managers, buyers, sales and marketing people in your organization to implement and oversee your new program.
  • Ask managers in each area of your business to take inventory of their current operations in light of sustainable business practices, so that you’ll be able to track your progress.
  • Increase the percentage in dollars of “sustainable” home furnishings products sold by your organization over the next five years.
  • Decrease your carbon footprint by a defined percentage each year for the next 10 years.
  • Develop a rating scale to evaluate and manage your suppliers on the basis of their degree of commitment to sustainability, healthy products and the humane treatment of workers.
  • And, friends, if you have additional ideas, please share them with us at
    editor@furninfo.com. We’ll post them to our message board string on the furninfo.com message board to be published in a future issue.

Sustainable Retailing Ideas

  • Use routing software and energy efficient/size appropriate trucks for delivery. Each gallon of diesel fuel burned puts about 26 pounds of CO2 into our atmosphere.
  • Suggest employees handle flextime tasks from home. Each gallon of gasoline consumed while commuting puts about 20 more pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • Install energy efficient lighting in offices and warehouses. A 60-watt incandescent bulb over 24 hours puts almost two pounds of CO2 into that crowded atmosphere.
  • Recycle packaging and buy products with recycled content.
    Teleconference more and cut down on air travel. It’s been estimated that air travel has about the same effect on global warming per passenger as driving a car the same distance.
  • Make a real effort to verify that your suppliers buy and use lumber products from sustainable sources.
  • Identify and provide customers with a choice of fabrics and cushioning materials that are not derived from petrochemicals.
  • Set up a rating system by vendor or collection that pegs the degree of “sustainability” or “environmental friendliness”.
  • Create marketing tools to tell your customers what your company stands for, and what kinds of sustainable choices you are offering that other retailers don’t!

Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.

View all articles by Janet Holt-Johnstone

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