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Are Your Customers Ready For Sustainable Furniture? Part 1

Furniture World Magazine


Part 1: Retailer Room and Board thinks so, and has adopted a sustainable business model that includes sourcing environmentally friendly products.

Editor’s Note: Sustainable furniture is manufactured using materials such as wood, cushioning, fabrics and finishing materials that can be renewed through natural processes over the long-term. It is designed, manufactured, sourced and marketed to not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs for continued access to consumer goods (of the type being sold in your store), a healthy environment (in the home and external to it), and a healthy world community.

In much the same way as medical doctors take the Hippocratic oath, the green or sustainable home furnishings marketer adopts the mantra, “Do no harm to people, plants, animals or minerals.”

Adopting a sustainable ethos is an incremental process and an act of optimism. That’s because in many ways our industry and our culture is at odds with living in a balanced and sustainable way.

To promote maximum conservation, we would need to encourage customers to repair, recycle and live with their shabby, uncomfortable and out of style furniture for as long as possible. Instead, we must do the opposite, encouraging them to redecorate, buy new furniture and accessorize to the max.

Even a simple rush chair, produced from natural materials by a craftsman in Asia or South America, consumes resources in an unsustainable way as it is sourced, marketed and transported along the supply chain to its final destination.
For concerned retailers, the challenge is to create efficiencies and promote sustainable practices wherever and whenever possible.

Not Easy Being Green
If you’ve started to look into implementing a “sustainable” retailing program, you’ve found that the process can be daunting. Such a program can impact every aspect of your company from staffing and purchasing paper clips, to sourcing sofas and buying energy.

Finding suppliers who produce sustainable furniture with the style and comfort your customers demand, at a price they can afford can be challenging. Trying to influence your existing supply chain partners to join in your sustainability effort, can be difficult as well.

Like the Jains of ancient India, you may want to take extreme measures to preserve life and cultivate environmental non-violence, but unlike them, you can’t just sit still, afraid to crush a blade of grass. Virtually every aspect of retailing can have a negative impact. You can, however, make an incremental difference within the framework of helping your customers to create a beautiful home.

Starting Your Green Program
As with most involved business projects, it is important to set goals and assign responsibility.

Think about hiring or appointing a Director of Sustainable Practices and charge him or her with the responsibility of working with operations managers, buyers, sales and marketing people in your organization to Implement and oversee your new program.

Require managers in each organizational area of your business to take inventory of their current operations in light of sustainable business practices. Without this information you won’t be able to track your organization’s progress. At this point, you will want to outline some broadly or narrowly defined goals such as:

•Increase the percentage in dollars of “sustainable” home furnishings products sold by your organization over the next five years.

•Decrease the carbon footprint (carbon dioxide emissions) of your company by a defined percentage each year for the next ten 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.

Later in this article you will find a list of techniques home furnishings retailers can use to work toward achieving their sustainable furniture retailing goals. If you have additional ideas, please email them to sustainable@furninfo.com. They will be posted to a message board string on the furninfo.com message board and published in a future issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine.

Room And Board's Program
Steve Freeman is passionate about the future and his vision is global. Vendor Resource Manager for Room and Board Stores, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he is a man in the right place at the right time.

Room and Board was founded in 1980 by John Gabbert. Steve joined the firm that same year. They have spread their wings from Minnesota to California, Illinois, New York and Colorado. “We’ve taken existing buildings and made them work for Room and Board. We’ve actually recycled the structures! Each store has a local flavour. We use wood and stone native to the area. They’re all a little different in size. All carry Room and Board product lines, and all have Design Centres. The Managers and Design Associates work with our merchandising team, but they flex in what and how they show the product. We train our own sales staff, although some do come to us with design backgrounds. They are paid on salary, not commission, and everyone has goals.

“We’re all inspired by John Gabbert. He comes in pretty much every day, and he’s very much involved. He has a lot to do with anything that’s done at Room and Board.”

Steve’s passion? The success and profitability of Room and Board is a given. Add on deep concern for the environment, sustainability and world ecology. “We’ve always been interested in affordable design, high quality furniture and natural, solid woods. We’ve grown up with our customers. Once we carried more housewares, but now you’ll find furniture, lighting, wall art and accessories in our stores. Part of my role is to find the manufacturers we use to build our furniture; we work with them on the designs.

“Eighty percent of the products we sell are made by North American manufacturers. We only use foreign suppliers when a product can’t be made in the U.S. We buy from companies in Denmark and Peru that use woods they harvest sustainably.

“Some products are made in China exclusively from Asian hardwoods, including bamboo, constructed with Chinese joining techniques. You’ll see some of this furniture on our website (www.roomandboard.com), bamboo dining tables and storage units. And the Mondo Collection, bedroom and dining room pieces in Chinese hardwood.”

Sustainability extends to the stores and to the distribution centres where lighting is “all florescent with sensors that turn off lights when aisles are not in use, part of our cost control programme. In the San Francisco store, we have solar power, and we’ve actually sold power back to the grid!”

Steve’s enthusiasm grew exponentially a year ago when he attended a conference of the Rain Forest Alliance, a non-profit international conservation organization. It was at this conference that the Sustainable Furniture Council was conceptualized. The brainchild of Gerry Cooklin, a Peruvian, and founder and CEO of South Cone Trading Company, the Council’s raison d’être, simply stated, is to serve as an advisory group of members of the home furnishings industry, and to raise awareness about sustainability.

The SFC became a legally chartered industry group in February 2007, at the Las Vegas Market, a gathering of kindred spirits, furniture manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and media members. The Council will focus initially on the promotion of eco-friendly business practices, and on the sourcing of wood that is either recycled, plantation-grown for commercial purposes or from managed reserves.

Steve is convinced that the market for sustainable furniture is growing. “There’s greater awareness, our customers know about it. Our Design Associates talk about it in the stores, the quality and the solid wood, sustainable attributes. We’re doing it because that’s what we think we should do, and that our customers will feel good about it. Some will make their buying decisions based on sustainable manufacturing, but they must like the design of the product, too, definitely a plus factor. It makes them feel better about their purchase, knowing the pieces are made of sustainable materials and are healthier for our environment.

“Our demographic is a bit hard to pin down, but we could say young professionals or semi-professionals up to older individuals, upper income, with an awareness of environmental issues because of who they are. The better-educated customer is more in tune with the news, the health of the world’s ecology, the health of people. They care about the workers in China and Peru. And Peru is a big advocate of sustainability.

“Some of our markets are in areas that are beautiful places to live and they want them to stay that way, they’re environmentally conscious areas. But the mass of the consumers in the United States, to whom the lower price is important, is not yet as interested.

“As people become more aware, they begin to be frustrated with things that affect us and our children and realize that things must change, we must start doing something different, whatever we can, each in our own way, the methods we all know about, recycling and turning thermostats down. Then we ask ourselves, what can we do beyond these things?

“One of the very positive things we’ve always done at Room and Board is sell a quality product in what we feel is classic design. It won’t go out of style and end up in a landfill! So the customer can keep it forever. In other words, it’s sustainable. Plus we use well managed solid wood, maple, cherry and walnut. We look at different types of fibreboard, more organic type products. When it makes sense, when the technologies are sufficiently developed, we use special finishes and, as they improve, we’ll move more and more into them.

“But we can’t claim yet that everything we sell is 100 percent sustainable. Granite for instance, is not ‘sustainable’ although it will probably last forever. Unfortunately, we can’t plant granite! But it’s a healthy product and it cleans easily.”

Since the turn of the Millennium, Room and Board has published a colourful, well designed catalogue, very popular with its customers. “It’s printed on 30 percent recycled paper with vegetable based ink,” Steve told us. “The catalogue is mailed to customers right after December 25th and it runs to the end of the following year. They can take their time to choose their items and there are no price changes.”

Another interesting concept is the “Designed by you, built by us” programme. “It gives customers the ability to create their own thing For example, a table base can have as many as seven different tops, it can be nearly any height and width. You can pinpoint doors, a variety of combinations, shelves and use any of our wood choices. Very flexible and the prices are affordable with a four week delivery window. Our customers don't want to go to a friend’s home and see precisely the same product.” The “Designed by you” idea developed as another team inspiration, “one thing leads to another and things start to evolve and happen”.

Direct mail is important to Room and Board with the annual distribution of the catalogue and whenever the company moves into a new market. “We also mount e-mail campaigns directed to people we know. But our principal and most successful communications tool is word of mouth,” said Steve. “We never discount our furniture, but right after Christmas when the catalogue goes out, we have a clearance sale for all discontinued product for about two weeks. We close down the stores to change the floors, take all discontinued designs off the floor and then bring in our new product lines.

“Our advertising is limited to national shelter magazines, a few publications like Metropolitan Home. In each store, a public relations committee works to support local events such as art openings. Not long ago Vladimir Kagan appeared at ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) in New York and we arranged for him to visit Room and Board and speak to our customers. The Design Associates invited their clients to the store to hear him speak. It was a very successful evening.

”We go to High Point Market once each year and Las Vegas. Also some of the European shows, Maison in Paris, and the market at Milan.”
Steve acknowledges that broad-based customer acceptance of the sustainability ethic will not occur overnight. “It will take time. Awareness changes and develops, and retailers must be prepared to take action. Begin by talking within your own company and in your community.

“Sourcing qualified suppliers requires a lot of searching, a lot of networking. There’s not one single way of doing it. You search the way a human resources person would search! The Sustainable Furniture Council will be a resource to use, that’s where we’re headed, a clearinghouse for people to learn about what’s out there, what’s available. We have the responsibility to develop standards for people to follow as we grow. Our members are already excited about this, manufacturers, retailers, everyone.

“We have to take on the worldwide challenges of training our industry for the future. I’m proud to be part of getting the word out, working together to advance the concept.”

It’s one of the most hotly debated issues of our time and it presents us with a vast array of challenges and opportunities. Climate change is a global problem, and with naysayers finally dropping by the wayside, there are fewer obstacles to hurdle. Target your efforts at the conscientious consumer in your region and, as Steve said, the word will spread. It is your problem. Like Steve, the SFC, the Rainforest Alliance, the ASID, be part of the solution. You’ll be in good company!

This series on sustainable home furnishings retailing will continue in the May/June issue of FURNITURE WORLD Magazine with a profile of ABC Carpet and Home’s sweeping global vision and much more!


•Classic designs, well made that won’t soon end up in a landfill.
•Wood & materials from managed sources.
•More organic types of fibreboard.
•Special eco-friendly finishes when possible.
•Environmentally friendly catalogues, recycled paper, vegetable ink, one per year.
•Energy efficient distribution center.
•Alternative power sources where appropriate.
• Recycling.

The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit international conservation organization that works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior.

In a recent release, Daphne Hewitt, projects manager in the Alliance’s Training, Research, Extension Education and Systems programme, expressed the Alliance’s support for the Sustainable Furniture Council. “The home furnishings industry uses one of the earth’s most beautiful resources, wood, to create products that range from simple and functional pieces to real works of art. By encouraging manufacturers, retailers and suppliers in the industry to adopt sustainable practices, the council will be ensuring that this beauty is reflected in the entire process, from the responsibly managed forest where the wood originated through final production.

“Buying sustainable furniture is one way environmentally and socially conscious consumer can express their values through the products they choose to put in their homes. Council members are hoping to increase consumer awareness and demand for ‘green’ or sustainable home products.
Ms. Hewitt and two other representatives from the Rainforest Alliance are members of the SFC’s standards committee, providing guidance and technical input as the Council identifies practices members will be expected to follow, that demonstrate the sustainable use of resources.

The Rainforest Alliance brings to the Council two decades of global experience in standards development and compliance, and is the world’s leading certifier of forestlands under the rigorous environmental and social standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Manufacturers and consumers who are interested in locating FSC-certified suppliers of wood furniture and furniture components can access a free online resource from the Rainforest Alliance called the SmartGuide to Sustainable Furniture and FSC-Certified Components at www.rainforest-alliance.org/smartguides.

And you can contact Gretchen Ruethling, Communications Coordinator, Media Outreach Rainforest Alliance at gruethling@ra.org or call 646-452-1939. To become a member go to: www.rainforest-alliance.org.

The SFC Mission Statement: “SFC is a non-profit industry association committed to promoting sustainable practices within the home furnishings industry and raising awareness among consumers and buyers. We believe that these practices are critical for maintaining a healthy balance between environmental conservation, social equity and economic development.”

The Council will “emphasize the selection of eco-friendly wood choices that are certified as reclaimed or sourced from managed forests”.

The Council achieved much at their February organizing meeting at the Las Vegas Market. Founder Gerry Cooklin is CEO of South Cone Trading Company, the first corporation to have Forest Stewardship Council certification. Said Cooklin, “There is no doubt that the interest for this critical subject is growing very rapidly. This is apparent by the calibre of participants attending the meeting, and the more informed and serious nature of the questions that are now being asked at our gatherings.

“Several important steps were accomplished in Vegas:

•We finalized the selection of our Board of Directors, which we now feel is complete and represents a wide range of stakeholders.

•We began receiving membership cheques and found many interested parties in joining.

•Our team worked together beautifully, and we feel things are really moving now.

•We were approached by several other entities, interested in joining efforts with us to promote sustainability.

•“Vegas confirmed that the SFC has taken off, and we have to get to work!”
Susan Inglis is the SFC contact for everyone interested in learning more. Her e-mail address is: susan@fromthemountain.com, and she’s eager to hear from you so “that substantial action will be taken for generations to come, not just as a passing eco-trend.”


•Use routing software and energy efficient/ size appropriate trucks for delivery. Each gallon of diesel fuel burned puts about 26 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

•Allow employees to do some flextime tasks from home. Each gallon of gasoline consumed while commuting puts about 20 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

•Install energy efficient lighting in offices and warehouses. A 60 watt incandescent bulb over 24 hours puts almost 2 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

•Recycle packaging and purchase products with recycled content.

•Do more teleconferencing and cut down on air travel. Some sources estimate that air travel has about the same (global warming) effect per passenger, as driving a car the same distance.

•Make an effort to verify that suppliers purchase and use lumber products from sustainable sources.

•Identify and give customers a choice of fabrics and cushioning materials that were not derived from petrochemicals (polyurethane foam, nylon, polyester, etc.).

•Set up a rating system for your products by vendor or collection that rates the degree of their  “sustainability” or “environmental friendliness.”

•Develop marketing tools to let your customers  know what  your company
stands for and what kinds of  sustainable  choices you  offer them  that other  retailers don’t.

The Society defines Sustainable Design as: “The practice of designating buildings (and other things) so that they exist in harmony with natural systems. Ideally, the resulting buildings contribute to human and ecosystem health while minimizing harm from their construction and operation.”

Late last year, the ASID presented a new series of sustainable design white papers, entitled Interior Design and Global Impacts. This five-publication series, on topics integral to sustainability as it relates to the interior design profession, includes “Beyond Interior Design”, “Indoor Air Quality”, “Materials and Products”, “Selling Green” and a “Reference Guide”.

The comprehensive collection was researched and written by “industry thought leaders in sustainable design”, including Kirsten Childs, ADIC, LEED AP, Croxton Collaborative; Cris Argeles, 7 group; and Nadav Malin, LEED AP, BuildingGreen Inc., and was sponsored by ASID Industry Partners Lightolier, Steelcase, TOTO, Tricycle, VISTA and Wilsonart Laminate.

The Society’s website reported the results of a recent survey commissioned by them that indicates six out of 10 U.S. homeowners say they would consider integrating sustainable design practices into a future home improvement project, provided those enhancements were cost-competitive. Sustainable design was almost as strong among households with annual incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 as among those with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher, interesting demographics for home furnishings retailers. Further, six in 10 believed being green certified would increase the values of their home.

To price/purchase the ASID white papers, you are invited to visit www.asid.org/resource/ASID+Research+Publications.htm.
To learn more about ASID, visit www.asid.org.