From Home Furnishing Business
Environmental Report Card
By Powell Slaughter
HOW DOES OUR BUSINESS STACK UP IN TERMS OF RESPONSIBLE ENVIRONMENTAL CITIZENSHIP?
October 2001. Anyone who was there might remember that High Point Market as something of an out-of-body experience. People wondered how they could worry about selling furniture in the aftermath of terrorism’s worst strike on where we live.
The nation and the industry were in a stunned mode, but that was when Gerry Cooklin, CEO of now-defunct vendor South Cone—and a native of Peru, a country torn by terrorism long before it invaded our space—issued a call to the furniture industry when the company hosted an anniversary party at High Point’s Spring & Splinter Club. Cooklin had long been concerned about the furniture industry’s environmental impact, and the importance of sustaining the forests that provide the bulk of its raw material.
He spoke of balance and harmony with the earth. That all sounds pretty touchfeely for an industry that looked with horror upon mahogany protesters hanging banners from the High Point’s International Home Furnishings Center during the 1990s, but Cooklin’s call eventually led to the establishment of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, which today counts a fair share of old-school furniture names among its membership.
As an issue and as a talking point for the industry, sustainability is here to stay. A decade-plus later, how do we stack up when it comes to watching out for the resources we use; our impact on the communities surrounding our operations; and the consumers we serve?
A LOT OF PROGRESS
In addition to activities at the SFC, which includes vendors and retailers, the American Home Furnishings Association has worked hard this millennium to encourage sustainable practices among its membership. Pat Bowling, vice president of communications at AHFA, said there are two ways of looking at how well the furniture industry is doing with regard to sustainability and eco-friendliness.
“Are furniture companies making progress in terms of sustainable operations, and, as an industry, are we producing and marketing eco-friendly products to meet consumer demand?” she said. “AHFA primarily concerns itself with the first aspect—developing ways to help furniture companies move toward more sustainable operations. We promote environmental awareness and improved environmental management among manufacturers as a ‘best practice’ within our industry. These are ‘best practices’ because environmental stewardship is a key ingredient in being a good corporate citizen.”
Those best practices steps reduce waste and lead to greater efficiency, which leads to greater sustainability. While AHFA has many member companies working to produce and market ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ products made from eco-friendly components, its work, as an organization, has been more on the sustainability front. “Have we made progress?” Bowling said. “Yes. Fifteen years after its introduction, AHFA’s environmental management program (EFEC—Enhancing Furniture’s Environmental Culture), continues to grow. As of this month, 14 companies have implemented EFEC in 79 different facilities, including one La-Z-Boy facility in Mexico.” Counting the Heritage Home Group companies separately, all of which have installed EFEC in at least one domestic facility, that total is 23 companies. Seven of those companies have taken their commitment a step further with AHFA’s Sustainable by Design program, which extends EFEC’s culture of environmental stewardship throughout a company’s global supply chain.
This year, AHFA will roll out its new carbon calculator; and soon after will start publishing industry best practices, followed with an annual Furniture Industry Sustainability Report.
There is far more awareness throughout the industry of the importance of sustainability issues, according to Susan Inglis, SFC executive director. Those include problems of toxic waste pollution such as carbon monoxide emissions; poor indoor air quality; and good management of wood and other natural resources. “But there is still a lot of confusion in the industry that does sometimes lead to ‘greenwash,’” she added. “Consumers are pretty clear that they want environmentally safe furnishings and they are often more clear than the retail sales staff about what that means.”
Take the recent “Toxic Hot Seat” HBO examination of fire retardants in furniture as an example. Such reports are what a lot of consumers are bringing along when they walk through a retailer’s door, and retail sales associates need answers in hand when questions arise about a product’s safety.
“SMALL BUT IMPACTFUL”
Inglis believes that while progress has been made toward sustainability, home furnishings as a sector hasn’t caught up with larger industries such as construction, paper and tourism. The good news is those sectors have laid plenty of groundwork. The SFC incorporated initiatives begun in those other industries in its list best practices for furniture companies to follow when looking to increase their sustainability quotient. And since so much of our sector’s raw material depends upon natural resources that must be sustained, the industry can have an impact beyond its dollar numbers relative to other areas.
“Those larger industries have laid a lot of the groundwork so there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for manufacturers and retailers to seize, including new non-toxic and low-impact materials, and also greater consumer awareness,” Inglis said. “We can take advantage of what they’ve done, because those industries have been an impetus for the increasing supply of responsibly sourced raw materials.
“Manufacturers need to be asking their suppliers for non-toxic and lower-impact alternatives to the materials they need for manufacturing our furnishings products. Many more excellent alternatives are available now than were on offer even just a few years ago.”
A SIMPLIFIED APPROACH
SFC board member and Co-Chairman of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Mitchell Gold gives the industry a “B” for the improvements it’s made in the past 15 years. “Yes, (we’re) doing better,” he said. “Consumers are demanding a greater attention to preserving the environment and safe products so many companies are trying more than ever—some kicking and screaming, and some embracing it.
“Every company, wholesale and retail should join and support the Sustainable Furnishings Council, and that is not the case now,” Gold said. “The SFC is constantly updating best practices for the environment, and factory and home safety.” SFC recently reformatted its standards for vendors to qualify for under organization’s “Exemplary” status in sustainable product. (The new format can be found online at http://tiny.cc/8ezb9w.) Inglis said the length of the old form might have put off companies that were in reality making strides toward sustainability. “We wanted to make it easier to recognize companies that are doing good things, and to get other companies excited about doing good things themselves,” she said of the new form. “It’s a shorter document, and you can attach documents that prove what you’re doing. We hope this will make a difference, and encourage more companies to participate.
“In the new format, manufacturers see the requirements laid out first—that they are public about their commitment, that they are measuring the reduction of energy use, that they are looking out for their suppliers as well as their employees, that they are careful in materials choices and procurement procedures. Then they can earn Exemplary recognition at the Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum level depending on specifics around their operations, their products, and their outreach. We are excited that many more deserving companies will be able to earn the recognitions now that it is all laid out more clearly.” HFB
“Manufacturers need to be asking their suppliers for non-toxic and lower-impact alternatives to the materials they need for manufacturing our furnishings products.”
Sustainable Furnishings Council
AHFA IS DEVELOPING “CARBON CALCULATOR,” SUSTAINABILITY REPORT
The American Home Furnishings Association has spent several years developing a standard reporting system to collect data from companies participating in its EFEC program. This reporting system will lead to the development of an AHFA annual sustainability report, which will highlight the achievements of the industry as a result of implementation of AHFA’s sustainability programs. “One of the keys to generating this report has been the development of an AHFA ‘Carbon Calculator,’” said Bill Perdue, AHFA’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “We are refining this tool to enable companies to accurately report reductions in common greenhouse gas emissions. It also records reductions in water usage and waste, as well as recycling achievements. The result is an accurate carbon footprint.
The calculator gives companies the ability to track, measure and reduce the overall environmental footprint of their facilities while realizing immediate cost savings.
“With this tool, we will be able to recognize and document the achievements of the industry. AHFA member companies over the past several years have not only embraced sustainability, they continually press forward seeking incremental improvement.” The goal is to help AHFA member companies tangibly reduce their environmental footprint by implementing proven reduction strategies. “One of the primary tenets of the EFEC program revolves around the axiom ‘you don’t do what you don’t measure,’” Perdue said.