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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5: Andy Counts

 

Andy Counts has led the American Home Furnishings Alliance through a number of tumultuous years during his 17-year tenure. Now chief executive officer of the organization, Counts is overseeing a number of pending regulations on formaldehyde and flammability standards that could have significant impact on the furniture industry.

He took time recently to share his thoughts with Home Furnishings Business on what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

Home Furnishings Business: This year has been busy for the furniture industry regarding pending regulation changes. Give us a mid-year update. Where do we stand on the key issues like formaldehyde, new labeling and other areas?

Andy Counts: FORMALDEHYDE AHFA’s work with the Environmental Protection Agency on the federal formaldehyde standard was already a priority for the Alliance when Lumber Liquidators made headlines in March and catapulted the formaldehyde issue to everyone’s front burner.

In early March, “60 Minutes” aired an investigative report that accused Lumber Liquidators of selling laminate flooring from China containing unhealthy levels of formaldehyde. But “60 Minutes” used deconstructive testing of the laminate flooring – an unreliable test method discounted by extensive industry research. Further, the show aired video of mill employees admitting to falsely labeling the laminate as compliant with California regulations.

This latter issue served to highlight some of AHFA’s concerns with both the California formaldehyde regulation and the proposed federal regulation. In a nutshell, AHFA has been working with California and federal regulators for more than a decade to help achieve effective and reliable formaldehyde emissions regulations. A few sticking points remain in the federal regulation, and this is where AHFA is currently focusing its advocacy efforts on behalf of the furniture industry. These include:

1) Strengthening the requirements for third-party certifiers to ensure accountability throughout the supply chain.

2) Improving the testing methods within the regulations. Presently, there are issues with consistency, accuracy and reliability of the specified test methods. AHFA maintains that the EPA should correct these deficiencies before finalizing the federal regulation.

3) Recognizing the reduced emission profile of finished goods. Many studies by world-class laboratories have shown that a finished piece of furniture provides a drastic reduction in formaldehyde emissions compared to a raw piece of engineered wood. In fact, when you take a composite panel that is already compliant with the current California standard, and then add a laminate top, the emissions from the finished product are reduced at least another 80 percent. California officials understood this and exempted finished products from additional testing. AHFA has been urging federal officials to do the same, since imposing additional testing on finished products adds expense with no added health or environmental benefit.

CALIFORNIA FLAMMABILITY STANDARD & FR CONTENT LABELING

Upholstery manufacturers around the world that sell products in California spent much of 2014 transitioning flammability testing to the requirements of the state’s revised Technical Bulletin 117-2013. Many manufacturers were in compliance with the new regulation well in advance of the January 1 compliance deadline. 

However, the relatively smooth transition to TB 117-2013 for all California-bound upholstered products was derailed in September when the state legislature passed a supplemental measure altering the flammability compliance label. Senate Bill 1019 was intended to help consumers identify products with no added flame retardant chemicals. However, its murky definitions, sweeping documentation requirements and compressed implementation timeline sent companies into a tailspin – and sent AHFA into action. AHFA drafted guidance documents, designed sample labels and hosted a compliance webinar – all while continuing to seek clarification from California officials.

Because so much ambiguity remained in the law when it went into effect on January 1, California officials have focused their enforcement efforts on “education and outreach” this year.

FEDERAL FLAMMABILITY STANDARD

While California’s TB 117-2013 held the limelight throughout 2014, several groups were busy laying the groundwork for a renewed debate over open flame testing of upholstered furniture on the federal level. In 2013, UL, which provides testing and certification services for regulatory authorities, insurance companies, manufacturers and building owners, released results of a study claiming today’s homes are a “perfect storm” of fire hazards. “Contemporary” upholstered furniture, which contains “fast-burning, synthetic” materials, are a major contributor to this perfect storm, according to UL. Meanwhile, the National Fire Protection Association released its own study focused on the role of upholstered furniture in the spread and intensity of household fires, particularly when the upholstery is not the first item ignited but, rather, exposed to a fire already underway.

AHFA has been contributing sound science and a voice of reason to the flammability debate for more than 40 years … and is continuing to do so in 2015. Specifically, the Alliance has opposed full-scale “build one-burn one” testing schemes that would create significant waste and a burden on manufacturers. AHFA also continues raising concerns about the use of barrier materials in upholstery construction. Although barriers have proven effective for the mattress industry, AHFA believes real world design and manufacturing issues create significant obstacles for barrier use in the upholstered furniture industry. 

FEDERAL APPROACH TO FR CHEMICALS

The crusade against the use of FR chemicals in household products continues, with upholstered furniture garnering much of the media, political and even scientific attention. Currently, AHFA is keeping a wary eye on a trio of competing bills to upgrade the 38-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Of interest to our industry is how the various bills approach states’ individual efforts to put chemical safeguards in place. Clamping down on state-by-state chemical laws would keep industry from having to monitor and comply with a patchwork of different rules.

Home Furnishings Business: What issues — good or bad — do you see on the horizon for the industry?

Counts: Addressing upholstered furniture flammability on the federal level is a primary area of focus. Several states and standard-setting bodies are working on the issue. This could result in multiple standards – another patchwork of inconsistent rules. AHFA favors a federal CPSC standard, ideally one modeled after TB 117-2013, to eliminate uncertainty.

Another issue that has not received much attention is the shortage in skilled labor – a particular issue within upholstery manufacturing right now. An aging workforce is creating a growing need for skilled workers – particularly upholsterers and sewers. The need is acute in North Carolina, but also growing in pockets of Indiana, Mississippi and California. Attracting and training young workers is a challenge AHFA’s Solution Partners division is beginning to tackle in 2015. The group is launching an initiative that will look for both short term and long-term solutions to the industry’s labor crisis.

HFB: Is there one standout issue for this year that needs to be managed?

Counts: The regulation of formaldehyde in composite wood products is the standout issue for 2015.

HFB: What’s your current assessment of the furniture industry?  How is it faring?

Counts: All indications are that we are in for several positive years. Key indicators such as housing activity, credit availability, and consumer confidence are all trending in our favor.  Visiting with members over the last several months has confirmed this. Let’s hope we can keep the momentum going.

HFB: Look into your crystal ball and share you outlook for 2016.

Counts: I do not need a crystal ball to know we are in for a busy remainder of 2015 and 2016. With the upcoming presidential election and a change in administration looming the regulatory agencies will be working overtime to implement their priority issues. We will need to be vigilant in making sure the home furnishings industry has voice at the table and our specific perspective is understood.



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