Not-So-Casual Sustainability

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"It's not easy being green," sang Kermit the Frog, the loveably sheepish Muppet who popularized the lyric in the 1970 song "Bein' Green." Flash forward almost 40 years and it has become a mantra of sorts, underscoring the importance of green practices throughout industries nationwide. It seems the frog got it right; being green isn't easy. And in the outdoor casual furniture market, it takes more than just using teak to be green.

"We have the ability right now, at the infancy of awareness in the casual industry, to raise educational awareness first," says Chris Bruning, vice president of Groovystuff, a Dallas-based furniture manufacturer. First, one important question needs be answered: What does it mean to be green?

Defining Green

It is critical to note not everyone is comfortable with the term "green." Its many connotations allow for easy misinterpretations of the word and can ultimately lead to the act of "greenwashing:" an organization's attempt to present an environmentally responsible public image in a misleading manner.

"If you're really going to talk about sustainability, I think we need to be very careful that we stay away from this term 'green,'" says Bill Perdue, vice president of environmental, safety and health at the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) in High Point, N.C. "Because to me, if a company's going to be sustainable, I could have a 'green' chair, let's say, but still do nothing to reduce my carbon footprint or my embedded energy cost or control emissions or get involved in waste minimization."

And complete sustainability requires all of those things. Your carbon footprint, measured in units of carbon dioxide, is the impact you make on the environment based on your fossil fuel usage. Embedded energy cost refers to the costs incurred in relation to the amount of energy required to manufacture and supply a product.

"It's about environmental stewardship," adds Perdue. "The true definition of sustainability is that you are a steward of the resources you have so that future generations can enjoy the same benefits."

Environmental stewardship in the casual outdoor furniture market isn't so much a destination as it is an ongoing journey. The process of becoming sustainable includes many constants. "The point is, if we don't start out on a platform in the casual market with education, and we come out first with advertising and letting the almighty dollar come out, we're going to be just another greenwash industry," says Bruning.

To avoid the greenwash conundrum, the industry needs to understand sustainability begins at the manufacturing level and continues its way throughout the supply chain. "It's not just a product or a product line, and it's not just something you do at the retail level," says Perdue. "It doesn't just begin with, 'I've got a green chair.' It begins with actually reducing your environmental footprint."

In The Right Direction

In an effort to promote awareness, industry leaders continue to take proactive steps to inform and educate manufacturers, dealers, retailers and consumers alike.

Earlier this year, Gerry Cooklin, founder and CEO of South Cone Trading Company of Gardena, Calif., established a nonprofit organization called the Sustainable Furniture Council (SFC). The council is dedicated to promoting sustainable practices within the home furnishings industry and raising awareness among consumers and buyers.

"The impetus for starting [the SFC] was a concern for sustainability," says director Susan Inglis. "There is a lot of confusion about sustainability. The important things are to understand that true sustainability is about taking care of our environment, our communities and our economic bottom line, too. True sustainability is only when it's all being tended to."

Understanding his role as a conscientious and responsible furniture manufacturer, Cooklin, Inglis says, felt the furniture industry needed to take responsibility for sustainability because of two key factors: the industry's use of wood as one of its primary resources and the fact that the furniture market is a fashion-driven industry. "We have the opportunity to influence consumer choices," says Inglis.

And influence has played a major role in the rising popularity of sustainable practices. Many manufacturers agree the high-profile coverage of Al Gore's Academy Award winning An Inconvenient Truth brought environmentalism to the forefront of the industry and really encouraged people to begin assessing their own actions and roles in reducing their global impact.

Because the furniture industry is deeply connected to issues such as sustainability, deforestation and conservation, many manufacturers are beginning to see the impact they do have on the environment, not to mention the general consumer. "The furniture industry has a lot of power in conservation because we add the most value to wood resources," says Cooklin. "It has been impressive to see how quickly interest in this effort within the industry has grown."

While Groovystuff had always considered itself "into Mother Earth," it only recently began taking the steps to join the SFC and the Rainforest Aliance, actively seeking the means to better its sustainability practices. Bruning says he also sent in the initial application for a rediscovered wood certification, through the Rainforest Alliance, called SmartWood Rediscovered.

"I became a member of the SFC for awareness, pure and simple," says Bruning. "Education is everything in life, and we should make educated decisions in every aspect of our lives. I still don't know the answers to the things that we should be doing differently, but I am more informed each day and that is what is helping Groovystuff make small changes each day that lead to not only preservation for our natural resources, but also makes us more efficient as a company."

In 1999, the AHFA developed its own program to educate, promote and exemplify sustainability. The EFEC is a voluntary environmental management system; the acronym stands for Enhancing Furniture's Environmental Culture. "Basically, it was created and designed to reduce the environmental footprint of the manufacturing facility," says Perdue. "There is an aspect of EFEC that pushes sustainability up and down the supply chain. So EFEC moves you beyond compliance toward sustainability. It continually makes you ratchet down, so to speak, the reduction of that environmental footprint."

And the reduction of your environmental footprint, or carbon footprint, is the underlying goal of sustainability.

Initiatives like the SFC, Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance are all means to continually improve sustainable practices. These mechanisms, as Perdue calls them, are tools to learn about and promote sustainability, but most importantly, a way to commit to the cause.

The Sustainable Market

When JL Jackson, co-owner of Global Surroundings, moved to Singapore, she got involved in marketing furniture to other Americans in the country. However, Jackson soon realized she needed to find a designer to create custom pieces because they were in high demand.

"It wasn't our intention to be ecologically friendly," says Jackson. "We kind of fell into it." Jackson's unintentional crossover came when the designer she teamed up with shared with her his dedication to using old wood.

"He was an architect by trade, so he loved tearing down old homes and using components of them to build homes around Singapore that would have old beams but the structure of the house would be brick," says Jackson.

These days, Global Surroundings buys old wood homes from Indonesian citizens and uses the teak from them to create its furniture lines. In turn, Global Surroundings helps to rebuild brick homes for the townspeople.

"Not only are we getting great wood, but we're really helping the Indonesians who have no other way to obtain money to build a house," says Jackson. "So we give them the money, they get this great brick house they slowly start to build, and we take the teak wood."

According to Jackson, Global Surroundings began touting the fact it didn't cut down trees to make its furniture and instead, it uses rediscovered wood. "Our customers can have a wood that has a history to it," says Jackson. "Somebody used this particular floor board that's now [in their] outdoor dining table."

Like Global Surroundings, Groovystuff also makes use of rediscovered wood. Bruning uses parts and pieces of old farming equipment to create his collection. From wood wagon wheels, spokes and hubs to plows and even old iron rings, every inch of a designed piece of Groovystuff furniture comes from antique wood that can be 50, 80 or 100 years old. Bruning recently took to using tree root bulbs as a resource, as well.

"The root bulb on a 50-year-old teak tree and older can be up to 15 and 20 feet in height," says Bruning. "What [people] have been doing is digging it up to re-cultivate the land. They burn it. And that is horrible on the environment. So we are getting the root bulbs and turning it into furniture."

Another way to practice sustainability within the industry is through product reclamation, a process in which a manufacturer or retailer takes back the original piece of furniture when a consumer no longer wants it. According to Inglis, these programs are quite common in Europe as she says it is illegal to throw away a piece of furniture in the garbage dump.

"Either the furniture store has to take it back and do something with it, or it has to be taken apart and recycled, or mostly, it just gets reused," says Inglis. "You hand it down to somebody else, to your local thrift shop or something."

Being sustainable isn't about completing steps one, two and three. It's about being committed to the cause and understanding the need for continuous improvement.

Looking To The Future

Perdue emphasizes the ongoing lessons manufacturers and retailers need to learn in order to embrace sustainability. "It's not a badge, just to walk around and say, 'I'm green!'" says Perdue. "It's not a badge."

Inglis agrees and stresses one of the SFC's main responsibilities of its members. "We require that a company has a commitment to sustainability, whatever that is, that they've got some commitment. We require that they're transparent about how they're living that commitment. We require that they are committed to continuous improvement and they understand the third-party certification mechanisms and that they help spread the word."

Being such an influential industry, it shouldn't be too difficult to spread the word between manufacturers, retailers and consumers. People are at a point where they just want to know how to do better, says Inglis. The commitment is there, along with ambition and passion for the cause.

But it's important to remember in order to do better you have to think past today and into the future.

"[Sustainability] can be trendy. And if you're thinking in the moment, then it is trendy," says Perdue. "But if you're thinking 90 years down the road, it becomes less of a trend and more of a lifestyle.

Selling Sustainable? What it means to you.

EDUCATION IS ONE of the most vital parts of the sustainable movement. Different degrees of knowledge can help in understanding this very complex issue. Manufacturers and retailers are key players in bridging the gap between the unaware consumer and the sustainable market.

"People don't know how to sell sustainable," says Chris Bruning, vice president of Groovystuff, a Dallas-based casual furniture manufacturer. Sustainable education will hopefully cause a domino effect, says Bruning, ultimately reaching people at the manufacturer, retail and consumer levels.

"There's a consumer survey that just came out in the United Kingdom and the United States which shows that more than 50 percent of the public wants all products that have an adverse impact on the environment removed from stores," says Mike Italiano, president and CEO of Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS), a Washington, D.C.-based institute dedicated to "accelerating the global market transformation to sustainability."

The MTS training program provides retailers with the appropriate knowledge and questioning needed in order to measure a manufacturer's credibility and performance regarding eco-friendly, sustainable practices.

"Educating our retailers on what is necessary for assurances to their end-users, that our environment is being protected, is what this training is all about," says Bruning, who completed MTS training this summer. "With this knowledge in hand, we can then demonstrate to the sales staff and then ultimately the [consumers] that they too have a choice in product selection."

One of the best ways to become educated, says Bruning, is to attend educational forums at industry trade shows. Another way is to continue to ask questions. There are numerous for and nonprofit organizations dedicated to this cause.

For more information regarding educational opportunities at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market in Chicago Sept.17-20, call 312/527-7764 or visit

Further Education

For more information regarding sustainability and how it relates to the casual furniture market, contact any of the organizations below.

RAINFOREST ALLIANCE SmartWood Headquarters Phone: 802/434-5491 Fax: 802/434-3116 e-mail: [email protected] Web site:

SUSTAINABLE FURNITURE COUNCIL Phone: 919/967-1762 Contact: Susan Inglis e-mail: [email protected] Web site: AMERICAN HOME FURNISHINGS ALLIANCE EFEC Phone: 336/884-5000 Fax: 336/884-5303 Web site:

FOREST STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL Phone: 202/342-0413 Fax: 202/342-6589 e-mail: [email protected] Web site:


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