10 ways to go green profitably
October 3, 2012 | 7:00 pm CDT

Going green has become more than a catchphrase in the woodworking industry as increasing numbers of wood products manufacturers discover that being more environmentally sensitive can also be a good business decision. But there are potential costs and pitfalls along the road to green, and there are even huge disagreements over what constitutes “green” at all. Here are 11 real world practical tips to improving your eco-friendly quotient in ways that also boost your bottom line.

1. Use green materials.

Probably the most common method woodworking businesses use to go green is to use environmentally friendly materials, and there are green choices available for almost every product these days. There have been big improvements particularly in the area of sheet goods, with many manufacturers working hard to reduce or eliminate formaldehyde in panel products. Uniboard introduced its NU Green MR50 medium density fiberboard, a no-added-formaldehyde panel, at the 2012 International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta. Columbia Forest Products’ PureBond panels have also been a big player in this segment.

But some companies balk at using green-labeled materials because there are often additional costs associated. The key is often customer education. Bob Margulis, owner of Ravenworks LLC in Seattle, Margulis says he spends most of his time doing client education on his initial visit. He considers the indoors our ecosystem, where we spend the vast majority of our time.

“Homes are filled with chemicals that are killing us,” he says. “Asthma is the single largest cause of most school days lost due to health reasons. Preschool age children (are suffering from) diseases that 30 years ago didn’t exist. Children are constantly getting bombarded with chemicals. With customers, I raise their consciousness about what green means in the context of interiors.”

You can also educate customers about alternatives they likely don’t even know exist. Steve Prescott of Fiddlehead Designs in Brunswick, Me., uses Richlite countertops which are made from phenolic resin-bonded paper manufactured from sustainable forest resources. But the result is an elegant and durable countertop that Prescott says can compete with granite in high-end kitchen applications.

2. Reduce waste.

One of the biggest things any woodworking operation can do to be more environmentally responsible is to reduce waste, and cutting waste makes economic sense, too. Carl Spencer of Spencer Cabinetry in Monroe, Wash., is an enthusiastic proponent of the Toyota Production System. “The underlying premise is waste reduction. That’s a huge part of it,” says Spencer. “It’s called make more money. We never set out to be green. We just discovered we were.” His business has been recognized as a leader in sustainability.

The company reduced its waste by 50 percent using 100 percent recycling of all lumber scrap, wood waste, pallets, paint waste, plastic, aluminum, steel and even office paper. They also eliminated shipping damage and related rework. Workers start at 7:30 a.m. because Spencer discovered that was the time for lowest traffic. He also encourages car pooling and public transportation, boosting employee ridesharing by 60 percent.

3. Recycle.

Most people recognize recycling as an eco-friendly activity, but it goes way beyond recycling bottles and cans, especially when it comes to a woodworking business. Woodhaven Furniture, an upholstered furniture manufacturer in Cairo, Ga., has made recycling a cornerstone in the company’s business plan.

“If you combine all the materials that we recycled last year, it was about 12 million pounds -- everything from wood, foam, cardboard, to plastic and fabric,” Tommy Harper, general manager, says. “Our company decided to go towards green manufacturing but also green operations. We got heavily into recycling, and have changed buildings to T5 lighting with skylights.” The company has even purchased recycled remanufactured CNC routers from Accu-Router for its upholstery frame manufacturing.

4. Eco-friendly finishing.

Using low-VOC finishes such as water-based finishes is growing dramatically in the woodworking industry as finish suppliers become increasingly sophisticated in green formulations. Also new standards and certification such as Greenguard have entered the arena.

Steffy Wood Products, a manufacturer of children's furniture in Angola, Ind., added an automated finishing line both to improve finishing efficiency and to be more environmentally responsible, says John Steffy, president of the company. Using only UV cured water-based finishes, the company successfully achieved Greenguard certification. “That means the furniture has been tested and certified that it won’t emit anything hazardous in a classroom environment,” explains Steffy. “And the certification process is not just a once-and-done thing. You have to submit products and materials on a quarterly basis.”

Steffy prominently displays the Greenguard logo on his product catalogs and on his Web site. While he says it is an important marketing tool to compete in the children’s furniture market, more importantly, he says, it’s just the right thing to do. “It’s important to be environmentally responsible,” he says.

Other new products such as AkzoNobel’s Chemcraft Airguard, a Greenguard-certified solvent borne topcoat, and Sherwin-Williams’ Sher-Wood F3 Hi-Bild PreCat Lacquer, a catalyzed lacquer that provides formaldehyde-free finishing, show the new technology available for green finishing.

5. Participate in green programs.

With increasing numbers of projects requiring some kind of environmental certification, such as LEED, it makes good business sense to get involved in those programs because it means more work. Bill VaVerka of Verk's Custom Cabinets was offered the opportunity to get involved in a project building what some claim is one the most sustainably built houses in the country. Dubbed the Costa Mesa Green Home, it is the first private residence in Orange County, Calif., to be certified Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes Program. The home was awarded 104 points, four more than needed to achieve Platinum status.

VaVerka got involved in the project through a friend of the homeowner. But despite seven years as a custom cabinetmaker, he really wasn’t all that familiar with the requirements for green building. His first step to change that was a talk with his building products distributor, Weber Plywood and Lumber Co. There he connected with Steve Weisenberg, a LEED accredited professional who manages Weber’s Environmentally Friendly and Green Materials Division. “Steve is one of the more knowledgeable people out there,” says VaVerka. “People don’t understand there are certain levels of green. I tried to stay as green as you can get.”

6. Target environmentally concerned customers.

Steve Prescott knows that all of his attention to environmental considerations will be wasted if his business is not successful and customers don't buy what he sells. Consequently, he works hard to explain the value of environmentally sound construction to his customers, and he's convinced it's a strong selling point that sets his work apart from competitors.

"So much of what I do is education," he says. "I have to explain why my cabinets are so much better than the factory stuff." He frequently makes comparisons to other consumer purchases like cars or high-end consumer electronics that may cost as much or more than cabinetry but not have nearly the lifespan. "My cabinets will last a whole lot longer than that plasma TV," he says.

He has even teamed up with a nearby retailer that specializes in environmentally sound products. Prescott gives workshops on environmentally responsible remodeling at F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies in Brunswick, Me. That helps spread the word about his cabinets in an arena where people are already interested in environmental issues.

7. Partner with other green companies.

Many woodworking operations, especially smaller custom shops, find it is beneficial to partner with other green companies and join the green community. Bob Margulis says, “Half of my company’s business is through ‘deep green’ general contractors, architects and designers, not those companies that are searching how to get points for the least amount of money to get a certain level of certification, whether it's LEED or Washington State’s master builder association Build Green program.”

Wood casegoods manufacturer Eagle Industries LLC unveiled a new collection of eco-friendly outdoor composite furniture called “Bear River.” The Bear River line includes a variety of tables, bars, stools, chairs, benches, plant stands, planter boxes and accessory items, available in a variety of earth-tone colors.

Eagle Industries partnered with Natures Composites to supply sustainable, wheat, straw-based composite material for a new furniture collection. Eagle Industries' officials say partnerships with domestic companies such as Natures Composites, as well as industry organizations like the Sustainable Furnishings Council, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Green Building Council, further the company’s goal of promoting “American Manufacturing” while reducing long lasting effects on the environment.

8. Source locally.

It's not always easy or cheap to keep environmental issues in mind while sourcing supplies, but Steve Prescott thinks it is crucial to the way he works. He uses only lumber from certified sustainably grown forests and whenever possible he sources from local New England sawyers, often from Rex Lumber in Acton, Mass. He avoids environmentally threatened exotic species. And by sourcing locally, he not only reduces the carbon footprint of his products, he saves real dollars in the transportation and shipping costs.

9. Avoid “greenwashing.”

One of the dangers of efforts to be perceived as more environmentally responsive is “greenwashing.” That’s when businesses try to make points with eco-minded customers by stretching the boundaries of what is green and what isn’t. For example, a moulding manufacturer once advertised its plastic mouldings as green only because they could be finished with water-based top coats.

“As capitalists pan for gold in the green rush, there is often a paradox between what is being sold as helping our environment and the actual consequences that occur,” says Mark S. Goldman, president of Pennville Custom Cabinetry. He notes that cabinetmaking historically has been “one of the greenest manufacturing jobs on the planet” because it uses wood, a renewable resource, products are built to last, materials are often locally sourced, and products are often shipped in blankets rather than wasteful disposable packaging.
He suggests that an emphasis on these fundamental environmentally sound practices are more important than chasing after certifications and green point systems. “If you care about our planet at all, you should not sell promises that have nothing to do with helping our environment,” he says.

10. Be green top to bottom

True commitment to environmental sustainability means more than just adding a green product here and a water-based finish there. “A company that builds sustainable housing may quickly pronounce themselves as a Green Organization," says Gero Sassenberg, a longtime efficiency consultant to the woodworking industry.

“While that may be so, a closer look at what a green organization is will quickly reveal that there is a great chasm between a green product and a green organization. A green organization while producing green products must also be green in every aspect of its activities with regard to design, engineering, manufacture, administration and supply to market. Above all it must have a low environmentally damaging footprint.”

Steve Prescott of Fiddlehead Designs in Brunswick, Me., says being green can’t be just a gimmick. "The health of our environment is critically important to me," he says. "I undertake a number of precautions to ensure the business of Fiddlehead Designs is as environmentally responsible as possible."

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.