Increasingly more consumers want to do the right thing for the environment by purchasing what they see as responsible products, including furniture. This can include refraining from buying Asian imports that might carry too large a carbon footprint, whether lead painted, melamine tainted or not.

Sustainability in our industry seems here to stay. No longer a fad or a passing trend, green design has been transformed into a method and approach of creating furniture/textiles/accessories, and subsequently producing them for the sustainability. Customers may even be asking retailers, "Where was this made?"

"The interest in green design is bubbling up from the consumer. Retailers are observing this, and are beginning to tentatively to respond to it," says Saverio Mancina, director of public relations for Rowe Fine Furniture, whose Eco-Rowe Collection debuted in October 2007.

"The segment of the population interested in sustainable design is growing, but not yet the majority. However, more and more consumers are asking about green design. It is a growing part of our industry, both in casegoods and upholstery," says Greg Harden, CEO of Harden Furniture.

Palecek, a company involved in sustainable furniture made from rattan, abaca and bamboo since the mid-1970s, has now gotten into reclaimed woods from housing, crating and boats in its newly introduced Driftwood Collection.

No compromise

"You don't have to compromise style to be environmentally conscious," stated Woody Williams, president of Precedent Furniture, a middle-to-upper-end division of Sherrill Furniture. Lee Industries called this "Style with a Conscience." Starting in the early 1980s, Lee eliminated chloroflourocarbon use in foam cushions, well before the federal government ban.

On its own green design efforts, Williams says, "Our Ecollection has done sensationally. We assist our retailers to tell the green design story by supplying them with point-of-sale material. Pricing on this collection is only 8 to 10 percent above our regular line, there is no financial barrier for the consumer." Georgia-Pacific supplies the frame materials; the laminated hardwood used contains no formaldehyde.

"Another part of the green picture is about age sensitivity. Young consumers, those 35 and under, [understand] that being environmentally responsible is the way to go. Older consumers do eventually latch onto the story, but often there is a lag time; it isn't immediate," says Williams.

Sustainable design, while not a concept completely in the eye of the beholder, does carry a variety of definitions. Green design can refer to the finished product, components in the item or all the processes used to create that item. Norwalk Furniture, in addition to all of its higher profile green efforts, for instance, powers its 100-truck fleet with biodiesel fuel. Harden Furniture controls its environmental destiny even further by being the only furniture company that owns its own lumber source and the sawmill in the United States.

A supply chain issue

"Sustainability gets to be a supply chain issue," says Tim Copeland, president of Copeland Furniture. "The maple we use is SFC (Sustainable Furniture Council) certified. It is more expensive to do it this way; we have been SFC-certified since 2005. Our wood is all harvested properly, without damage to the forests."

Reginia Payne, creative director at Vanguard Furniture, says, "We have our own green team that monitors our office and factory to ensure we are socially responsible in marshaling our own environment properly, and recycle the waste from wood, fabric, cardboard, everything."

Elements in addition to wood receiving the most scrutiny and attention in green design include cushioning, finishes and covers of textiles and leather.

Harden Furniture uses Preserve bio-based foam from Hickory Springs Mfg. Co. and some eco-textiles. "We as an industry should define what an eco-textile is is it from recycled plastic bottles or is it natural fiber fabrics?" says Greg Harden. "Ninety percent of our product is domestic; that means lower shipping costs and more environmental control. We pride ourselves on reducing waste and increasing efficiencies. It's more than knowing where to get good quality sustainable lumber; it's critical to optimize the energy used on every level to make the pieces."

"The wood we use is from replanted forests, our cushioning is a down and eco-fiber blend, and the ticking on the cushions is no longer bleached," says Mancina at Rowe.

Less indoor pollution

House planner Jack Thomassson, of Hickory Hill Holdings, introduced what may be the only furniture that contributes to LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system originated by the U.S. Green Building Council to judge the positive environmental impact green design may have. The piece was not only made from sustainable woods, no VOC (this is volatile organic compound, meaning that a no VOC product has no outgassing of toxic fumes, with no odor) glues and milk-based finishes.

The premise explained by Thomasson was that a large amount of outdoor pollutants comes into a home carried on shoes. If those bearers of toxins could be isolated, their negative effects would be minimized. Thus, he created a container for footwear to be placed near the entryway in homes.

Less specific and more general approaches to tackling the issue of sustainability were standard in High Point. "C.R. Laine embraces sustainability all across the board. All of our frames use woods that are harvested from Appalachian forests, and the cushion springs use 50 percent recycled metals," says Holly Blalock, marketing director. "The adhesive used on our frames is a no-VOC glue, the deck trim pads are 85 percent recycled and all of the cushion foam we use contains 10 percent natural plant ingredients."

Vanguard Furniture's green collection features water hyacinth, abaca and coconut bark for accent tables, chairs and occasional pieces. "One of our new tables in reclaimed pine in this collection is really starting to take off," says Payne.

Cover materials

Fabric and leather were the obvious and visible components in furniture to address the green concern. A leather-using showroom committed to sustaining the environment was Old Hickory Tannery, located in Hickory, N.C. Willard Black, its president, says, "All furniture is produced locally, uses sustainable leather, the old-fashioned eight-way hand-tie system, and maple lumber from domestic tree farms. Our cushions are filled with down, natural feathers from natural fowl, and no formaldehyde is used in the production of any of our pieces. The leather is colored with vegetable, not chromium-based dyes, the tanneries make sure that any waste does not return to the environment. The wood finishes are beeswax combined with coloration from walnut shells; this is a no-VOC product, for sure. Our wood glazes utilize a mixture of fish oil, milk and water. Even the webbing on the upholstered goods is not synthetic polypropylene, but instead natural jute and burlap."

Sustainable fabrics were judged in two juxtaposed ways. Natural fibers, in some cases preferably organic, composed the consummate green fabric. Marketing manager at Lee Industries, Bondi Coley, says, "We have worked with a North Carolina textile mill on an exclusive basis to develop an all-organic cotton, completely reversible fabric, first shown at this market."

Payne spoke of textiles at Vanguard. "Recycled fibers account for 17 percent of our fabrics, but we are becoming known for our organic cotton textiles, because these fabrics become more and more textured, looking less like contract covers."

"Consumer demand for eco-friendly fabrics is growing at a steady pace," says Greg Harden. "We've always advocated and used sustainable forestry practices in our own hardwood forests, so it makes sense to add fabrics that complete the green' product."

Rowe Furniture's Eco-Rowe collection utilized a grouping of 147 natural fiber textiles, including cotton, linen, bamboo and ramie. "There are many sources out there for these natural fabrics, including substantial green packages," says Mancina at Rowe. At Norwalk, among many other key manufacturers, there was a parallel movement toward natural fiber textiles.

Recycled fibers

On the other side, synthetic fabrics made from recycled fibers that may otherwise end up as landfill were alternately considered the apex of enlightened green textiles. Witness the plethora of recycled polyester fabrics, both for home and office, flooding showroom frames.

However, nowhere was this need for recycling more evident than in cushioning. According to Blalock at C.R. Laine, one sofa configured in its down2earth upgrade uses 300 plastic bottles, saving them from being tossed into landfill, and adds less than $100 to the retail price of the piece. At Vanguard, 20 percent of the cushioning is soy based.

At Precedent, soybean-based materials from Cargill are used for its cushioning, replacing 20 percent of the petroleum-based cushioning formerly used. Cargill's soy-based foam, BiOH Polyol, offered by Flexible Foam Products, Hickory Springs Manufacturing, North Carolina Foam industries, Prestige Fabricators and Recticel, is currently used by Bauhaus, Lane, Norwalk, Lee, Alan White, Caye, C.R. Home, Klaussner and Precedent.

The future of green design is assured by its very necessity. Asked if sustainable design is growing in the furniture industry, Coley at Lee Industries answers, "Of course!"

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