A sense of environmental responsibility and a new product from a supplier led to Norwalk Furniture's decision to improve the green qualities of its upholstered seating.

In late 2006, Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. contacted the Norwalk, Ohio-based company to discuss Preserve, its new flexible polyurethane foam product that replaces 10 percent of its petrochemical-based ingredients with a renewable soy-based material. Hickory Springs, based in Hickory, N.C., partnered with Cargill, an agricultural conglomerate, to develop Preserve.

Innovative partnership

"They wanted to partner with an innovative upholstery company, so they brought Preserve to us," says Reyna Moore, Norwalk's director of sales and marketing. "We already had a long-term relationship with Hickory Springs. We buy our foam from them and in the past have worked together on other initiatives related to comfort."

Representatives from Hickory Springs and Cargill met with Norwalk management to present Preserve and explain test results. "We were open to the idea as long as it didn't compromise the quality and the comfort," says Moore. Norwalk offers a lifetime warranty on its upholstered pieces, with a two-year warranty on fabrics, so any new components had to meet the company's durability standards.

"When they were able to prove to us that 10-percent soy-based foam could still give us the longevity, the durability, the support and it was also earth friendly we couldn't refuse," Moore says.

Passing the test

Norwalk conducted tests and completed a trial run through the factory. It discovered that Preserve has a softer hand than conventional foam and is easier to cut for manufacturing. "We followed it very closely through the manufacturing cycle to identify any issues that might arise," Moore says. "Overall, it was seamless." Hickory Springs visited the plant several times to ensure that Norwalk Furniture was satisfied with the material.

Norwalk wants its suppliers to provide innovative, cost-cutting ideas that are also environmentally responsible. It asks current and potential suppliers questions such as, "What are you doing to help the environment?" and "Are you using any recycled materials or products in the way you manufacture components for Norwalk Furniture?"

While it was testing Preserve, Norwalk began searching for a green spring-up system that would combine with the foam to provide the desired comfort. The answer came from Barber Manufacturing's S3 soft seating system made from recycled wire and steel. "We want to partner with suppliers that have the same vision as Hickory Springs and Barber Manufacturing," Moore says.

Other suppliers came forward with their green materials: Thomasville Dexel, cotton batting made from 100 percent recycled textiles and fiber wrap made from 52 percent recycled fiber content; JLM International, deck pads with 76 percent recycled fiber content; Royal Adhesives, water-based adhesives for cushion components; and Durafibre, cardboard made from 100 percent recycled materials. Diversitex, Golding and JB Martin supply natural-fiber fabrics such as cottons, linens and wools.

Norwalk Furniture's transportation division uses bio-diesel fuel, 2 percent soy in winter and 5 percent soy in summer. The company's Tennessee wood plant is a member of the Tennessee Forestry Assn., which uses select timber and promotes forest growth and planned hardwood usage.

Ready for market

During a three-month span, Norwalk combined these components and converted its entire upholstery line to green products, without having to alter its designs or manufacturing process. "We certainly wanted to educate our people on the manufacturing floor as to what we were doing to help the environment," Moore says, "but the process remained the same. Overall it was a pretty easy transition for us."

Informing retailers, consumers

Norwalk introduced its green upholstery at the High Point International Home Furnishings Market this past spring. Sales reps were educated about the product so they could convey that information to retailers.

Banners and posters announced the introduction, most showroom pieces featured the new foam so retailers could give them a test-sit and brochures describing the product were made available to retailers for their customers.

"They understood that this was something we really believe in and that it was good for the environment," Moore says. "They felt it was another benefit of having a product that is custom, delivered in 30 days, at high quality and comfort."

Consumers respond

Designers in the stores "really understand, really push" the green upholstery, Moore says. Norwalk learned that younger consumers were particularly interested in the product, and that consumers also appreciate not being charged extra for an environmentally friendly product. "We feel it's our responsibility as a manufacturer," she says, "and that cost is not being passed along to the consumer."

Hickory Springs recently met with Norwalk Furniture to discuss the second generation of Preserve, which features 20 percent soy-based content. Norwalk's intention is to continue to upgrade its products as more advanced green components become available.

The conversion is part of Norwalk's long-term commitment to environmental stewardship. "We are approaching this from the standpoint of a green journey," Moore adds. "It's not something where you flip a switch and all of a sudden, you're green. It's part of an ongoing initiative."

For more information, visit www.norwalkfurniture.com or call 877.770.3483.

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