Upholstery manufacturers that want to produce eco-friendly seating know that cushioning is a critical component. Natural fiber cover materials, frames constructed with wood from sustainable forests, springs made from recycled steel, water-based glues and finishes are important elements, but without an environmentally friendly foundation, the product will fail to achieve complete green status.

NCFI Polyurethanes, Mount Airy, N.C., has developed a foam product called Bio-Lux, which is made using a renewable, soy-based polyol called BIOH. Cargill, an agricultural conglomerate headquartered in Wayzata, Minn., supplies the BIOH.

NCFI's decision to start producing the foam was based on two factors, says Chris Bradley, director of sales for consumer products. "First, based on surveys and other tools, we realized that there is a desire by the American consumer to buy a greener product," he says. "At the same time, Cargill approached us with the new product because of our reputation of being innovative, and said, Here's something that you might want to consider for your customers.' So we took both of those and decided to put something out on the market." NCFI has a long-standing environmental record and a desire to remain strong environmental stewards, Bradley says.

Petroleum alternative

Bradley explains that there are two main ingredients in polyurethane foam manufacturing -- tuolene diisocyanate (TDI) and polyols. "The two of them account for, depending on the type of foam, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of the raw materials used to manufacture the product," he says. Polyols form the base of the product, and traditional polyols are petroleum derivatives. "So in manufacturing polyurethane foam, the polyol portion of the foam is the only candidate for replacement for a green product." NCFI is substituting only a portion of the traditional polyol with the soy-based polyol, but is striving to increase that amount.

NCFI decided to produce soy-based foam only if it met the company's performance standards. "We weren't going to try to present this as it's almost as good,'" Bradley says. Once it determined that the soy-based foam matched the performance of its other products, NCFI produced five grades of 1.8-pound density foam that would offer customers a variety of seating options.

The company launched Bio-Lux at the April 2007 High Point Market. Since then it announced that it can offer any of its 1.8-pound or lower density foams in Bio-Lux versions. The company can meet the needs of customers that also want to convert foams for backs and arms to a greener product.

Bradley says Bio-Lux doesn't change the manufacturing process for upholstery producers. "To them it's a cushion or a block of foam that comes to them," he says. "At that point forward there's no difference."

There is also little cost difference between conventional foam and Bio-Lux. "Right now it's very close," Bradley says. "Depending on the product, it might have a small effect on the price, but you're talking 1 to 2 percent at most." In the world market, soybeans have proven to be a more stable commodity than oil. "Our thoughts are long term," he says. "In two years, we could be in a situation where it's a bit less expensive, but at this point it's fairly even, if not a percentage or two higher."

Manufacturer response

Many upholstery manufacturers have expressed interest in green upholstery because they read the same surveys that NCFI reads. However, very few have been willing to take the leap into offering a line of green upholstery. "Most of them, quite honestly, are still in the discovery stage to see what's out there," Bradley says. "They are waiting for this perceived demand by the public to turn into a real demand by the public," Bradley says. "Our society does desire green, but the pocketbook speaks more than the desire to be eco-friendly."

Some manufacturers have started producing green upholstery made with Bio-Lux. Old Hickory Tannery introduced some upholstered pieces at the Spring 2007 market, while Vanguard Furniture unveiled a group at the October market. "It's a product that has to be introduced," Bradley says. "You can't just substitute it mid-year and say, By the way, your sofas are now going to come with Bio-Lux in them.' It would be like a car manufacturer halfway through the model year saying, We're changing the engine take it or leave it.' "

Greener and greener

Bio-Lux is an evolving product expected to become greener and greener as the technology advances. "We're somewhat limited by the soy-based polyols now as to how much we can put into particular grades of foam," Bradley says. "So in terms of ongoing R & D with the manufacturer, we've made it clear to them that our goal is to continually increase the amount of the soy material in the product.

"This is a very new technology," Bradley adds. "In the history of polyurethane foam, this is brand new and certainly in the development stages. There's a tremendous amount of growth to be had."

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