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Susan Dickenson

Increased awareness fuels growth in green home accents

Product stories that validate are key

Increasing consumer awareness continues to grow the green segment for manufacturers of home furnishings. Buyers have learned what to look for, and with wholesale clubs, furniture chains and department stores getting into the green groove, there's more to choose from.

Greater interest among the accessories, lighting and rug categories led to the Sustainable Furniture Council's August announcement that it was changing its name to the Sustainable Furnishings Council to reflect the diversity of its growing membership. “As the organization has evolved, we have attracted many members outside of traditional furniture lines who are eager for the services and recognition that we can provide,” said Susan Inglis, SFC executive director.

But especially during this past year, manufacturers of green home furnishings have found that it's not enough to make the claim that a product is made from recycled, reclaimed or sustainable sources, or free of formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds, or covered in water-based dyed organic fabrics. Now the product's background must be validated in the form of a product story, or certified according to one of several standards defined by one of just as many organizations. And it's got to get from source to factory to consumer via the most eco-friendly route.

Natural Fine Furnishings general manager Anthony Majewski said his customers often ask if his company is able to validate the greenness of its naturally-finished, sustainable wood furniture. In response, the company developed something it calls a “chain of custody story.” “This really has improved the way our customers look at us and the way we look at new products,” Majewski said. “Educating and customer service are the keys to our success.”

Renee Fanjon, president of Padma's Plantation, said her company's product development team also has been spending a lot of time documenting product background data, which it makes available to its customers and reps. “Our customers want details, and are surprisingly knowledgeable of what is green and what isn't,” she said. “They are very concerned about green washing and are getting informed to ask all the right questions and avoid purchasing items that are not truly as green as they sound.”

A look at the Web site of one of Padma's Plantation's customers, Structured Green (also the subject of this month's Retail Profile, page 20) shows one way in which this background data is used in the marketing process. Every product on Structured Green's Web site has a “Why it's Green” section that describes topics ranging from the manufacturer's production facility to the type of dyes used in the upholstery.

Mark Phillips of The Phillips Collection said green remains an important growth area for his company in both retail and hospitality. “Our mandate is to take the greener path whenever possible — water based finishes instead of oil, no acids, less plastic, etc.,” he said. “We are a long way from perfect but we are aiming better. We're working with exciting new green artists including Daryl Stokes, a Californian who harvests abandoned redwood roots and sculpts them into magnificent contemporary works of art.”

Padma's Plantation, which has been absorbing the day-to-day operations for Texture Home Decor, also reports positive results. “Since we purchased (Texture Home Decor) in May 2008, we've seen a growth in sales for both companies. Customers find that the lines complement each other nicely, which is exactly what we were banking on when we decided to purchase.”

On the supply side, Phillips is seeing a movement toward more cooperation. “On the supplier side we are finding that our resources are surprisingly anxious to collaborate with us. They want to do the right thing and are asking us how.”

Chris Bruning of Groovystuff finds it challenging. “We are still pursuing certification of our products abroad and have risen to the challenges fellow importers face when not direct owners of the manufacturing facilities.”

Bruning, instrumental in his work to date with the SFC, said information and advertising blitz of the past year have “definitely kept the momentum going in educating the public and piquing interest.”

Now, Bruning and Groovystuff co-owner Jeff Singleton are working on a marketing project with the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a journey that began earlier this year when Groovystuff embraced the Sustainability by Design and EFEC (Enhancing Furniture's Environmental Culture) programs offered to members of the AHFA. “In conjunction with the AHFA and the University of Texas Graduate Studies Department we are working on ways to gather data and demonstrate to the industry the proven economics for embracing sustainability,” Bruning said.

A recent consumer study by the SFC suggests that the market for green home furnishings will continue to grow, with style, quality and pricing as the main drivers. The study was intended to provide hard data on current levels of activation, purchase interest and price sensitivity.

Jeff Hiller, SFC marketing chair, said that based on his 10 years of experience in national new product introductions, the study forecasts that about 30% of consumers would buy green home furnishings if they were available. “This is the threshold number for successful launches,” Hiller said. “Consumers are there. It's now up to manufacturers and retailers to deliver acceptable choices.”

And to some consumers, from where and how those goods are delivered is equally as important, leading more manufacturers to undertake strategies to reduce their own environmental footprints.

“On the operations side we are trying to make small positive moves,” Phillips said. “We now use ceramic cups instead of Styrofoam for coffee. We are also trying to use less paper, throw less out, plant trees and shrubs, and consolidate garbage pickups.”

Majewski said Natural Fine Furnishings' staff members have started leaving office lights turned off, working by natural light instead. The employees recycle their bottles and soda cans, cut up old documents for scrap paper and reuse old corrugated boxes for packaging. “Recently we offered an internship to an individual to be our green representative, which has led to speaking engagements about working for green companies,” he said.

Midwest, manufacturer of Colonial Candle home fragrance products, recently announced that Colonial Candle's Elkin, N.C., production facility was recognized as an Environmental Partner in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources' (NCDENR) Environmental Stewardship Initiative.

To receive the NCDENR's Environmental Partner recognition, the Colonial Candle facility had to prove that it met the guidelines by opening its doors to an audit and sharing its ongoing recycling and energy-saving activities with the NCDENR. Those activities include extensive recycling and reuse of wax, corrugate, paper, glass, water, metals, wood pallets and other materials; investing in state-of-the-art energy saving systems to reduce natural gas and electricity consumption; installing T-5 lights; and implementing an Energy Conservation Policy encouraging all employees to reduce energy consumption on an ongoing basis.

For the home furnishings manufacturer, designer or retailer who can best put it all together — the green production facility, sustainable sources, recycled or reclaimed materials, close shipping proximity — there's a new honor, the SAGE Awards, developed and sponsored by the American Home Furnishings Association and Cargill's BiOH polyols. Three finalists will be named during the October High Point Market, with the winner to be announced in November during the AHFA's Sustainability Summit, which is being held at the Greensboro, N.C., Proximity Hotel, the highest LEED-rated hotel in the country.

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