Climbing the Sustainability Summit

At the recent Sustainability Conference sponsored by the American Home Furnishings Alliance, 2009 Sage Award winner Tim Copeland

At the recent Sustainability Conference sponsored by the American Home Furnishings Alliance, 2009 Sage Award winner Tim Copeland

By Marilyn Nason

Genuine commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship has become a requisite in today’s competitive home furnishings industry, emerging as top priority for those involved in determining how executives run their own companies, especially as part of their marketing/retailing goals influencing consumer purchasing decisions.

Couple this with the realization that not only marketing of sustainably-verified products can win more consumers but also establishing workable ongoing in-house environmental stewardship programs can achieve considerable internal fiscal savings as a result of overall long-range corporate commitment to sustainability measures.

To furniture executives attending the second annual two-day Sustainability Summit, sponsored by AHFA in Greensboro, N.C., the message loud and clear was forget pricing as the number one reason tomorrow’s consumers will buy and market the brand as certified environmentally-sustainable.

Could the solution rest—at least in part—with something as familiar as a Good Housekeeping Seal?

During the two days, attendees learned adopting well-structured corporate-wide sustainability programs produces considerable (often surprising, most admitted) fiscal benefits from savings in fuel, water, raw materials as well as less hauling to and use of community landfills, etc.

As a perfect example of such positive factors possible from corporate environmental stewardship programs by home furnishings industry manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, Good Housekeeping’s Research Institute announced its familiar seal (circa 1909) program will soon be expanded to include a new green seal allowing home furnishings manufacturers/suppliers who commit to tested certification programs to be able to assure consumers the item’s green claims are not random “green washing” but have been through full GH testing procedures.

In discussing its new green seal testing program, Miriam Arond, director, Good Housekeeping Research Institute, observed there are few perfect green products, so recognized reputable testing groups such as theirs are an important element in assuring consumers of a product’s content and production methods. Whenever the famed Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval goes on an item, Arnold told Summit attendees, it refers solely to the test results of that item, not to an entire line, collection or brand and must be retested if content and/or production method is changed. The green seal will follow the same rules, so “any product that changes must resubmit for testing before permitted to carry our seal,” she said.

Several speakers outlined specific, positive results from their own internal corporate environmental stewardship programs, resulting in considerable savings in water, gas, paper, raw materials, landfill use, as well as development of practical reclamation, recycling, reuse programs.

As both governmental regulations and consumer questioning of products increases, home furnishings manufacturers, suppliers, retailer attendees endorsed development of their own certifiable claims in marketing, as well as establishing/implementing ongoing practical programs addressing all aspects of their operations.

In each presentation, industry execs stressed not if or when to implement these sustainability programs but how to create their own to maximize positive results internally; in marketing to consumers; helping their retailers tell the certifiable sustainability program story, as well as within their own communities.

Corporate manufacturers’ programs to achieve these critical sustainable-related results were presented by Lewis Herman Jr., corporate environmental/facilities engineer, and Reggie Propst, vice president/operations, Kincaid Furniture Co.; Angela Nahikian, director, global environmental sustainability, Steelcase.; David Davis, director/engineering, Hooker Furniture; and Patrick Crahan, senior vice president, Flexsteel Industries.

Making certain all environmental claims from manufacturers, suppliers, retailers are accurate with legally verifiable attribution data will play a major role in counteracting the saturation of aimless green-washing claims throughout the industry, speakers agreed. To counter such claims, many companies and industry groups have been focusing on developing specific programs to help manufacturers address these issues with reportedly over 800 labels and logos now available.

Speakers agreed the overall “green is in” philosophy has become mainstream with consumers, especially in everyday items like home cleaning and personal care products, assuring that everything for home, including home furnishings, textiles, sleep surfaces, are now also entering into consumer’s sustainability data for purchasing decisions.

Suzanne Shelton, president/CEO, The Shelton Group, noted not only content but percentage of natural fibers, as well as of chemicals in the fabric, may soon be consumer-requested when purchasing upholstered furniture. She emphasized, since consumers are not educated about what green, recycled, other terms mean, reputable, proven labels, tags, marketing information must supply this data.

Two retailers addressed the critical subject of “Bridging the Gap: Communicating Green at Retail.” Peggy Burns, Circle Furniture, Acton, Mass., and Andy Thornton, La Difference, Richmond Va., both described their commitment methods educating customers on environmental data connected with each SKU they sell. When available, literature is offered, they said, noting it is important not to overstate green claims.    When it comes to designing,  manufacturing, selling home furnishings, a panel of suppliers agreed “all roads cross the supply chain”, as they play a key role in bringing product to consumers with all collateral educational data.

The supplier panel discussing their role in “Greening the Supply Chain” included Yusuf Wazirzaa, Cargill; Todd Vogelsinger, Columbia Forest Products; Dimitri Dounis, Hickory Springs; Doug Martin, Pollmeier; and Bob Ludeka, Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam.

Return Summit speaker this year, Diana Dobin, senior vice president, Valley Forge Fabrics, described how her award-winning decorative fabric supplier company helps both its own company and customers with the theme of  “reduce carbon footprint while increasing revenue and profits—it’s possible.” Jack Geibig, research associate, University of Tennessee Energy, Environmental & Resources Center, outline research programs dealing with developing environmental tools, techniques, strategies focusing on efficiency, reduced health risks and the environment. Some of this research is expected to help the furniture industry better identify its role in the environment, including simplified informational tagging and data formats to help educate consumers at time of purchase.

Christie Grymes, partner, Kelley Drye LLP, discussed “Descriptive  or Deceptive? How to Avoid Risks in Green Marketing” issue, warning to never overstate environmental attributes and benefits in product promotion, marketing. She cited two recent examples, including retailing bamboo claims in some home products coming under question as an example of why every claim must be verifiable. California-made Sun Chips claimed it used solar energy in production and has been challenged to prove “it can live up to its name”, she noted.

The Summit was co-sponsored with AHFA by Cargill’s BiOH polyols. The Sustainability Summit 2010 will take place Dec. 1-2 at Hilton Biltmore Park,  Asheville, N.C.