Forget “crunchy” furniture that looks like it was discovered in an old hippie commune from the 1960s.
“Green” or sustainable furniture now has a level of style and sophistication we didn’t see three years ago when the eco-friendly design movement first gained momentum. Eco-friendly no longer has to mean furniture that looks like it was thrown together from the scrap pile.
“Choosing something environmentally friendly doesn’t mean it has to be stark, uncomfortable or unusual in any way,” says Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of public relations and marketing for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, the largest trade association representing the home furnishings industry. She cited the example of C.R. Laine, one of the first manufacturers to use repurposed plastic bottles in the soft fiberfill of the upholstery backs of well-designed sofas.
The move toward eco-friendly or sustainable furniture is gaining momentum nationally. Other well-known companies like Copeland, Century and La-Z-Boy are joining the movement. So are fabric companies such as Schumacher, the Q Collection and O Echo Textiles.
Hirschhaut’s trade association has been helping manufacturers through a process to help them make more green furniture and reduce their manufacturing’s environmental impact.
“We have been seeing the eco-wave about three years,” she says. “The materials being used are not all revolutionary with the exception of soy-based foam.” The foam became a springboard for upholstery companies to use other green products such as natural fiber covers, sustainably harvested wood frames, recycled metal springs and nontoxic glues, she says.
Despite the increase in choices, only 8 percent of mainstream furniture buyers said they had purchased eco-friendly or green furniture, according to the 2009 Sustainable by Design Consumer Marketing Research Study conducted last October for the alliance. These green shoppers said they believed that the sustainable furniture was higher quality and they were willing to pay an additional 10 percent or more for it.
Consumers aren’t alone. Many designers and architects are also reluctant to go green.
“Designers often think sustainability means too much work and too much money,” Jobi Blachy told designers recently in the Nessen showroom at the Design Center of the Americas in Dania Beach. Blachy is president of Edward Ferrell + Lewis Mittman, a New York manufacturer of green furniture.
“Only 10 percent buy the furniture because it is sustainable and 90 percent because it’s beautiful.”
Cost doesn’t have to be a stumbling block. Industry experts say green furniture costs only 10 to 20 percent more than other furniture.
Herman Brun, a Miami architect and co-founder of the South Florida Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, says green has been popular in Europe for years, then Californians picked up the concept. It just began to take off in South Florida about 1 ½ years ago, says Brun, who owns Den Architecture with his wife, Lizmarie Esparza.
Despite the increased availability of green furniture, Brun says his clients are more into green building — solar panels and efficient plumbing, lighting and appliances — than green furniture.
“We are not getting the demand that would justify huge production of the furniture,” he says. “Most of the green furniture we use is produced custom by local craftsmen.”
New furniture isn’t the only alternative. Brun says the most sustainable furniture is used or reclaimed. Since it was already produced, the carbon footprint is minimal. He often finds pieces at salvage yards and flea markets.
Interior designer Nancy Astrid Lindo of Astrid Design Studio in San Francisco, an eco design and green consulting firm, also recommends that consumers shop at thrift, vintage and antique stores. She spoke recently on “Designing for a New Era” at MiaGreen Expo and Conference in Miami, a major green event for architects, engineers, designers and builders.
“Designers are known for creating interiors and doing a lot of fluff work,” she says. “I want to help them understand they have a much greater responsibility not to create just gorgeous interiors but to create a small eco system within the larger eco system.”
This means using furniture made with no toxic finishes, glues and adhesives, paired with organic fabrics and wood sourced from sustainable forests. If an old piece is being reupholstered, she suggests using soy or rubber as stuffing and going back to organic cotton, wool and horsehair.
But finding eco-friendly furniture outside of used sources isn’t that easy. The movement, still in its infancy, has no standard definition or government oversight. It does have independent certification programs that can help consumers identify green products such as GreenGuard (www.greenguard.org ) and the Forest Stewardship Council (www.fsc.org).
Companies are still “greenwashing,” or making claims for green that are exaggerated or aren’t true. And some furniture retailers may remove the hangtags that designate third-party certification.
Lindo suggests using a design professional to determine if the furniture is really green.
“A lot of manufacturers claim to be sustainable, and to the untrained eye they can convince you that a product is green when it isn’t,” she says. “A trained eye can peel back the layers and ask questions of the manufacturers so you can determine if it is sustainable.”
If you don’t want to use a designer, a good source for information is www.regreenprogram.org. The website, sponsored by the American Society of Interior Designers and the U.S. Green Building Council, offers a series of guidelines and sources for green remodeling.
MAKE AN IMPACT
Blachy says you don’t have to do a whole house green to make a difference. Even one or two green pieces of furniture can make an impact. Ask for certification, such as Forestry Stewardship Council or GreenGuard. Ask for a sustainability statement. Ask for the origin of materials. And ask for one with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
“I think the main thing is to help people understand that sustainable, green and eco are not just for a certain demographic or a certain stereotype,” Lindo says. “Healthy living and healthy interiors can fit any budget. We need to demand these things of furniture manufacturers and vote with our dollars.”