What you need to know about sourcing sustainable furniture
Sep 4, 2019
The interior design industry—or, at least, a quickly growing segment—is rethinking its supply chain, shifting toward more sustainable practices and more ethical furniture, fabrics, and other decorative objects. But how, exactly, do you ensure that the products you source, as a designer, are ethical? "By asking lots of questions. And I mean a lot,” says Emiliano Godoy, a Mexican industrial designer who has built his company on creating positive environmental and social impact through all its products, whether chairs, fruit bowls, or sofas. It also means doing a bit of soul-searching for your own business. "[Try] to understand the issues you want to tackle—sustainable manufacturing, labor conditions, responsible sourcing—on a deeper level. Get the tools, the knowledge, the frameworks you need to make a shift happen. Do your homework, basically," urges Godoy.
That process includes examining each aspect of the supply chain, starting with materials, though it’s not as straightforward as simply avoiding certain woods, textiles, and fabrics. What designers must look out for is whether resources purchased or used come from legal and sustainable sources. Recognized accreditations like the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), the Greenguard Certification programs, or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification can be your guiding lights here. Each one operates globally, reviewing plants and manufacturers from as far away as Asia and Africa—continents often appealing to both small and large-scale firms because of their lower production costs, but also where ecological or ethically compliant criteria aren’t always strictly implemented. An endorsement from these institutions is the equivalent of a seal of approval.
“We basically provide the supply chain with the tools to legitimize their eco-efforts and claims,” explains Josh Jacobs, director of codes and standards at UL Environment, which runs the Greenguard Certification program. The program works toward identifying and minimizing potentially harmful chemicals emitted from man-made products—the so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “To really grasp the environmental impact a piece of furniture or a building will have, you have to be able to know the emission levels, embedded carbon footprint, energy, and composition of the pieces that put it together," he says. "Greenguard tests all those aspects to ensure products meet rigorous standards and limits.” It does so regularly and through highly technical and technological methods. All its certified findings are then collected in its online database, Spot, which is free for all—suppliers, architects, designers, retailers—to browse through.
The FSC operates in a similar way, but within the forest supply-chain management. Being FSC-certified means that a manufacturer's wood complies with the FSC's environmental standards, as well as economic and social ones; besides ensuring that trees are harvested and felled responsibly, the organization also checks that habitats of endangered wildlife are protected, local communities respected, and workers properly paid. “Wood can be a very sustainable choice: It’s nontoxic, biodegradable, stores carbon rather than emitting it, and has a pretty long ‘shelf life.’ It ticks all the eco-boxes,” says the FSC’s communication director, Brad Kahn. "What we look at, though, is how well the forests are taken care of. Eighty percent of land biodiversity comes from forests; 1.6 billion people base their livelihoods on woodlands. How are they being affected from logging and deforestation? These are essential aspects of the sustainability discourse, and more crucial than the type of wood itself.”
The FSC also takes into account the impact of distance and transportation, making sure the positives of responsibly sourced wood aren’t offset by the high carbon footprint of shipping it across the world. “It’s a complicated field,” Kahn says. “You might think, I’ll just buy local, but that’s not necessarily the best solution. If you live in Seattle, a Southeast Asian wood like teak will make a more durable garden table than, say, U.S.-sourced white pine. In that case, the benefit from flying it in—the fact that it’ll last longer—easily outweighs the impact of its travel emissions. We help companies navigate all this, and encourage them to think, 'How is this piece of wood going to be used? How do I make something that will really last?'”
For Aimee Robinson, CEO of organic and eco furniture company EcoBalanza, third-party certifications have been an essential part of her decade-old business: “If you’re really after sustainability, those certifications are crucial—even more so now, when everyone in the sector is making green claims.” Travis Nagle, who founded sustainable firm Medley in 2005, echoes this sentiment: “Certifications are key tools, and really raise a company’s credibility across the entire supply chain.” Robinson warns against any claim or guarantee that doesn’t come from major institutions: “There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ these days, but really, most of it is just marketing play with no science behind it. I’m wary of any mark or shiny logo that isn’t official, like Greenguard, GOTS, FSC-certified, or USDA Organic."
What if a material you want to use isn’t certified? Either look for alternatives or choose family-owned and organic partners, Robinson says. “Support local, independently run suppliers—be they in the United States or Romania—[offering] traditional crafts that are at risk of being forgotten, integrative methods that aren’t detrimental to the environment. Just make sure you’re making the clearest product possible.” As an industrial designer, Godoy takes it a step further: “I’ve had instances where I just decided not to go ahead with an idea for a product because I couldn’t find a 100-percent sustainable way to do it. It’s a choice, and hopefully the industry will eventually fill those gaps.”
The rest of the supply chain requires just as much research. Ethical work practices, transparent facilities, and economically equitable production processes are all aspects that have to be addressed in choosing manufacturers and partners. “Certifications should be followed religiously, but what’s also important is to find a shared mind-set,” says Flora Davidson, cofounder of London- and Mumbai-based Supply Compass, a design-to-delivery sourcing platform that connects brands with a vetted manufacturer network and helps manage their exchanges. “Ask yourself, what does a good factory look like beyond certifications? I think that’s really the next level for running a sustainable business: finding people who share your approach and building relationships with them.”
You and your clients may also need to be willing to pay more for those relationships. All those interviewed for this story confirmed that they are paying higher prices for resources and manufacturers, which inevitably impacts the end product and consumers. “There’s no cutting corners, and the reality is, an ethical design business is going to be more expensive,” Nagle says. “But what you have to think of is that you’re creating and selling an investment—not just for one’s home but for people’s health and the planet.”
In that respect, Nagle adds two more essential considerations: creating durable products and ensuring they have a positive environmental impact, even after the end of their life cycle. “Being a sustainable furniture company, to me, is about making items that can really last for years and never harm the planet," he says. "That goes from their origins to what happens to them once they’re done, which is why our products are consistently all-natural. Every component counts once it ends up in a landfill, when it can’t be recycled, of course.”
Robinson and Godoy share that view. “Sustainable means maintaining things as they are. That’s great to a point, if responsible practices are what you’re trying to keep up. But what designers really have to strive toward is furniture and products that are regenerative and give something good back to our planet—whether through biodegradability, facilitating the regrowth of forests, or fueling the environment and communities they came from,” Godoy says. “That’s the ultimate standard to follow.”
Article provided by www.architecturaldigest.com, What You Need to Know About Sourcing Sustainable Furniture, July, 26, 2019