Bob Richard

Beyond the ‘right thing,’ more companies are finding commitment to sustainability has near-, long-term benefits

By Powell Slaughter, Contributing Editor

HIGH POINT — The furniture industry’s attitude toward environment-friendly business practices has evolved considerably during the past 20 years as manufacturers and retailers have moved beyond “doing the right thing” to incorporating sustainable practices in their companies as strategies for improving operations and efficiency, all while offering bottom-line benefits.

Everything from improving raw-materials yield — e.g., investing in manufacturing equipment to get more out of each board of lumber or bolt of fabric — to lower costs for utilities. Examples of the latter: energy credits for excess electricity generated through a dealer’s solar array or fewer trips to the landfill to unload the enormous amount of packaging a retail operation generates.

Several large and not-so-large vendors and retailers spoke with Furniture Today about sustainability as strategy and opportunities they see for continued improvement.

Some companies are pushing their commitment to reducing their environmental footprint up their supply chain. An Acton, Mass.-based, five-store Boston-area retailer is a case in point. A founding member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council 18 years ago, Circle Furniture powers all stores and its distribution center through the warehouse’s roof-top solar array, generating cumulative supply credits each year. Along with other environment-friendly practices, Circle wants to do business with like-minded vendors. CEO Bob Richard cited four key criteria regarding Circle’s manufacturing partners.

Bob Richard

“Does the company recycle waste like we do at Circle Furniture, from trash to pallets to boxes to metal scrap? Does the company upcycle materials to repurpose what may otherwise end up in the landfill (think of the Linn bed by Copeland), using scraps to create new furniture?” he said. “Is the company focused on best quality to create heirlooms vs. value engineering, which only serves to accelerate furniture’s ultimate trip to the landfill? Is the company local to me, minimizing fossil fuels required to get the furniture into our customer’s home?”

Business sense

Beyond its Earth-friendly attitude, Circle’s sustainable practices realize real financial benefit.

“I am constantly looking for ways to increase sustainability, and it shouldn’t be lost that, beyond being good for the planet, it is almost always a smart business decision,” Richard said.

Examples include a $79 charge for Circle’s team to haul away a replaced mattress; the retailer pays $22 to drop off the old mattress with a bulk recycler. A $17,000 investment in a cardboard baler yields a monthly check from a cardboard commodity broker (with free pick-up) instead of paying $2,000 a month for the trash company for hauling and processing.

Ben Copeland 2024
Ben Copeland

Solid wood case goods producer Copeland Furniture, also an SFC founding member, sought better lumber yield a decade ago by investing in finger-joining machinery. Success with occasional tables incorporating finger-joined parts led to expanding with a higher-capacity line to grow finger-joining into other categories. Copeland now utilizes close to 100% of wood entering the plant. Variable frequency drives on large equipment push down total electrical consumption, while Copeland’s two solar installations offset the great majority of all remaining electrical use.

“Without a doubt, recent initiatives toward sustainability have materially contributed to our bottom line in addition to being ‘the right thing to do,’” said Ben Copeland, director of sales and marketing, citing other beneficial energy related investments.

“We estimate that the heating oil offset by our biomass boilers would be equivalent to approximately 336,750 pounds of CO2,” he continued. “Of course, burning wood releases CO2 as well, but burning wood is a part of a closed loop where the carbon released was recently sequestered from the air by the tree’s photosynthesis — and will be re-sequestered by the new trees that grows in its place — as opposed to an open system where new carbon is dug up from the ground and introduced to the atmosphere.”

While case goods manufacturer Vaughan-Bassett Furniture’s short supply chain for wood has always been a boon, package recycling was a challenge.

Doug Bassett

“The ability to recycle came to this area later than in larger, more urban areas,” said Doug Bassett, president. “With the help of local government, we were able to set up a program on our own, and in recent years we’ve stopped sending plastic and cardboard to the landfill.

“We also replaced many of our lights in the factory with longer-lasting, low-energy lights,” he continued, noting those efforts are in addition to the company’s two biggest environmental claims. “We’ve replanted 5 million trees through the Virginia Department of Forestry, and some of those planted in the first year are near maturation. Second, we estimate that 80% of our wood comes from within 200 miles, and the associated carbon footprint reduction is significant.”

Vaughan-Bassett, another SFC founding member, believes through recycling, energy reduction, waste utilization and particularly its short wood supply stream have the company in good shape for now regarding sustainability.

“Being close to our resources is a huge advantage in our ability to reduce our environmental footprint,” Bassett said. “Everything else pales in comparison.”

He added the SFC does a good job sharing best practices and examining processes for ways to improve.

“So often, reviewing the process is a win-win,” Bassett said, noting that the company’s investment in new lighting alone paid for itself within two years through energy savings. “We’ve been educated over the past 20 years that sustainable practices aren’t an either/or situation. … That’s the strategic shift that should occur.”

Moving the scale

Some of the industry’s heaviest hitters at retail and manufacturing also are reaping sustainable practices’ benefits. Moreover, their operations’ scale drastically increases their potential environmental impact.

Ashley’s operational culture, for example, has long centered around reducing waste, lowering costs and maintaining energy efficiency, and many efforts there also are good for the environment.

Todd Wanek - 2024
Todd Wanek

“We constantly strive to improve upon these areas and make them integral to every aspect of our operations,” said CEO Todd Wanek, noting Ashley has consistently prioritized sustainability and will continue to do so in the future.

Highlights from Ashley’s 2023 Corporate Responsibility Report include:

  • Solar panel investments of more than $21 million generating about 25 million Kilowatt hours per year.
  • Recycling at U.S. facilities last year of near 79,000 tons of wood; 12,000-pluse tons of cardboard; more than 7,900 tons of polyfoam; almost 1,100 tons of metal; and 492 tons of plastic.

“Ashley has also invested more than $38,000,000 in energy-efficient white membrane roofing, covering a total of over 8 million square feet,” Wanek said. “These investments demonstrate the company’s focus on energy efficiency through the use of innovative building materials.

“Ashley has made environmentally conscious investments, such as the purchase of a fully electric yard truck in Redlands, Calif., with plans to acquire more in the future. The company’s transportation fleet also utilizes auxiliary power units, which reduce idle time by 90% and fuel time by 30%,” he continued. “Additionally, Ashley has undertaken several tree-planting initiatives to contribute to reforestation efforts and support the environment. Over the past 30 years, Ashley and the Wanek family have invested more than $750,000 in tree planting.”

In recognition of such efforts, Ashley received the Business Friend of the Environment award through Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Recycling Excellence award through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2023.

Andrew Koenig

On the retail side, Top 100 Tamarac,-Fa. based City Furniture’s 2024 Green Promise commits to a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040 through steps such as a green delivery fleet with 100% natural gas-powered delivery trucks, efficient facilities including eight LEED-certified showrooms that have reduced electrical consumption while increasing floor space; large-scale recycling keeping 8.5 million pounds of waste out of landfills each year; and solar generation for 33% of all electricity.

CEO Andrew Koenig also believes sustainable practices are a key to attracting committed associates and customers among younger people, a demographic more likely to weigh a company’s environmental practices in an employment or purchase decision.

“I personally think that this is the right thing to do for running our business, for attracting talent, for retaining talent and for your customers,” Koenig said. “I think over time the awareness will come and more people will see why they should shop with City because we truly are living our purpose: To enrich people’s lives and make the world a better place.”

Opportunities, challenges

Moving ahead to achieve carbon neutrality, SFC founding member City Furniture is getting more specific on targets, breaking down KPIs and putting in leadership time and energy to measure performance.

Koenig identified three areas where the company can further develop sustainability efforts to benefit operations and the environment.

“First, expanding our solar partnerships to help offset our electricity (use),” he said. Second, after receiving five Tesla semis on order, “we’ll be hauling our furniture throughout our warehouses using electric trucks powered by the sun. I think this would be great improvement for carbon neutrality. We drive thousands of miles a year from warehouse to warehouse.”

Third is expanding the amount of sustainable product available in City Furniture’s showrooms.

“We’re seeing some good progress but still tons to be done inside City and with our vendors,” Koenig said. “I’m proud of our global sourcing team for all their work with our merchandising and supply chain teams so far, but it’s a big road ahead to make further progress.”

City Furniture’s sourcing group has been a top scorer since 2020 on the SFC’s Wood Furniture Scorecard, and the National Wildlife Federation has recognized its wood sourcing practices.

The team has “developed some great green collections for us and continue to evolve the product lineup to get more sustainable year after year,” Koenig added.

Circle Furniture is in the process of partnering with local artisans and art associations where they are members to replace accessories mass-produced overseas with locally made goods.

“I look forward to the day when 100% of our table-top accessories, when you flip them over to read the bottom, it will not read ‘Made in China’ but rather have the signature or name of the local artisan that created the piece,” Richard said. “This is an area that again makes business sense, where I can offer our customers original pieces at about the same price as the mass-produced stuff that has baked into its price multiple middlemen and lots of transportation fees including its non-green fossil fuel burning. If people want the mass-produced stuff, they can shop at Home Goods, TJMaxx and the like.”

Ashley’s Wanek said the company would stay at the forefront of incorporating efficient and sustainable technologies.

“As we look towards the future, there are several potential areas of opportunity, including the adoption of electric vehicles, maximizing our use of renewable energy, and optimizing material sourcing practices,” he said. “Our commitment to innovation and sustainability fuels our drive to explore and embrace these areas for continued progress.”

More issues to consider

As an SFC member, Circle’s Richard applauds the organization’s intent but said it can stretch too far in the case of wanting Forest Stewardship Council certification for domestically sourced wood products.

“The fact that forest growth in the U.S. has outpaced forest harvesting by more than 40% since the 1930s, and our available biomass is much greater than it was even 100 years ago, makes the paperwork and research to validate the pedigree of every wood component used down to a drawer knob for FSC-certified wood not only incredibly difficult for my manufacturing partners, but wholly unnecessary,” he said, adding the increase in U.S. forest growth over forest harvest is due more to the economics of logging than any green movement. “Improved land management is more profitable than a scorch-the-earth approach.”

Richard also noted that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to optimizing sustainable practices.

“If I am in downtown New York in the shadow of skyscrapers, a solar farm on top of my store is not going to be the best use of my resources,” he said by way of example.

Copeland Furniture expects further incremental gains on its current manufacturing initiatives. For now, wood finishes remain an opportunity and a challenge for the case goods manufacturer.

“Water-borne technology continues to be work in progress but every year it gets closer to the performance and aesthetic standards required by the industry,” Copeland said. “We’re getting close on water-borne finishes. Historically, they’ve had two major faults: One, they don’t lay down as smooth; two, the actual resin, usually acrylic, leaves a whitish hue vs. the amberish tone of conventional finishes.

“The technology has advanced to where it’s going on much smoother with a better hand, but it’s still a little milky,” he continued. “We may be getting very, very close.”

Copeland also believes “greenwashing” remains an issue, particularly for some mass retailers often vocal about sustainability.

“They might be using LED lighting, recycling — things everyone should be doing anyway — but how they source their product is critical,” he said. “For example, if they specialize in low-durability, highly replaceable and easily disposable product that ends up in landfills, there’s a lot of negative offset. Not only is the production of that lower quality product usually dirtier, (but also) the consumer is going to replace that five or six times in their lifetime.”

Bassett at Vaughan-Bassett also cited phase-out of alcohol-based finishes and development of alternatives more friendly to EPA and Virginia Department of Natural Resources requirements: “Those rules never get easier, they only get tougher.”

See also:

  • State of Sustainability: Home furnishings’ Earth-friendly practices continue ongoing improvement
  • Industry gives itself so-so grade on sustainability

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