Scarlette Tapp

State of Sustainability: Home furnishings’ Earth-friendly practices continue ongoing improvement

By Powell Slaughter, Contributing Editor

HIGH POINT — Jeronimo “Gerry” Cooklin planted a seed  at the October 2001 High Point Market. CEO at the time of former Peruvian case goods manufacturer South Cone, Cooklin issued a call for action to reduce the furniture industry’s environmental impact when he paused a company anniversary party to discuss the connection between healthy forests and a healthy industry … and a healthy planet.

Cooklin followed words with action as the driving force behind the establishment of the Sustainable Furniture Council, now the Sustainable Furnishings Council. Until the early 2000s, it seemed that when “environment” came up in industry conversations it was usually in reference to mahogany protesters hanging banners on buildings and demonstrating at High Point Market. Cooklin’s call, by contrast, was from one of the industry’s own.

The sustainable movement has come a long way since then. From 20 founding members in 2006, SFC now comprises 186 members including manufacturers, interior designers, retailers and suppliers, all committed to sustainable business practices.

Scarlette Tapp

“It’s important to note that our manufacturing and supplier members range from large legacy companies to new ones whose business model was designed with sustainability in mind,” said SFC Executive Director Scarlette Tapp. “Our members network and learn from each other.”

Tapp sees a definite trend in home furnishings, particularly among manufacturers, in achieving third-party certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, Global Organic Textile Standard and GreenGuard for VOC levels.

“It’s not enough for companies to declare their sustainable intentions, but they must demonstrate it. Consumers are looking for these certifications especially those that pertain to human health,” she said. “When SFC began 18 years ago, little was known — especially in the industry — about the negative impact of home furnishings on the environment and health.”

Trade groups on-board

Legacy trade associations such as the American Home Furnishings Alliance and International Sleep Products Assn. joined in with new programs designed to encourage and gauge their members’ environmental friendliness.

Bill Perdue
Bill Perdue

AHFA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Bill Perdue, who spearheaded development of the organization’s Enhancing Furniture’s Environment (EFEC) program in the early 2000s, said great strides have been made since then.

EFEC is designed to help manufacturers examine a facility’s — or “boxes” as Perdue calls it — processes in order to reduce its environmental impact on air, land and water.

“AHFA realized years ago that there was a popular term floating around — ‘greening the supply chain,’” Perdue said, noting that reducing the impact of sourcing and transporting manufacturing inputs wasn’t enough. “You can’t have a ‘green’ product coming out of a ‘brown’ plant. … You identify potential outputs and their effect on air, land and water, and reduce those.”

The idea was to create an environmental management system based on continuous development and improvement. After an initial facility audit and training of a participant’s own implementation team, EFEC relies upon follow-up annual audits to track progress and look for areas to make further reductions in environmental impact.

Perdue said that companies implementing EFEC not only lessened negative impacts, but also identified and captured revenue as well.

“That incentivized the program; if you incentivize it, people will do it,” Perdue said. “EFEC has done really well where it’s been implemented. … Between 12 and 15 companies involving 20 to 30 facilities across the U.S. have embraced EFEC, and we have some international facilities as well.”

AHFA followed up on EFEC with two other programs that proved more problematic. Sustainable by Design looked to push EFEC practices beyond individual facilities to include the supply chain, while Eco3Home was product specific, requiring an individual article inventory that included percent of certified sustainable wood, percent of recycled or bio-based content and percent sourced within 500 miles of the factory.

Perdue said those last two programs demanded a huge amount of data, often from across the globe and from entities outside the manufacturer’s direct control. While EFEC also is data-intensive, participants have far greater control over where to find efficiencies and better trust in the reliability of the information they collect.

EFEC has proven “a diamond in the rough” for companies that embraced it and implemented it on the ground, Perdue said.

“The application of the program’s architecture also fits over warehouses, showrooms,” he noted, “and retail stores” where applicable. “It also has more of a localized impact on communities (around the facilities). It’s open enough to where if you’re creative, you can drop the architecture on any ‘box’ and make it work.”

In addition, EFEC’s examination of processes and waste fall-off can move companies beyond recycling into repurposing. Perdue cited the example of a La-Z-Boy facility in Utah, which found a local company that extruded polypropylene from fabric scraps, melted it and remolded it to provide components utilized in the plant’s production.

“The repurposing part of EFEC became its strength,” Perdue said.

Moving ahead, AHFA looks for manufacturers to continue finetuning and repurposing their waste stream.

“You can only get so much ‘blood out of a turnip,’” Perdue said. “The lowest-hanging fruit in the manufacturing process is where we’re creating waste off-fall. First, you have to get more efficient, and second, if we’ve gotten to efficiency, how do we re-purpose the waste off-fall? I’d love to see us do more of that.”

Over to mattresses

Ryan Trainer

ISPA President Ryan Trainer said the bedding sector’s level of environmental awareness and collaboration is increasingly moving toward concrete action.

“I know of several companies at ISPA’s sustainability conferences who made connections that have led to new business opportunities and even new materials, some of which are already coming to market,” said Trainer, who also serves as president of ISPA’s Mattress Recycling Council affiliate (see sidebar). “I was also impressed to see how many exhibitors at the ISPA Expo 2024 that we held in mid-March in Columbus, Ohio, are promoting the environmental benefits of their new materials and machines.

“These innovations range from lighter materials that require fewer resources to produce and transport,” he continued, “to machines that provide energy and materials efficiency savings, to adhesives that do not contaminate post-consumer foam and fabric when recycled, to pocketed coils designed for easier recycling, to textiles made from recycled and renewable materials with recycling in mind, and the list goes on.”

Discarded mattresses are a highly visible component of landfills, and it’s not a good look when they show up on the curb for pickup or dumped illegally by a roadside.

“Much of the industry’s initial sustainability efforts focused on what to do with our products at the end of their useful life,” Trainer said. “We have worked hard to study the recycling process, identify the obstacles to reducing the waste that we cannot currently recycle and finding creative solutions to those problems.”

He said, by way of example, that pocketed mattress coils proved a major recycling challenge due to the difficulty of disassembling multiple layers of glued foam and scrim from around the coil. Discarded coils that end up in the waste stream not only add to landfills, but recyclers also miss an opportunity to sell the coils’ salvaged steel and nonwoven polypropylene fabric, which are valuable commodities.

He cited examples, a couple of which are:

  • Leggett & Platt’s “Rest in Pieces,” a new pocketed-coil system that’s far easier to disassemble than standard units.
  • The “Bedder Shredder,” a machine that quickly and economically separates coils from fabric and offered by Customized Recycling Programs of Florence, Ky.
  • New glues from the adhesive sector that make pocketed coils easier to recycle in the future.

What’s next

Where’s the most opportunity for ongoing improvement of environment-friendly bedding practices, for example raw materials, fuel/routing efficiency, recycling, etc.?

“I’d say all of the above,” Trainer said, citing the bedding sectors complexity of product variety, manufacturing models and locations, and sales and distribution platforms. His headline: There is no single sustainability pathway that is right for all the sector’s customer groups, producers or distribution methods.

“U.S. consumers buy roughly 50 million mattresses and boxsprings a year,” Trainer said. “Their price points, health needs, lifestyles, bedroom sizes, tastes and geographic locations are diverse to say the least.

“The source of those 50 million units is also diverse, having been manufactured by hundreds if not thousands of different factories, both at home and abroad,” he continued. “Those different companies in turn have different resources, manufacturing and sourcing constraints and corporate cultures. And now our distribution models are evolving rapidly. Mattresses intended to be delivered flat and those that get boxed have different environmental variables.”

Trainer identified another area on his improvement wishlist: a recent ISPA survey suggesting a large gap exists between the environmental features that mattress component suppliers and manufacturers are building into their products, and the interest in or ability of many retailers to communicate those product attributes to the consumer.

“This has taught us that collaboration is needed not only at the manufacturing stage, but all the way through the value chain to the retailer and the consumer,” he said. “We have lots of work to do.”

To support sustainability initiatives, ISPA looks to provide relevant information and tools stakeholders can use in prioritizing their sustainability needs and objectives, and to advocate for sensible environmental policies.

“I am confident that the problem solvers among us will then use those ingredients to develop products, manufacturing methods and companies that will help build a more sustainable world,” Trainer said.

Naturable and renewable raw materials are one aspect to pursue, but they aren’t always the right materials for all companies or all customers.

“Sustainability involves so much more than that,” Trainer said. “In addition to the rules and regulations they must meet, we want our members to understand those sustainability trends that will influence policy makers and consumers that are relevant to mattresses and mattress producers. To help them communicate accurately about what sustainability means, we published a glossary of important sustainable terms so we can all use the same vocabulary. We want our members to understand the differences between the dozens of sustainability standards, seals and certifications that are relevant to our products. We want them to understand what greenwashing means and how to avoid it.”

With that information in hand, Trainer added, ISPA “members decide which materials, production methods and other sustainable strategies are right for their company, the products they make and the customers they serve.”

SFC’s Tapp noted the post-pandemic years have shifted the world’s focus to creating healthier environments including the home.

“We live our lives on our furniture, and the furniture industry will have no choice but address the health concerns attributed to toxic inputs in furniture,” she said. “Also, shortening the supply chain for more domestic manufacturing will help with the carbon issue.”

See also: Industry gives itself so-so grade on sustainability

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