Consumer interest in sustainability—either in furniture or your store’s operation—is on the rise.
Drought, floods, hurricanes and raging wildfires: Beyond an estimated $400 billion in damages, the extreme weather events of 2017 will have numerous consequences. One may be a sea-change in consumer attitudes about sustainable products.
“More and more people are having personal experiences with climate-related natural disasters, and they are waking up to the fact that doing something—anything—is worth it,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC), a non-profit industry organization she helped found 11 years ago. “While we realize that the big sustainability issues like climate change are large and complex, we’re also seeing more and more companies in our industry willing to take steps to make a difference, rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. And they are realizing how empowering that can be to their bottom line.”
Recent research conducted for the Sustainable Furnishings Council by Research Solutions to assess consumer interests and behaviors on issues related to sustainable furnishings found that more than 90 percent of consumers who walk into a furniture store are “very likely” to choose a product with an eco-story, “assuming of course that they like the style and the product is within their budget,” Inglis says. “We’ve never seen this stat this high before; last year  it was in the high 60s.”
Fielded last fall, the online survey focused on U.S. homeowners, men and women, age 30 to 60 with household incomes of $50,000 or more, who reported spending at least $500 in home furnishings in the past year. Respondents expressed opinions on a variety of environmental issues, with toxic pollutants in the waste stream, deforestation, extinction of species, using up natural resources, and hazardous indoor air quality of most concern. More than 90 percent reported having adopted environment-friendly habits at home, such as recycling or replacing light bulbs with energy-efficient options, while more than 80 percent said they have made at least one shopping related change (such as using reusable shopping bags) or buying ecofriendly products.
“For the most part our customer base is very educated—maybe not millionaires—but well-to-do,” says Beth Bridgers, co-owner of Beyond Blue Interiors in Raleigh, N.C. “And they increasingly demand furniture that is made in a green, sustainable way. We find that these consumers tend to feel that a green story goes hand-in-hand with high quality and they are willing to pay for it. Of course, if it’s just a green statement and it doesn’t also come with quality and great design, it might not be as easy a sell.”
Bridgers says she launched Beyond Blue Interiors 13 years ago with her partner, Susan Lafera, “because we had a feeling that not everyone in the South wanted traditional, over-stuffed furniture. We wanted to bring consumers a cleaner, more modern style of furniture and we wanted to help people in our area create timeless, sophisticated and soothing homes. Life today is so chaotic,” she says, “and we need our homes to be a safe and calm backdrop in a crazy world.”
From the start, the partners sought to buy locally-made products for their 4,500-square-foot boutique, in an effort to minimize their carbon footprint. “Sourcing locally saves so much on things like the fuel required to ship products long distances,” Bridgers says. “We look first to North Carolina-based vendors like Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams who were one of the very earliest supporters of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. We also do business with Charleston Forge and companies like Copeland in Vermont, as well as consignment for artists in the Raleigh Triangle area. Our customers really like to know that we have personally met the manufacturers and toured their facilities, and also when we can provide them with background on the artists we feature.”
HFA member Peggy Burns, self-described Queen Bee at six-store, Boston-based Circle Furniture, has been involved with the Sustainable Furnishings Council from its inception and has long sourced from local vendors. Along with reducing the amount of fossil fuels necessary to ship the goods, Burns says the practice also cuts down on excess packaging materials that must be used to protect furniture over long distances. The most important benefit of sourcing locally however, has little to do with environmental impact. According to Burns, the smaller, environmentally-friendly independent companies she deals with help Circle Furniture stand apart in its marketplace both in terms of product differentiation and storytelling.
Interestingly, while Circle Furniture has developed a reputation in the Boston area for unique, environmentally friendly products, the store’s marketing focuses more on the benefits of a healthy home. “That concept translates better to customers,” Burns says. “Our sales team is very knowledgeable and they are able to share all the facts about our products, but we don’t say right away, ‘This is eco-friendly,’ because it’s not something we want to address head on. There is so much green-washing in our industry and the average customer doesn’t necessarily understand all the issues.”
Circle Furniture provides pertinent information on its product tags, “talking about where a product came from, how we support our local economy, how it may be lower in (volatile organic compounds) and made with non-toxic materials, that kind of thing,” Burns says. “When I open a new vendor, I ask all those questions and get all the information to ensure our designers are well versed. Some of them are little places that are not even part of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, but we try to be inclusive if they can pass certain tests. We go to their shops and can see that they don’t waste anything. Even their sawdust is sent to local farms to use as bedding for pigs and cows.”
Guardians of the Galaxy
Similarly, with two 15,000-square-foot showrooms in Dallas and Houston, Katherine Snedeker describes The Arrangement as “proponents of healthier, happier, sustainable interiors. We spend a lot of money educating our clients. We invite them to lectures and classes and events so that they can learn more about the sustainable movement. We call it ‘Saving the Universe one beautiful, sustainable room at a time.’ That’s our mission and we take it seriously, but we make it funny and enjoyable. We don’t beat them over the head with it.”
Focused on rustic modern furniture “that is bolder and more custom than most,” approximately 40 percent of the offerings here are verified sustainable. “We love salvage, finding things and turning them into furniture,” she says. “We don’t do cookie-cutter. We work with stone and metal, copper and reclaimed woods and our clients come in every couple of months to see what’s new.”
A proponent of sustainability for some 30 years, The Arrangement also regularly participates in Earth Day events and most recently, took top honors in #GetYourGreenOn, the 2017 Sustainable Design Excellence interior design competition, for the repurposing of a 1978 storage warehouse for residential use. The open, airy and one-of-a-kind home featured products from SFC members Phillips Collection, Loloi, Feizy, Classic Home and Vanguard Furniture. The program acknowledges interior design professionals who set high environmental standards and tirelessly ask their partners and suppliers, “What’s it made of?”
“The new consumer cares,” Snedeker says. “I believe Millennials are looking for a reason to purchase and for them it’s about a lot more than price. At the same time, Houston was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey and our clients now are really re-designing and re-thinking their homes, not just making them whole again. They are seizing the opportunity to update and change things and I think we’ll see even more focus on sustainability in 2018.”
What’s Your Story?
When HFA member Andrew Tepperman, president of Tepperman’s Furniture, a family chain based in Ontario, Canada, took over the business, he and his brother created a long-term vision for the company based on six guiding principles. One of those principles, which Tepperman calls the non-negotiables that form the foundation of the company, was to be a leader in sustainability. Currently, Tepperman’s diverts 85.4 percent of its waste from landfills.
“I don’t know if it was a generational thing that my brother and I were much more concerned about the environment than my parents were, but we always instinctively recycled when we could,” Tepperman says. “Certainly, we were not brought up like that. It’s not that they were against it; it’s just that ‘environmentalism’ was not a word that was used in our house. It just wasn’t on our parents’ radar screen. I do think it is a bit of a Canadian thing though.”
Tepperman says that while his parents were not environmentally focused, when he and his brother “looked at the next generation coming up within our company—the Millennials—we found that sustainability resonated with them at a level you would not believe. Every year we bring in 45 MBA students and challenge them with projects. This year, one of the things we asked them was to help us make our showroom more relevant to their generation. We asked each individually, ‘What do you want to get hit with when you walk into Tepperman’s? Is it style? Products? Pricing? Signage about what we do in the community?’ And 100 percent of them say, ‘Talk to us about sustainability.’ They said that would be the tipping point for them to choose to buy from us.”
The first step in the process of making sustainability a priority at Tepperman’s was to educate employees so they would feel comfortable telling the sustainability story to customers, Tepperman says. An online training module was developed to communicate everything from the company’s “recycling initiatives to the roofing systems we put in, the water retention ponds we dig up near our properties so we don’t flush all the water into the system, and the large foam emulsifier we purchased,” he says.
As packaging is removed from the home following a furniture delivery, the customer is presented with a “Thank You” card that talks about how all the materials will be recycled and repurposed. On the back, the store’s logo—an exclamation point—is comprised of mulch and wildflower seeds with instructions for planting. “In one of our stores, we’re testing large kiosks with signage that has examples of foams, what we turn the foam into, the quantities that we’re recycling of cardboard and plastics—everything—so the customers see metrics as soon as they walk in our door. They see that this is a different kind of company, and that sustainability is on our mind; that for us it’s not just about selling products.”
Although the stores are run in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner, there is actually little in the way of sustainable product on Tepperman’s floors. Chalk it up to the fact that sustainable furniture is generally domestically produced and more expensive. Tepperman describes it as a “boomer price point,” and says that his “Millennial customers don’t have the money for product at that level.”
Though nearly all of the offerings here are imported, Tepperman is nevertheless on the hunt for sustainable products his customers can afford. “At the October market in High Point, our buying team did something really interesting,” he recounts. “When we walked into a showroom, before we shopped, we sat down with our rep and in many cases an executive from the company and we said, ‘Tell us what your sustainability story is on everything you sell.’”
Tepperman says many of the reps struggled for an answer. “They said, ‘Yeah, I think we have something.’ And some of them sure enough had documents about which products were environmentally friendly and we’re going to be incorporating some of that into our messaging, but most of the people we spoke to didn’t even know what the word sustainability meant. They just stared at us. It was obvious that most retailers have not been asking them about this, and for many of these vendors, I think it’s going to be years before they get their head around it.”
In the meantime, says, Tepperman, “we try to portray the optics where we can.”
That means installing car charging stations outside Tepperman’s stores. Do the stations resonate with customers? Tepperman thinks so.
“I got an email the other day from a customer who was driving to Lowe’s to buy appliances and I guess when you have an electric car it signals when there is a charging station nearby,” says Tepperman. “So the guy drove up and while he was charging his car decided to find out what this Tepperman’s thing was all about. He and his wife spent almost $5,000 with us that day and never made it Lowe’s. The email he wrote me said that the charging station was a tipping point for him.”