magazine | Aug 22, 2019 |
What is sustainable furniture anyway? Why Susan Inglis is trying to make you care

For more than a decade, Susan Inglis has steadily and tirelessly beat the drum for green practices in the home furnishings industry.

The graphics weren’t fancy: Helvetica font, low-resolution logos, and two illustrations of Earth, one of which appeared in flames alongside frightening climate-change statistics. It was the first day of spring, and Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council, was hosting a webinar for the Interior Design Society. Her lilting North Carolina cadence, homespun good nature and calm demeanor (despite some very real sky-is-falling exigencies) made the learning process not only fascinating but unexpectedly pleasant. Even the name of the session—“What Is Sustainable Furniture Anyway?”—sounded approachable. In this era of Goop-ified science, devastating natural disasters and plastic-straw bans, you could almost be forgiven for not grasping—or wanting to face—the overwhelming threat to our environment. (The planet is on fire and we’ve been busy thinking about the lead time on that sofa.) But Inglis is trying to make you care.

Though the design industry is charitable in countless meaningful ways, the ironies emerge everywhere. Sustainability was the prevailing topic during the latest edition of Milan Design Week, with several high-profile exhibitions sounding the alarm. But the act of constructing a temporary installation inherently requires putting more disposable materials into the world and exerting more energy—all on something that is quickly taken down. And even with a spot-on message about the looming environmental crisis, there were parties featuring plastic cups and cocktail napkins.

The industry tends to treat sustainability like a diet: A little junk isn’t going to kill us, we tell ourselves. If you’re buying primarily vintage and antique pieces—the design industry’s ultimate example of reuse—it can be easy to tell yourself that ordering that one stool online and having it sent next-day air isn’t the worst thing in the world. Or maybe it takes the right soul to remind us that real reform only happens through a million tiny steps—and a million more tiny but important choices.

“As an industry, we tend to move kind of slow,” says Inglis, who co-founded SFC in 2006 with the aim of helping manufacturers, retailers and designers shrink their ecological footprints. But even if one business sector becomes a paradigm of sustainability, it won’t matter unless the rest follow suit. “We need this to be a public conversation—and a loud public conversation—not just in the furniture industry but everywhere,” she says. “The planet is in trouble and all of humanity needs to help.”

Even though the deluge of statistics and dire warnings exempts no one, it’s easy to focus on bigger industries as the main culprits: Chemical companies pollute the air, big oil is destroying oceans and killing marine life, and the fashion industry is staggeringly wasteful. And to be fair, that’s all true. (Last year, Burberry admitted to destroying unsold stock, burning almost $40 million worth of garments in order to preserve the brand’s exclusivity—or, put another way, to ensure that its products wouldn’t be sold in tacky outlet malls.)

But it still stings a bit to learn that the furniture industry is guilty of its own significant waste and excesses, clocking in as the third-highest user of the world’s wood resources—behind only the construction and paper industries. “And we’re much smaller than either of those,” adds Inglis. The high-value, high-quality woods prized by furniture makers the world over are often the species that aren’t rapidly renewable. Demand leads directly to deforestation.

And it’s not only lumber. Deforestation is one of the two main contributors to climate change; the other is the burning of fossil fuels. “We are responsible for both of those as a global manufacturing industry,” says Inglis. “We’re generating a lot of CO2 emissions with the energy we burn in our factories. We’re also transporting materials and products very long distances, so we’re burning fossil fuels at a larger rate than you would think for an industry our size.”

In addition to factors that contribute to climate change, Inglis is also laser-focused on the chemicals that flood our furniture. “The textile production industry is one of the most chemically intensive in the world,” she explains. “Chemicals are used to extract petroleum, which is made into synthetic fabrics. Chemicals are used to cultivate natural fibers; chemicals are used to process fibers and in the production of thread and in the weaving and knitting of fabric.” In short, it takes a lot of chemical inputs to make a bolt of fabric—and at every step of the manufacturing process, those chemicals can, and often do, escape into the water or air and cause harm.

“Our indoor environments are two to five times more polluted than our outdoor environments these days, and it’s because of the volatile organic compounds off-gassing from the products we bring into our homes, notably our furnishings,” says Inglis. Furniture finishes are a big culprit; so are seat cushions, which contain polyurethane foam, a petroleum-based product that’s chemically intensive to produce and often contains VOCs like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and other toxins. “The furniture industry uses one-third of all polyurethane foam in the world,” she adds.

This global production cycle—create, produce, transport—can lead to an awkward existential rumble. Not only is Inglis highly educated on the nuances of the process and its problems, but she has a passion that springs from her personal experience, making her uniquely qualified to help companies break that harmful loop.

Inglis was raised in Chowan County in northeastern North Carolina, a region settled by Algonquin tribes long before English explorers first stumbled upon it around 1586. Her mother’s family has lived in the area for nearly 300 years; as a girl, Inglis spent a lot of time in the house her great-grandfather built, and on his land, which her brother now oversees as an organic farmer. She comes from a line of artists and makers: Her father was a woodworker and her grandfather was an accomplished furniture maker of Colonial reproductions. Her mother used the barn as a potting shed and creative studio, throwing pottery in the summer and weaving in the winter. She and Inglis’s grandmother taught her how to sew and embroider.

“I grew up understanding a lot about handcraft techniques and how to make things,” says Inglis. It was a skill set she returned to when her marriage ended. “My children were little—2 and 5—and I was bound and determined to be an at-home mama. When it came time for me to make a living, I thought, What can I make? And I started a sweater business.”

The enterprise got off to a slow start. Inglis hand-knitted each piece, which took time—especially as a single parent caring for young kids. Once she discovered the wonders of a knitting machine, she could turn out a sweater a week. On a lark, she invited friends over for a “sale” and sold out. That success encouraged her to make it official: Susan Sweaters was born. As the business grew, she hired a network of other stay-at-home moms, first nearby and then through an economic development program that helped rural women in West Virginia find income-generating opportunities. Eventually the sweaters were sold across the nation, had a few national sales reps, and were written up in Women’s Wear Daily. “It kept body and soul together, but it didn’t grow to anything more than a tiny little business,” she says.

The work was fun, but the pace was intense and Inglis began looking for ways to foster a creative company without being captive to the grueling demands of the ready-to-wear apparel business. It was in 1990, just as fashion designers like Donna Karan were expanding into home textiles, that Inglis was introduced to The Mountain Institute. The nonprofit is dedicated to protecting mountain ecosystems by empowering the people in those regions to earn a living in ways that are in harmony with the environment—which often means developing product for export. The organization needed someone with technical expertise in fiber for a project in the Himalayas, so Inglis traveled to a remote part of Nepal to learn about the stinging nettle, an indigenous plant that grows at mid-altitude.

“I flew with a colleague to a remote airport and walked for three days,” she recalls. “It was very clear that even if I developed the perfect product, nobody was going to happen along out there and buy it. In a fit of inspiration, I decided I would try importing it.” Woven into a textile with qualities similar to linen, the fiber was well-suited for tabletop accessories like placemats. After working with the artisans to develop several products, Inglis ordered a basketful of table runners, which took six months to arrive. (A basketful, or how much a person could carry to the nearest road, was the local measure of a load.) Coupled with handmade home textiles made in West Virginia, a new line, which Inglis called From the Mountain, was born. She began attending High Point Market, where she was represented at the now-closed showroom Trade Routes. She was now in the home furnishings industry.

The trip to Nepal also launched Inglis into a decade long career as a consultant for organizations with economic development and conservation missions. She traveled to more than 40 countries—Indonesia, Jordan, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Serbia, to name a few—to work with artisans, learning about their crafts and helping them develop handmade products for new markets. It was rewarding, eye-opening work that shaped her view on how to make a difference: “I realized business is what’s got to save the world because business is what’s making the world go round,” she says. “It’s great that there are organizations doing development work, but business is where it’s got to happen.”

In October 2006, Inglis attended an exploratory meeting in High Point hosted by Jeronimo Cooklin, a Peruvian furniture manufacturer and owner of South Cone, who had an epiphany that inspired him to “green up” his production. (“The way he tells it, he was on a camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas when a tree spoke to him and said, ‘You live in Peru, you make furniture, you save the rainforest,’” she explains.)

The daylong, show-of-hands event at Market was designed to gauge interest in creating a serious sustainable organization for the industry, and the response was encouraging: Forty-three companies wanted to participate. By the end of the year, 100 businesses were members of the newly created Sustainable Furnishings Council. They formed governance, standards and marketing committees, and collaborated with ecological experts like World Wildlife Fund and Rainforest Alliance to develop a set of 24 best practices for sustainability that would serve as a roadmap for actual change.

The SFC has nearly 400 members today—a mix of makers, retailers, suppliers and designers, including big names like Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Cisco Brothers, Libeco Belgian Linen, and Room & Board. Membership is open to all businesses with a “verifiable intent” to improve their sustainability initiatives. One of the central requirements is a pledge to implement the changes necessary to follow the guidelines set forth by the organization—taking into account everything from legally logged wood with a clear chain of custody to reducing and reusing packaging materials. Another is to seek continuous improvement in sustainability practices, which implies that the work to become a sustainable business isn’t a box you check once, but a continual (or at least annual) effort to do better. Some guidelines, especially those around manufacturing, are simple and clear; they may not be easy to implement, but it’s easy to see if a company is on the right path. Others are harder to measure, like educating customers about sustainability, partnering with employees to reduce personal and company energy use, paying a living wage, and maintaining high safety standards. One guideline, perhaps the most intangible of all, reads, “We contribute to the economic and environmental health of our local and global communities.”

I realized business is what's got to save the world because business is what's making the world go round. It's great that there are organizations doing development work, but business is where it's got to happen.
Susan Inglis

The most important function of the SFC’s guidelines may well be the self-reflection they inspire among company leadership. Search each member company on the SFC website and you’ll find not only a description of how its operations seek to meet each of the guidelines, but also forward-looking statements outlining plans for continued improvements—a thought exercise that is likely to create a far more engaged cadre of industry partners.

“To be a member, companies have to be aware of what the best practices are, be transparent about what they’re doing now, and be in action [pursuing] continuous improvement on reducing energy consumption and better managing their supply chain,” says Inglis. The organization recognizes companies with above-average implementation of those guidelines through its Exemplary Member honors, which are awarded to manufacturers and retailers at the Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum levels and recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency. SFC also partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to develop the Wood Furniture Scorecard, which encourages retailers get serious about robust wood sourcing policies and working with only certified suppliers, and the “What’s It Made Of?” initiative, which encourages specifiers to do a little extra digging into what the products and materials they are specifying might contain, with an eye to avoiding VOCs like formaldehyde, flame-retardant chemicals, highly fluorinated stain treatments, PVC and antimicrobials.

That one-two punch of education and encouragement has made a difference. “The combination of Susan’s depth of knowledge, firm opinions and engaging personality caused me to move from being merely supportive of good forestry practices to more fully comprehending the broader ‘sustainability’ implications our industry can have for our future,” says Edward Phifer, the co-founder and vice chairman of the board of directors at Morganton, North Carolina–based furniture manufacturer E.J. Victor, a founding member. “She realized that ‘voices crying in the wilderness’ can be heroic and effective, but that creating an organized movement like the SFC is by far the most powerful method.”

Although the ideas underpinning the SFC are generally agreeable to most, becoming a sustainable business is not without considerable effort—and cost. In addition to addressing supply chain issues, member retailers are challenged with waste reduction, especially when it comes to packaging. For manufacturers, sustainability often means a significant investment in sourcing differently, altering production processes, or working with eco-friendly materials. And paying for a life-cycle assessment—essentially, a forensic soup-to-nuts analysis of the company's environmental impact—can be an expensive endeavor, admits Inglis, despite the cost savings of reducing energy consumption. (Some brands do the assessment themselves using publicly available tools; others hire a consultant to certify their practices. “Just thinking about life cycle is important, whether you invest time and money in doing a full assessment or not,” she says.)

“We quickly realized that whatever additional expense there was, it was worth it because we simply could not live with ourselves if we were in a business that harmed the environment,” says Mitchell Gold, who sits on the SFC board. “Along the way, we’ve found that it costs us no more, but we can breathe easier.”

“Susan values what we as industry leaders can do to show others how greening one’s business is a cost-saving endeavor, a tremendous branding opportunity, and a strong attribute for employee recruitment and retention,” says Kathryn Richardson, vice president of sales at Libeco and president of the SFC board. The company was an early adopter of environmentally friendly manufacturing—it went fully carbon-neutral in 2015—and in Inglis and the SFC found a kindred spirit. “People want to feel good about the products they buy and the companies they work for. Susan knows just how to connect these people and companies and is focused on SFC’s mission statement to help consumers find the sustainable home furnishings they want, all while helping companies lessen their carbon footprint.”

Where do designers fit in? While Inglis is a proponent of investigating what’s available—certified woods; low-VOC finishes; natural fabrics like linen that have fewer fertilizers and pesticides and require no defoliants to grow—she also champions the extraordinary influence designers have with consumers, retailers and manufacturers. “Just like being politically active, every voice does count,” she says. If 10,000 designers ask where a piece is sourced, what it’s made of, or what specific chemicals were used in production, manufacturers will take notice—and might even change course so that they have a more palatable answer to deliver.

“What matters most is asking the question, ‘What is it made of?’ Even if the answer is, ‘I don’t know where this wood comes from,’ and it’s still the piece that the client wants, the designer has still done something that’s significant—just asking the question is useful. It means that next year when you’re asking somebody from that company where the wood is coming from, the chances are much better that they’re going to be able to tell you.”

Today's rapid-ship, solutions-based design environment caters to harried shoppers (designers included) who don’t have a spare second to investigate alternatives. But the SFC has the data to prove that consumers are interested in eco-friendly furniture—90 percent would prefer to purchase a green piece if it were in their style and budget. Retailers, then, could conceivably compel more interest on the sales floor by marketing their green bona fides. For now, it’s often a health concern—like a child who develops asthma—that pushes homeowners to start seeking design professionals who will take a serious look at what they’re bringing into their homes. But information is the best offense for any cause, and headlines about environmental issues have been making an impact for consumers and designers. “Thirteen years ago, I got more blank stares from designers when I introduced myself and talked about the SFC,” says Inglis. “Before, they’d just smile and say, ‘That’s nice.’ Now, they’ve got a question ready for me—that’s a big change.”

On the SFC side, keeping the momentum among member companies, who are challenged to make year-over-year improvements to their own best practices, is another hurdle. “They're busy trying to sell something, so actually making continuous improvement, and then the reporting itself, is a lot of work,” admits Inglis. “Remembering that sustainability is a journey, not a destination, is part of the challenge.”

It’s hard not to feel like that person with the pamphlet, standing on the corner asking if passersby have a minute for the environment. “I do definitely feel that way at times,” says Inglis, a self-described optimist. “But here’s what I want you to know in response to that: The people who are walking by are doing more to support the cause than they think they are. I’ve noticed people crossing the street at Market because they don’t want to run into me—often because they think they’re not doing enough.

‘There’s Susan,’ they’re thinking. ‘I’ll have to tell her that no, I haven’t joined yet, or haven’t renewed my membership yet, or haven’t put up those solar panels yet, or haven’t switched suppliers or published that sourcing policy.’ And anyone crossing the street because they’re embarrassed to run into me—if I can jog their thoughts even a tiny bit, and I know I do—that is part of progress.”

A few days after our interview, Inglis was still pondering the question of how she summons the will to keep fighting the good fight. She sent an email with a link to a piece in The Guardian titled “Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse.” In it, columnist George Monbiot detailed two groups, YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion, and their spunky, nonviolent mobilization to focus international attention on the planet’s ecological crisis. These are people—many of them young—who weren’t giving in to defeatism or political inaction. Inglis sent the link with a note that read, “Why I don’t despair at the enormity of the task of inspiring change throughout our industry.”

Inglis’s unflagging dedication to her cause keeps others inspired too. “She never seems to lose her optimism, despite so much to accomplish and so much opposition in the current political climate,” says Richardson. “I know that the slow-but-sure movement we are making as an industry toward the improvement of our world inspires Susan to continue her work, and we are all the better for it.”

How to go green

If the idea sounds good but seems complicated, the SFC’s sustainability guidelines are a good place to start. Try tackling one and take it from there.

  • Use sustainable materials—like legally harvested wood, responsibly produced plantation products and recycled content—whenever possible.
  • Seek products that are easy to disassemble, recycle and reclaim.
  • Encourage consumers to reclaim or reuse your products.
  • Use packaging made of recyclable or recycled materials, accept cartons for reuse, and offer blanket-wrap transportation.
  • Verify where your wood comes from by requesting legal logging documents.
  • Use fewer toxic chemicals.
  • Ask vendors for textiles with low environmental impact, like organic cotton instead of conventionally grown fibers.
  • Do a life-cycle assessment, or apply for SMaRT (Sustainable Materials Rating Technology) certification.
  • Extract, manufacture and distribute for consumers within 500 miles.
  • Obtain third-party certifications for as many products as possible, and promote them in stores to educate consumers.
  • Take responsibility for communicating your commitment to a sustainable supply chain, and reward vendors with more business when they become more sustainable with you.
  • Have a social-responsibility code of conduct for employees.
  • Meet or exceed health and safety codes, and document health and safety working conditions in all facilities and stores.
  • Write and distribute a social-responsibility code of conduct for vendors, and train partner facilities on how to adopt it.
  • Pay a living wage to everyone in the supply chain.
  • Participate in or sponsor educational events on sustainability and the environment.
  • Investigate and mitigate negative environmental impacts from operations.
  • Save paper and any other resources with an official policy toward reducing excess.
  • Measure conventional energy usage and reduce it.
  • Replace consumed energy with renewable energy, either directly or through a third-party program.
  • Replace outdated, inefficient equipment; identify and change wasteful resource procedures; and implement tighter operational controls.
  • Increase the use of day lighting and upgrade to a more energy-efficient lighting system.
  • Don’t greenwash. Make only verifiable claims that adhere to FTC mandates.
  • Conduct training both in-house and in the broader community about global climate change.
This article originally appeared in Summer 2019 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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