Susan Inglis, Executive Director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council reveals how she became one of the key players in sustainability, cleaning up the home furnishings industry one day at a time. Susan talks us through how she began her own sustainable artisan cashmere business and what we should all be looking for when out furniture shopping. Including the questions we should ask ahead of purchasing pieces, like: what is it made of? was deforestation part of making this? can it be recycled? and so on. We chat about the lifecycle of products and what COVID-19 is teaching us about working together for a better future. If you are keen to create a healthy eco-friendly home, read on…
Sustainable Furnishings Council begins…
What inspired the start of the Sustainable Furnishings Council?
Our Founder, Gerry Cooklin, then manufacturing furniture in Peru, had an epiphany and “greened up” his business, but also realised that he could take responsibility for bringing the conversation to the entire residential furnishings industry, so began holding discussions in his High Point NC showroom.
In September 2006 I attended one of the first discussions, learning there that the residential furnishings industry was worth about $80 billion at retail. I thought “Oh, that’s not so big; we can solve that one!” so I joined with Gerry and a few others to form the organisation. We started with 43 companies and a year later had over 100 companies involved. Now, membership stands at nearly 400 companies involved in the industry in various ways: suppliers of materials, manufacturers of all kinds of furnishing products, stores, design firms, media and so on. Each company has made their own public and verifiable commitment to sustainability, to transparency, and to continuous improvement. As an organisation, we help them realise their commitment, providing guidance, resources, education, networking and marketing support.
Growing a Sustainable Business
How did you hear about the first meet up?
I got wind of that meeting because I was doing a small business, called From The Mountain, working with artisans around the world to get their skills and products to new markets. At the time we were putting a lot of product in the furniture industry, so I thought, “This will be good for growing my business” – in fact, it was, but soon it just about eclipsed the business.
You mentioned your business From The Mountain, can you tell us a little about that?
YES! Many years ago, my small sweater business evolved into a home textiles business when I went to Nepal to work with artisans in the Makalu Barun. That consulting project to open new markets for traditional nettle cloth artisans led to my designing and importing placemats, table-runners, baskets, etc from them and then to my importing from artisans in other remote areas. I found new artisan groups to work with through the USAID consulting work I did, providing services in product development, entrepreneurship skills development, and also market access. Eventually, I did a project with artisans in Afghanistan who hand-spin lovely cashmere yarn. Though I can no longer get the supply of yarn, I do still have a large stash that I am slowly selling and working through.
Buying sustainable furniture 101…
What is it made of?
First, consider what it is made of. Over 80% of the environmental footprint of any consumer product is in what it is made of. Furniture is the #3 user of the wood resource globally, behind construction and paper. Since healthy and growing forests are crucial to our fight against global warming, it is especially important to know that the wood was legally logged from well managed forests or plantations, or is reclaimed. Look for certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council.
Avoid harmful chemicals
Furnishings are complex, made of many different materials in many processes and with many chemical inputs. There are 5 harmful chemical classes that are commonly found in furnishings: VOC’s like formaldehyde that are in our glues and finishes; flame retardant chemicals that might be in foams and fabrics; PFAS or highly fluorinated stain treatments that might be on fabrics; anti-microbials that might be in mattresses; and PVC or vinyl, which is in fabrics and our most common plastic. These are all persistent in the environment and known to cause harm to human health and other life on our planet, so avoiding them as best you can is a good idea.
Where was it produced?
Another thing to consider is WHERE a product is made – if it is made nearby, if it is made in a place where workers are not usually badly exploited, if it is made in a place where environmental protection laws are well enforced, etc… do your research, then you can feel really good about having it.
What is a Life Cycle Assessment?
A Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is an assessment of the overall environmental impact of the production and use and disposal of any product. It tracks the entire process, from when the raw materials are extracted from the earth, through their processing, the manufacture of a product from them, then the distribution of that product, its use, reuse, and eventual disposal: what do you have at the end – good clean dirt in which to grow another tree, for instance? or toxic waste? Along the whole process over 1300 chemicals are tracked over 12 streams. An LCA can be very complex, but put simply it means thinking about the life-cycle of the product from start to finish!
Going sustainable as a business…
At the Sustainable Furnishings Council, you bring together retailers, manufacturers, designers, and suppliers, what are the most common problems you find businesses struggling with when striving to be more sustainable?
The most common problem is a sense of overwhelm, not knowing where to start. The fact is that sustainability is complex. It has to do with care for our ecosystems AND our communities, AND the economies that support those communities. Another fact is that the world is in enough trouble that we all NEED to start where we are and go forward – it does not matter what you or your company’s first step is. What matters is that you start somewhere. We are pleased to offer businesses in all segments of the industry guidance. We have LOTS of resources at sustainablefurnishings.org, and we are also happy to answer your questions – anytime.
What does the future hold?
How do you see the sustainable furnishings market changing in the next three years?
I see the market growing. I think that we are learning from this COVID-19 Crisis that we are all interconnected, and that individual action makes a difference in addressing huge problems. I also think that we are more aware every day of what is in our homes, where we are spending so much time now. I see our awareness of the importance of environmental safety growing steadily!
You can learn more about the Sustainable Furnishings Council workshops and events HERE. Special thank you to Susan for sharing her inspiring story and wisdom.