The American Green House

Mass-market retailers are offering more eco-friendly home furnishings, but without industry standards it's hard to tell the green from the greenwashed

Eco-conscious consumers can buy their organic milk at mass-market retailers like Target (TGT), and now, they can pick up an eco-friendly bookcase there, too. As the greening of the American home continues, major retailers are betting that sustainable home furnishings, like an ottoman made of recycled flip-flops, will be next on the green shopping list.

But as new, lower-priced furniture products are introduced, concern is growing that green standards might be diluted as the industry shifts from its origins in small design studios, which produce and sell their green wares in limited quantities, to mass-market distribution. It's a similar debate to the one roiling the food industry, as big retailers like Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) have entered the fray and expanded organic food lines—sacrificing, some critics say, the organic industry's rigid green guidelines (BusinessWeek, 10/16/06).

Sustainable Design Goes Mainstream

At this stage, the bigger furniture retailers still are testing consumer response to the market for sustainable design. Crate & Barrel, the home-furnishings chain known for its stylish modern design, doesn't trumpet itself as a green retailer. So for anyone browsing the company's Web site or shopping at one of its 158 stores, the Cabria dining table might come as a surprise. The rustic-looking, $549 table is made of mango wood—a choice, one learns, that is environmentally friendly because the mango tree is harvested only after its fruit-bearing days are over. Over in the sofa department, the $1,899 Lockport marketing copy entices buyers with a "welcome to the new eco-cottage." The sofa's frame is IndoorAir Quality Certified by Greenguard, a nonprofit that has established standards to define goods with low chemical and particle emissions, and the cushions are made from postconsumer (recycled) fibers and filled with a natural, soy-based foam.

Crate & Barrel's subtle shift to green is "not green for green's sake," notes company spokesperson Vicki Lang. "We are responding to consumer interest," She adds, "And it's the right thing to do."

Other mass-market retailers like Target, Ikea, and even the high-end chain Design Within Reach are jumping on the green bandwagon, sensing that growing public concern about the environment will spur consumers to buy sustainable decor for the living room. The retailers declined to provide specific figures for sustainable items but did say that many items in this category are selling well.

The Thin End of the Wedge

Target's Linear bookcase has loads of green street cred. To minimize greenhouse gases, the $599 storage unit is made from 100% formaldehyde-free birch plywood and is finished with nontoxic, water-based stains. It's not the kind of product a typical Target buyer might be aware of or be searching for, says Sonora Beam, founder of San Francisco consulting firm Digital Hive EcoLogical Design, but the Linear is likely to get the message out about saving the planet. "A Target customer generally wants the right look at a good price," she explains. "It might be the first time they have heard that furniture can have a low environmental impact."

At Design Within Reach, the company began its green revolution by identifying existing products in its catalog as green—including many of the company's classic midcentury furniture pieces—and then posting the products' "eco-stats" on its Web site. That Eames wire-base table? It's certified for Greenguard's low emissions standards.

The Emeco Navy chair is eco-friendly because it is made of 80% recycled aluminum. As a second step, DWR instructed its buyers to find "the coolest design pieces that have a good eco-story," says DWR spokesperson Erin Brown. One discovery was the $350 Miss Rio Ottoman, which "repurposes" soft rubber derived from unworn, overstocked flip-flops. (Another plus: It's made by a social organization in Brazil that helps unemployed craftspeople.)

Still, as with other retailers, eco-products such as the ottoman represent only a small part of DWR's offerings—about 240 of some 1,000 items are listed in the online eco-stats. But that's changing. Next year the San Francisco company will issue a separate, green-products catalog and introduce under its own name an all-organic mattress made with wool from sheep "who are allowed to roam free," says DWR's Brown. Lang, of Crate & Barrel, says that while a total conversion to green would be difficult, since many products are sourced from other manufacturers and vendors over whose production they have little control, it is a "general direction" for the Northbrook (Ill.) retailer.

A Lack of Industrywide Standards

One problem for all manufacturers and retailers, when it comes to furniture, is the lack of a fixed definition or commonly agreed understanding of what constitutes green. Bamboo is a popular renewable material for sustainable furniture, for example, but shipping it from China to the U.S. doesn't do much to limit greenhouse gases. And any surfacing material can be made less green by applying toxic stains and finishes. While several organizations—such as Greenguard and the Sustainable Furniture Council, which promotes sustainable practices in the industry—provide guidelines for certain products, there's no regulatory body that sets standards and certifications as the Agriculture Dept. does with its USDA Certified Organic label for food.

With so many overlapping and competing guidelines for home-furnishing products, Target spokesperson Amy von Walter acknowledges that "the plethora of certifications can be somewhat daunting." To help clarify green guidelines, von Walter says the company is creating a "cross-functional team" to evaluate sustainable products and procedures from design stage to sale.

Retailers are taking different green approaches. DWR adheres to "mainstream classifications" such as Forestry Stewardship Council guidelines. (The FSC is an international nonprofit founded to develop principals of sustainable forestry.) But it might also promote in its upcoming green catalog the idea that buying an heirloom piece like the Emeco chair helps the environment because it's unlikely to be discarded in a landfill in the owner's lifetime. Emeco's Hudson chair, for example, "is made to last up to 150 years," says DWR's Brown.

Meanwhile, Swedish retailer Ikea provides more generalized eco-labels for many items in its massive lineup of products. The $129 Alve bookcase is made of solid wood, "not from intact natural forests," according to the company; the components of the PS Eden table can be separated for "material or energy recovery."

Greener Than Thou?

Without specific industrywide standards and labeling, however, "there is a danger that people can be easily confused about whether what they are buying is entirely eco-friendly," says Rebecca Silver, executive producer of Haute Green (, 5/23/07) an annual exhibition in New York of sustainable design from small studios and manufacturers. As retailers try to mimic what the pioneer green designers have done, Silver adds, "they can make it up as they go along."

By comparison, small firms like Q Collection, a luxury eco-furniture company in New York, say they offer more overall control of materials and the manufacturing and design process. "We provide a holistic solution," says Jesse Johnson, chief executive of Q Collection, which sells items including the $16,000 Abigail settee and the $7,000 Helen bookcase, which use water-based stains and finishes.

While he welcomes more green home furnishings on the market, Johnson worries about the possibility of false or misleading claims about materials, pointing out that the furniture industry is just as susceptible to issues of greenwashing (, 3/29/07) as other fields that have struggled with deliberately misleading claims of sustainability. What some retailers are doing as they launch green products, he adds, "appears to be 90% marketing and 10% a real exploration of concrete advances in materials and production techniques," he says.

One benefit of big retailers entering the green market has been lower prices for consumers. Volume orders and new manufacturing sources are creating economies of scale—even for upscale firms like Q Collection. The firm's new children's line features a stacking shelf made of formaldehyde-free multidensity fiberboard, priced at a somewhat more affordable $300 per cube.

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