The Crowded World of Green Furniture

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The struggling furniture industry is getting some much-needed cushion from some unlikely sources. Who’d have thought that things like “reclaimed” wood, bike rims and bourbon barrels might help the struggling sector pull through the recent retail sales funk? But according to estimates by Mike Italiano of eco-advocacy group Market Transformation to Sustainability, green furniture sales have grown 20 percent a year since 2007, to about $250 million. That’s still only a fraction of the $76 billion home-furnishings industry, but it’s one of the few signs of life there these days.

Flip through any shelter magazine and it won’t take long to find trendy designer pieces likely to be Al Gore-approved – from corrugated-cardboard light fixtures (recycled!) to couches covered in surplus pup tents (reclaimed!). But mainstream chains like Ikea and Pottery Barn are venturing into eco-land too, using soy-foam cushions, water-based wood stains and certified “sustainable” wood legally harvested from responsibly managed forests.

It’s easy to credit the boost to the growing national appetite for all things green. But industry insiders also say this sector is up because the recession curbed conspicuous consumption. Luxurious appointments like velvet and calfskin have gone the way of Hummers and house-flipping. These days, trend watchers say, chic armchairs might be upholstered with vintage burlap grain sacks (French, of course), for a cozier, less ostentatious look. In this economy, says Los Angeles interior designer Oliver Furth, people want to be less obvious about throwing cash around, but “if it’s green, it’s not so bad to be spending.”

Take Susan and Marc Hamaker. The New York City-based couple recently bought a brand-new bed – at a price three times their original budget. While they liked the simplicity of the new bed’s design compared with their old sleigh bed’s, what sealed the deal was the fact that the wood came from a barn. But not just any barn; this was from a demolished Brazilian one – which made it eco-friendly “reclaimed” wood. “Most people think a barn is a barn, and no one thinks, ‘Oh, this would be a great bed,’” says Susan.

The idea of using reclaimed or recycled materials isn’t new, but the practice has gone more high-concept of late. An old bourbon barrel, for example, isn’t just a funky side table; one Brooklyn, N.Y., design firm has perched its staves atop recycled truck springs to create a $2,800 chair. Plus, the range of reclaimed materials is expanding far beyond wood. Among the current designs intended to lighten

our landfills: a bar stool incorporating old chrome bike rims ($425), a floor mat of stitched-together leather belts ($688) and a coffee table made with skateboard-manufacturing remnants ($3,000).

But you don’t need avant-garde decor to go green, since more eco-minded designers now cater to Main Street tastes. You’d never know, for instance, that Loll Designs’ Adirondack chairs were made of melted-down milk jugs.

Or that lurking inside Lee Industries’ classic furnishings are recycled plastic bottles and recycled-metal springs. Big retailers like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel are following suit, focusing less on buzzworthy design than on greening up their materials, manufacturing and shipping.

Still, how do consumers know what’s earth-friendly and what’s just greenwashing? Experts say to look for makers that belong to the Sustainable Furnishings Council, an industry coalition that requires its highest-ranking members to have earned Sustainable Materials Rating Technology, or SMaRT, certification. It’s a tree-hugger merit badge that says, among other things, that a company uses wood only from suppliers approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. Member firms also earn credits for sourcing materials locally and running energy-efficient factories.

Problem is, many eco-touting companies lack such credentials. (Ikea, for one, cites the difficulty of getting its international suppliers to comply with all the regulations.) And even card-carrying council members may not be consistently green in their practices. Jill Fehrenbacher, founder of eco-design blog Inhabitat.com, suggests asking whether they use water-based finishes and adhesives. Or whether they ship materials long distances; much wood these days comes from China and Siberia.

Environment Furniture sources barn wood from Brazil and buys carbon credits to offset the shipping emissions. But critics question whether the credits, typically invested into other sustainability projects, do enough to counteract the pollution. Davide Berruto, chief executive of Environment, says the company addresses “all aspects of our carbon equation” – not just shipping, but manufacturing and reducing waste. Ultimately, Fehrenbacher says, it’s vital to question whether something is really green – or just looks that way.

Not least because this stuff often carries a premium. Makers like Copeland Furniture, whose work is sold in 17 states, say using certified wood costs them about 10 percent more than other American wood, a cost that gets passed to consumers. But in general, mass-produced green furnishings still aren’t as pricey as limited-edition designer ones. Pottery Barn has eco-friendly couches starting at $999. Those sofas covered with used army pup tents? They run $3,995 – patches and all.

2009 Copyright The York Times Syndicate