Monday, November 10, 2008

San Antonio Express-News

November 10, 2008
Visitors per month: 617,358

Eco-Right Furniture

From FSC-certified wood to repurposed materials, furniture is in on the green game. Here's what you need to know to select an eco-wise piece

By Margraret Littman
CTW Features

A new hue: Dark, modern and natural, this dining room set makes a different kind of "green" statement. Image courtesy Benny Chan/Environment Furniture, Inc.

As is the case with almost anything, there's a stereotype associated with eco-friendly furniture. Even just hearing that phrase, you're probably picturing something in a light-colored wood, perhaps bamboo, that looks sleek and good-for-you, sort of in the same way that many health foods have their whole grains out there for everyone to see.

And, as is the case with most stereotypes, there's a grain of truth to it. For years, sustainable furniture worked to achieve that specific look, and if your style didn't match it, then you were not likely to ride the green wave.

Johnny West, owner of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Maku Furnishings, says there is no longer one particular design aesthetic associated with sustainability.

"It is nice to see that it runs the gamut from contemporary to traditional. There is starting to be something for everyone," West says. Maku works with sustainable plantation-grown teak wood and the company expects to have a line made from 100-percent recycled aluminum completed soon.

Recently, Directions East unveiled its Tre Bamboo Lounge Chair and Ottoman, an Eames-inspired green piece. Other manufacturers are using tagua nut instead of ivory, and even twigs and other forest scraps rather than cut wood, as raw materials. Jensen Leisure Furniture recently switched from Australian Jarrah to a Bolivian wood called Ipe.

Jamestown, N.C.-based Furnitureland South stocks pieces from more than 400 different manufacturers. Elizabeth Moya, a sales and design consultant with the company, says she has seen the number of green offerings increase exponentially in the last nine months.

"In terms of aesthetics, anything you can create with the old methods, you can create with non-toxic glues and other eco-friendly methods," she says. Even better, she says, is the fact that not only do today's eco-friendly furnishings fit any number of different design schemes, they fit different budgets, too.

"There are now a couple of manufacturers who are doing eco-friendly at a more moderate price. You can accomplish this with a smaller pocketbook," she adds.

In fact, there are even companies, such as Cranbury N.J.-based LaJobi Inc., that specialize in green furnishings for kids and babies. The La Madre Collection, which was launched in August, uses environmentally safe finishes and glues in addition to sustainable woods.

With all due respect to Kermit the Frog, buying green isn't necessarily easy. As concern for the planet has become fashionable, the number of companies claiming to be green has increased exponentially. While much of boom is legitimate, some, unfortunately, is what experts call "greenwashing": the marketing of products that just look sustainable when they are actually lacking any legitimate eco-chops.

For someone who simply wants to buy a new couch that treads lightly on Mother Earth, researching a company's validity can be time-consuming. But there are simple things to do to see if a company has a "cradle-to-grave green philosophy," says Charlie Geiger, "The USA Green Lady," a Nashville, Tenn.-based green expert with radio shows nationwide.

"The key," Geiger advises, "is to look for certification with phone numbers and Web sites to double check. Many times products will have cute little logos that make it look as if it is certified, but the logos to look for are from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Rainforest Alliance, MBDC C2C (Cradle to Cradle), and Rediscovered Wood Certification."

West, a surfer-turned-eco-furniture manufacturer, agrees. Buying products made from sustainably grown wood is great, he says, but knowing whether the company recycles, whether it has water reclamation processes in place, whether it buys carbon or wood offsets, uses soy inks on its labels, or has other eco-friendly policies is a crucial step in supporting the green movement.

At Maku Furnishing, the company sells the wood shavings from the factory floor, a byproduct that cannot be recycled, to a local Indonesian market, where it can be used for bedding for livestock. The proceeds from those sales are used to take factory workers on trips to the beach so they can see the positive ecological impact they are having.

The company is also a member of 1% For The Planet, a consortium of businesses who donate 1 percent of their net revenues to environmental organizations.

Mona Ying Reeves, a San Mateo, Calif.-based interior designer, says harried consumers can narrow their questions about eco-friendliness to three broad categories:

-origin (where did the raw materials come from?);

-construction (how is the piece made?);

-design (will it stand the test of time?).

These categories will help you figure out, for example, if a piece made with renewable materials was topped with a laminate or finish that would prevent it from being recycled later on.

Finally, Reeves suggests, think about how the piece will get to you. If it is designed to ship flat, for example, it may take less fuel to transport it to your new home.

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