The Green House

Eco-friendly products are not just a growing category in home decor: they’re a trend, a marketing ploy and a must-have item for style mavens.

In other words, they’re hot.

Just before Thanksgiving, the home page of Crate and Barrel suggested dining with a group of “eco-friends” around a table made of “eco-friendly mango wood.” Environment Furniture, a Los Angeles manufacturer whose products are found in high-end retail outlets, favors reclaimed wood from 100-year-old buildings in Brazil for its coffee tables, plasma TV stands and other living room pieces. Design Within Reach shreds recycled (and “unworn”) flip-flop sandals in its “Miss Rio Ottoman,” a shaggy, multicolored chair that also claims the distinction of being made by otherwise unemployed craftspeople in South America.

Many of the products sold by Design Within Reach have a similar story to tell. The San Francisco retailer’s spring 2008 catalog will have an eco-friendly theme, with a number of “environmentally sustainable” offerings, according to spokeswoman Erin Brown. But a $503 chrome chair remains out of reach for most consumers, even if it’s certified by the Greenguard Environmental Institute, a nonprofit organization that tests products for the effect they have on indoor air quality.

Not surprisingly, Target has stepped into the breach. There’s no arguing with the green credentials of its Linear collection of tables, desks, bookcases and magazine racks: they’re built with FSC-certified wood and finished with non-toxic water-based stains. Susan Giesen, a spokeswoman for Target, said the company is applying its stylish-yet-affordable merchandising strategy to green products. “We’re providing eco-friendly products at a great value,” Giesen said.

Like other retailers, Target is grappling with the definition of a green product. A “cross-functional team” has been formed to look at “all aspects of sustainability,” Giesen said, including packaging, product design and source materials. Unlike lighting, appliances or building materials, home furnishings have no outside agency that gives ratings or certifications. A group of furniture manufacturers have organized their own organization, called the Sustainable Furniture Council, which is attempting to develop a set of voluntary guidelines. Many consumer advocates would like to see organic solvents used in wood stains and finishes replaced with less toxic alternatives. Stain-resistant treatments for fabrics that use formaldehyde-based chemicals should be banned, they say.

While these changes are catching an updraft from eco-friendly consumer preferences, another green shift is taking place in the home decor industry because of geopolitical winds. Polyurethane, the petroleum-based substance in sofa cushions, accent pillows and carpet pads, is slowly being replaced by soy.

“It’s time to get on to new chemistry,” said Bob Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association. Some association members are making foam products that are 40 percent soy-based, Luedeka said. Thousands of polyurethane formulations need to be redone, he warned, but foam makers have a reason that goes beyond their collective carbon footprint.

“When oil prices reach $90 a barrel, it’s a big motivation,” Luedeka said.

Green moves downstream

Many consumers assume—falsely, Luedeka says—that new carpet padding emits harmful chemicals into the air, a phenomenon commonly known as “off-gassing.” While there is some debate about the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) created from new carpeting, concerns about synthetic dyes, chemical bonding agents, polypropylene and other substances have pushed consumers in the direction of all-natural fibers like wool.

In hard surfaces, consumers are turning to natural linoleum—linseed oil, pine resins and jute—or ceramic tile, also considered a natural product. Or they look for wood flooring that is reclaimed from old barns and factories, or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The flooring industry has attempted to come up with a number of green alternatives, from formaldehyde-free adhesives to solvent-free finishes and sealers. Manufacturers who took a leap of faith are now finding buyers on the other side.

CCA Global, the $8.7 billion buying group for flooring retailers, launched a “Green Select” label earlier this year to provide its members with more eco-friendly products. President Sandy Mishkin said the program is part of a larger corporate initiative aimed at environmental stewardship, or in Mishkin’s words, “Feet and mouth doing the same thing.”

CCA Global is bringing in suppliers on both the commercial and the residential side who can satisfy LEED requirements or more sustainable choices in floor coverings. Mishkin is also asking existing vendors to generate more eco-friendly bonding agents, substrates and underlayments. Those who do, he said, will find themselves selling more products to his organization.

Through the Green Select label, CCA Global now offers cork flooring, recycled carpet pads and area rugs in hemp, seagrass and sisal. While the price tag on natural fiber rugs make them upper market items, Mishkin predicted that this will change. “With time, the design market moves downstream,” he observed.

Take bamboo, once an exotic species of wood flooring found in the booths of small vendors at Surfaces. That was way back in the year 2000, not even a decade ago. Now you can find bamboo flooring at all the big boxes and specialty retailers. Home Depot carries it in engineered and solid wood, toast or walnut, with a handscraped finish.

Pardee Homes, a Los Angeles-based production home builder, offers bamboo and cork floors as an upgrade in its “Living Smart” developments. Standard carpeting is made from recycled soda bottles and supplied by Mohawk. Wood cabinets in many of the projects are constructed from lyptus, a plantation-grown wood produced by Weyerhaeuser.

“[Homeowners] can choose other options as well,” said vp-marketing Joyce Mason, rattling off a list of eco-upgrades like tankless water heaters, solar panels and drought tolerant landscaping. Low-VOC paint comes standard, as does sealed duct work and low formaldehyde insulation.

Pardee built its first Living Smart neighborhoods in San Diego in 2001. Now there are 22 of the green projects throughout Southern California and Nevada. Some suppliers have been switched along the way, Mason said, and designers have made adjustments to accommodate eco choices. Low-VOC paint rules out darker palettes, for example. Fluorescent bulbs, which can last 10 times longer than incandescent but cast a cooler light, are installed in the kitchen in “cans” to reduce the glare.

Green learning curve

Persuading consumers to buy green products simply because they’re better for the environment can backfire. Think of all the homeowners who’ve tried nontoxic pesticides and then abandoned them forever when the bugs didn’t die right away. With some advice, patience or a different formulation, these same homeowners might have met with more success and joined the ranks of organic gardeners.

Scott Kuhlmey has seen it happen with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). After experimenting with them out in his own store, the manager of Home Lighting Gallery in Duluth, Minn., only sells the more expensive CFLs.

“They amp up faster, and the light is not as harsh as the cheaper [CFL] bulbs,” Kuhlmey explained.

But guess which ones most consumers try first, thanks to rebates from local power companies and other incentive offers?

Home Lighting Gallery also serves customers who buy super-efficient LED lights—at $100 a pop. Or they announce that they’ve decided to switch all their lights to fluorescent, even in the bedroom. But most folks are conservative when it comes to energy conservation, Kuhlmey, observed. “They’ve seen the Al Gore movie, and they know they should do it,” he said. “They’re willing to make a change, but one light bulb at a time.