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Environmentally friendly fabrics slow to catch on PDF Print E-mail

HIGH POINT — When upholstery companies shop Showtime here, environmentally friendly fabrics will not be first on their list.

Or second, or even third.

While there's interest in soy-based foams and lumber certified to be from well-managed forests, consumers have been only lukewarm toward chemical-free and pesticide-free textiles to cover their sofas and chairs.

The reason, according to several fabric specialists here for the show, which opens Sunday and runs through Wednesday, is that consumers really don't know what's good and what isn't.

"The problem with this whole green phenomenon is there is a lot of confusion as to how ‘green' is defined," said Michael Delgatti, executive vice president, sales and marketing for Hooker Furniture. "There are varying degrees of green and so much of that whole initiative has been lost at the retail level."

Sheila Seigel, an owner of Sklar Peppler/Alan White, agreed.

"Eco is a very broad term that means a lot of different things. But we're always looking to put eco-friendly products into our line," she said, noting that the company earlier had begun to offer products with EarthCare Inside, including soy-based foam from Hickory Springs.

"We have a large eco-friendly fabric selection right now. The criteria is that it can't be out of our cost range. But if we find something at a decent price, we can always add it to our line," she added.

The company uses recycled plastic and recycled cotton yarns that could have gone to landfills but instead are turned into fabrics.

But the dilemma faced by consumers and everyone else is: How green is a sofa that is 20% soy, or 30% soy? What's best - organic/natural or recycled materials? What about claims that a fabric is free of pesticides and chemicals, or comes from an eco-friendly factory?

Mark Landres, director of design for manufacturer Burton James, said he will be shopping Showtime for intricate weaves and different techniques in weaving rather than earth-friendly fabrics because consumers aren't asking for them.

"They're concerned with design and comfort more so than the green quality of the fabric," he said. He added that even though upholstery can get "greener," it's still a long way from green. Feather and down is a green product, he said, but its environmental friendliness is counteracted by the four to eight washings required to clean it and make it non-allergenic.

Estimates from manufacturers indicate that 10% to 20% of consumers are interested in eco-friendly upholstery, often in the young mom and organic grocery shopper categories.

"I think that market is being driven by what we used to call yuppies, or by the high-allergy people. There has to be a reason for them to be pursuing it," Landres said.

But others think an all-out push in the upholstery industry for greener products may come sooner rather than later.

Craftmaster, for one, has embraced green materials through the soy-based EarthCare Inside program and is ready to receive its EFEC (Enhancing Furniture's Environmental Culture) certification for high environmental standards in production.

Roy Calcagne, Craftmaster president and CEO, said, "We get great response from our dealers on what we're doing as a company. There are fabrics out there that are eco-friendly, salable and priced appropriately that we're definitely looking for. It just enhances the story we've already started for the company."

Calcagne indicated that because there's confusion over the many levels of green, and "not everybody is on the same page from the suppliers' standpoint," Craftmaster opted to take the lead in approaching the environmental program with retailers.

"It's not like they are coming to us and saying, ‘We've got to have it,'" he said. "It's more like, ‘I'm glad you're doing it so I can tell my consumer that now we're doing it.'"

Holly Blalock, marketing director for upholstery source C.R. Laine, said the company is working with Country Living on its house of the year presentation, and the magazine is requiring ecologically friendly fabrics and companies for the project.

"Consumers are being brought to the table of what makes something fully green by the awareness of people like Country Living and the eco houses that they're doing," she said.

Blalock said consumers who are interested in the green movement are moving beyond the category of natural fibers and want products to be certified as environmentally friendly.

"They want to know that the product is free of pesticides and has been able to grow naturally without being tarnished by the fallout of pollutants," she said.

Blalock will be shopping for green fabrics at Showtime, but they are third on her list behind domestically made products and color. If lucky, she will find both the right colors, and green in the environmental sense.

"The first wave of organic fabrics was solids and there's nothing wrong with that," she said. "But we, as a company, want to focus on color so now we're looking for people who have vegetable dyes and processes that don't have pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. And that's difficult as heck. So you end up with is a lot of hand-made fabrics, but you can't get those in the bulk that you need to operate at our level."

Beth Penley, vice president of design for Harden Furniture, said she looks for green fabrics every season and will continue to do so. "But there aren't many people out there who are really pursuing a truly green fabric."

Still, she said, "I am trying to buy as natural as possible and trying to check if people have tested their fabrics to see specifically about formaldehyde and some other finishing ingredients that could make people ill."

Cara Cox, vice president of merchandising for England, which uses the EarthCare soy product in its sofa-sleeper mattresses, said the company will focus on domestic mills for fabric this time around, and not so much on green.

"But we wouldn't be opposed to it if it's a mill that we're using and has something that is available," she said. "It would still have to fall in our price range if it was eco-friendly."


Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2010 01:17