Ecolabels and Sustainability Standards in the U.S. Furniture Industry

Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
 by Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
2022-01-24
Ecolabels and Sustainability Standards in the U.S. Furniture Industry

"Every company and every industry will be transformed by the transition to a net zero world" - Larry Fink, BlackRock CEO reiterates in his 2022 letter to CEOs, pointing out that the engineers and scientists are working around the clock on how to decarbonize cement, steel, and plastics; shipping, trucking, and aviation; agriculture, energy, manufacturing and construction.

Consumers are increasingly keen to look beyond the shelf into the ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) alignment and performance of products, services and businesses. A consumer trends report observes that from food to fashion to lifestyle, green products will occupy not only a larger mind space but also a bigger shelf space.

The consumer survey reports from furniture industry vouches for the trend. As per SFC's (Sustainable Furnishing Council) 2021 consumer report:

  • The three most important attributes buyers look for when purchasing furniture are style (100%), quality (98%) and a fair price (95%). This year, the fourth most important attribute (86%) is being made with materials and processes that do not harm the environment.
  • The majority of respondents (87%) are willing to pay at least 5% to 10% more for furnishings they consider eco-friendly, including wood furniture that is certified as responsibly harvested and for home furnishings certified to be environmentally safe.
  • 93% of respondents expressed concern about hazardous indoor air quality, and 91% expressed concern about global warming.

According to a report by Statista, 88% of US millennials planned to buy furniture last year. Let us read it along with the fact that Gen Z (the next consumer generation) and millennials are the sustainability generation.

Ecolabels and Sustainability Standards

Despite being the powerhouse controlling markets, the consumers often are unaware of the ways to decide what is more green, ethical and least harmful. The world almost unanimously derives an instant sense of quality with the term "ISO certified". However, it becomes extremely difficult to find answers or consensus if the question posed is on sustainability. The attributes and standards that determine sustainability are wide and varied across contexts of industries, products and processes. To add to it, ecolabelling is a proliferated space with over 445 global ecolabels.

Ecolabels broadly are voluntary performance certificates that inform consumers about the environmental impact and sustainability standards of a product or service. It encourages producers to improve their performance across these parameters. Ecolabels can be owned or managed by government agencies, non-profit environmental advocacy organizations, industry bodies or private entities. However, the space remains largely unregulated so far.

ISO categorizes ecolabels into 3 types.

ISO Categorization of Ecolabels
Type 1 Type 2 Type 3
  • Muti-attribute based
  • Against a pre-selected set of criteria
  • Third-party verified
  • Verifiable single-attribute
  • Self declared
  • Defines commonly used claims
  • Provides verification mechanism
  • Multi-attribute based
  • Qualified product information based on life cycle impacts
  • Third-party verified

Ecolabels and Sustainability Standards in the U.S. Furniture Industry

There are over 35 ecolabels practiced in the global furniture industry and about 20 of them are followed in the U.S.

Key governing bodies and their roles in the context

1 US Environmental Protection Agency

US EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency):

  • EPA works with a variety of private sector standards developers to create voluntary consensus standards for environmentally preferable goods and services
  • EPA has developed several ecolabels such as ENERGY STAR and Safer Choice
  • EPA also provides recommendations on private sector ecolabels by product category
2 US Environmental Protection Agency

USGBC LEED (US Green Building Council - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is:

  • The most widely used green building rating system in the world
  • Certain ecolabels earn LEED credits
3 US Environmental Protection Agency

GEN (Global Ecolabelling Network):

  • A non-profit association of leading ecolabelling organizations worldwide
  • Helps protect the environment by improving, promoting, and developing the ecolabelling of green products and sustainable services
  • GEN members have attained the status of "Type 1" specified as per ISO
4 US Environmental Protection Agency

BIFMA(Business and Institutional Furniture MAnufacturers):

  • Not-for-profit North American trade association
  • Provides engineering and materials standards for Furniture industry
  • level® is the multi-attribute, sustainability standard and third-party certification program for the furniture industry

Sustainability Attributes

Sustainability of furniture industry cuts across factors such as sustainable design, material, practices procurement, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, supply-chain, societal impact, health & safety and circularity.

Ecolabels & Sustainability Certification in Furniture Industry are broadly based on
Environmental Impact Environmental Impact
Health & Safety Health & Safety
Societal Responsibility Societal Responsibility
Energy usage | Circularity | Water extraction | Bio-diversity | Resource consumption | Green House Gas Material selection and human & ecosystem health impacts | Indoor air quality | Chemical exposure | VOC emission | Working conditions | hazardous waste Corporate policy | Employees | Supply-chain | Corporate Social Responsibility | Ethics | Community impact
Life cycle assessment | Verification of sustainability claims

Key Ecolabels practiced in the U.S.

The ecolabels vary in dimensions across the type; attributes focused on; material and stakeholder coverage; and how they are valued and positioned in the industry. Some are very specifically designed to address furniture; some are meant for furniture and its adjacencies such as textile, interior design and home appliances; whereas some others are meant to address a wide definition of "products and services" including furniture. Let us analyze the top ecolabels practiced in US furniture industry across these dimensions.

No Ecolabel Name Environmental Health & Safety Social Applicable for:
F - Furniture
A - Furniture & Adjacencies
B - Broad Products Category including Furniture
Earns LEED Credit? US EPA Recommended Priority Year of establishment Country of Establishment
(G - Global)
# countries practiced in
(G - Global)
Key Highlights / Focus
1 BIFMA Level BIFMA Level F Y 1 2009 USA 5
  • Most exhaustive & furniture focused
  • By highest authority for furniture in US
  • Product wise standards
  • ANSI/BIFMA e-3 Furniture Sustainability Standard
2 Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard B Y 1 2005 USA 6
  • Exhaustive
  • Widely used
3 Good Environmental Choice Australia Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) B Y 1 2001 AUS 3
  • Follows Standard - FURNITURE & FITTINGS LEVEL B (FFV3.1I-2017)
  • GEN Full Member
4 TÜV Rheinland® Green Product Mark TÜV Rheinland® Green Product Mark B Y 1 19th Century GER G
  • Oldest Brand
  • Testing & Technology experts
  • Specializes on children's future
5 TÜV Rheinland® Green Product Mark Living Product Challenge B Y 2 2016 USA G
  • Based on Life Cycle Assessment and material health - comprehensive on sustainability
6 Sustainable Furnishing Council Member Seal Sustainable Furnishing Council Member Seal F - 2 2006 USA G
  • SFC - coalition of manufacturers, retailers and designers
7 SMaRT Consensus Sustainable Product Standards SMaRT Consensus Sustainable Product Standards B Y 2 2002 USA 16
  • Meets all 24 Sustainable Product Certification Criteria
  • ANSI Accredited
8 UL Greenguard UL Greenguard B Y 3 1998 USA G
  • Chemical emission and air quality
9 Global GreenTag Certified Global GreenTag Certified A Y - 2001 USA 7
  • Life Cycle Assessment
10 GreenCircle GreenCircle B Y - 2009 USA 4
  • Verifies Sustainability Claim
11 NSF/ANSI 336: Sustainability Assessment for Commercial Furnishings Fabric NSF/ANSI 336: Sustainability Assessment for Commercial Furnishings Fabric A Y 3 2010 USA G
  • Focus - furnishing fabric products
12 Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) schemes A Y - 1999 G G
  • Focus - timber and non-timber for ecological, social and ethical standards.
13 SCS Indoor Advantage SCS Indoor Advantage A Y 3 2007 USA 1
  • Indoor Air Quality Standards
14 Forest Stewardship Council Forest Stewardship Council B Y - 1993 GER G
  • Sustainable Forest Management
  • Sustainably Sourced wood
15 Declare (International Living Future Institute) Declare (International Living Future Institute) A Y 3 2006 USA 1
  • Indoor Air Quality/VOC Emissions/Other Leadership Approaches to Chemicals
16 Global Recycled Standard Global Recycled Standard A - 3 2008 G G
  • For recycled contents
17 Blue Angel Blue Angel B Y - 1978 GER G
  • By German Federal Govt
  • Life Cycle Assessment
  • Sustainably managed forests
18 Eco3Home Eco3Home F - - 2010 USA 1
  • Core manufacturing operations
  • Global operations
  • Product design and development
19 Fair Trade Certified Fair Trade Certified B Y - 1998 USA G
  • Safe working conditions
  • Environmental protection
  • Sustainable livelihoods
  • Community Development Funds
20 Better Cotton Initiative Better Cotton Initiative A - - 2009 G G
  • Sustainable Farming Practices

Ecolabels of top furniture brands

Presence or absence of ecolabels need not directly translate into the sustainability, business performance or popularity of a brand. Sustainability focus of certain businesses may completely fall outside the purview of ecolabels; some others may have imbibed sustainability at their core as a standard practice and need not necessarily prioritize the need to establish the credibility through attainment of certificates. For a few others, sustainability may still be a farfetched theme when compared with the short-term gains they pursue. Let us take a look at the how some of the leading (by size or popularity) brands perform in their ecolabel achievements.

No Brand Ecolabels
(Brands have products with these ecolabels. Need not necessarily be on all products)
Other Credentials / Highlights
1 IKEA
Forest Stewardship Council Better Cotton Initiative
  • 100% sustainable cotton since 2015
2 La-Z-Boy -
  • conserve™ Sustainable Fabrics (La-Z-Boy custom standard)
3 Williams-Sonoma
Forest Stewardship Council UL Greenguard Fair Trade Certified
  • TENCEL™
  • REPREVE®
4 Ashley HomeStore
Certi PUR US UL Greenguard
  • Focus on recycling
  • Focus on emission reduction
5 Herman Miller
Forest Stewardship Council BIFMA Level Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard SCS Indoor Advantage
  • Ocean bound plastic
  • Repurpose Programs
6 Raymour & Flanigan
Forest Stewardship Council
  • FSC on limited products
7 Restoration Hardware
UL Greenguard
  • UL provides regulatory, safety, quality and advisory services to RH and its supply chain partners
8 Rooms to Go -
  • Sustainably harvested wood
  • Recycling Focus
9 Steelcase
Forest Stewardship Council SCS Indoor Advantage BIFMA Level Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard Blue Angel Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
  • Establish a leadership position in product certifications by 2023
  • Green Tick Sustainable™
  • NF Environment product certifications
10 Crate and Barrel
Forest Stewardship Council UL Greenguard
  • Environmental initiatives across upholstery, packaging, energy conservation and recycling
11 Ethen Allen
Certi PUR US
  • Verified Sustainable and Legal by Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Inc. (AHMI)
  • Multiple sustainability award winner
  • Generally tops the list of sustainable brands

Conclusion

Sustainability is undoubtedly the way forward for governments, businesses and organizations. Standards and ecolabels have key roles to play in curbing greenwashing and establishing sustainable brands. Given the laser focus on the subject and how it shapes consumer and purpose driven trends; standardization, regularization and democratization of ecolabels and sustainability standards are an absolute necessity.

"The next 1,000 unicorns won't be search engines or social media companies, they'll be sustainable, scalable innovators - startups that help the world decarbonize and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers. We need to be honest about the fact that green products often come at a higher cost today. Bringing down this green premium will be essential for an orderly and just transition." - BlackRock CEO Larry Fink in his 2022 letter to CEOs.

Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
by Thara Thadathivila Kesavapillai
Thara is an ESG strategist and consultant who advice companies on sustainable processes. On Interiorbeat Thara writes about the standards, eco-labels and processes used in the furniture industry. Her work is featured in media as The Economic Times and Fortune India.
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