- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Green furniture — at least the figurative kind — is blooming. There’s high-end and low-end and everything in between.

“It means that people are waking up to their responsibility for the well-being of the planet,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furniture Council, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based nonprofit furniture manufacturers membership group and clearinghouse for green furniture information. “Consumers want to make choices that matter.”

Furniture manufacturers are responding, says Ms. Inglis, whose group frequently adds new members offering sustainable items and even collections.

“The companies know it’s good for people, planet and profit,” she says.

A quick Internet search on green and sustainable furniture provides results ranging from the ultrasleek and expensive to the lower end, but as with most new product lines or concepts, there is no one-stop shop for the good, bad and ugly of green furniture.

“You have to educate people about how to do research on what’s sustainable,” says Keith Ware, owner of Eco-Green Living, a green building and design center in Northwest. “If you’re putting in a bamboo floor, you need to know what’s good bamboo and what’s bad bamboo.”

A quick lesson from Mr. Ware on this increasingly popular choice for flooring — and furniture: Bamboo that’s harvested too soon — usually before it is seven years old — tends to be soft. A floor that’s made of this softer bamboo will quickly show dents and nicks.

“It’ll look like the surface of the moon in no time,” Mr. Ware says.

What makes bamboo — particularly the sturdier, older kind — sustainable are the ease and speed at which it grows. In a few years, it’s full-grown. Hardwoods take many decades to mature.

“Have you ever seen people growing bamboo in their yard?” Mr. Ware asks rhetorically. “Right; it’s unstoppable.”

Other green furniture materials include latex and sustainable forested wood as well as wheat and sorghum boards.

However, even when these materials and bamboo are used, consumers shouldn’t take anything for granted; they still should be asking questions and scrutinizing the product and the manufacturer, Ms. Inglis says.

“It’s not green just because it says it’s green,” Ms. Inglis says, adding that she would be suspicious of anything made in East Asia that is labeled green.

“Indonesia has a lot of illegal logging, which is the reason for a lot of forest fires, which, in turn, cause a lot of carbon output,” Ms. Inglis says. “I wouldn’t buy anything from there unless it was certified.”

Certification is done by various groups in accordance with standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit group that supports environmentally friendly forest management across the globe. (It’s headquartered in Bonn, Germany; the main U.S. office is in Reston.)

Even if the Indonesian-made product were certified, it would have to be transported thousands of miles before reaching our shores, which isn’t exactly a green practice.

“Buying locally is about as sustainable as it gets,” Ms. Inglis says. “We have a lot of one-man shops here in Chapel Hill.”

Mr. Ware has a one-man-shop connection in the Washington area. His name is Amos Kurtz; he is Amish and lives in Mechanicsville, Md. He makes custom-made furniture out of everything from bamboo to recycled wood.

“You can hand him anything — wood from an old barn — and say, ‘Make something of it,’ ” Mr. Ware says, sitting in his store, which features flooring materials, organic clothing and a table made of Chesapeake Bay driftwood.

It doesn’t have to be a custom-made, high-end piece (see the sleek Irenic bed by John Wiggers at Brooklyn-based Vivavi for $5,750) to be environmentally friendly, though. Mainstream retailers such as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and IKEA all are selling their own green items or collections.

“We have items from napkins to chairs and tables that are made from recyclable product,” says Wendy Rogers, spokeswoman at IKEA in Woodbridge, Va.

Its rocking chair, for example, the PS Gullholmen, is made from banana leaves, and the PS Ellan Chair is made of plastic and wood fiber from sawmill waste.

Ms. Rogers says the green trend fits in with IKEA’s global mission.

“It’s what we do overall — try to make the best possible product with the fewest resources possible,” Ms. Rogers says, adding that IKEA doesn’t yet have a green collection, just individual items.

If that’s still too expensive — or not of desired quality or style — there is always the giant secondhand market a la Craigslist.org and EBay.

“If you’re local, you can go to places like Second Chance in Baltimore,” Mr. Ware says. Or Community Forklift in Hyattsville, another secondhand source for remodeling and furnishing .

Adds Ms. Inglis: “Buying secondhand is a very environmentally responsible thing to do.”

In the end — whether consumers are going for super-high-end and custom-made, middle-range, or inexpensive secondhand furniture — the outcome is the same: less impact on the world’s natural resources.

“People are buying meaning and a chance to participate,” Ms. Inglis says, adding, fittingly in this political primary season, “They’re voting with their dollar.”

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