Sixty Billion Reasons to Go Green

Increasing demand for healthier home furnishings can become a mountain of new revenues

Consumer desire for eco-friendly, sustainable, clean, toxin-free, and natural products is growing as rapidly as the number of words that describe them. Responding to this trend has moved Robin Wilson to the forefront of a major design disruption. In her "Design Viewpoints Series" keynote, Wilson showed Market guests how to reap new revenues from sustainable and hypoallergenic furnishings.

Cisco Brothers

“When I focused my career on sustainable design 16 years ago, it was already trendy,” said Wilson. “Demand was grounded in a concern for the earth, but was also a way to make a fashion statement. Today, consumers want sustainable products because they perceive a positive effect on the health of their families.” Wilson estimates that these consumers represent as much as $60 billion in home furnishings sales. Beyond the 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from asthma and allergies, this market also includes new parents, as well as people battling cancer and other autoimmune diseases.

“The catalyst for my recent product designs was becoming a mother.”

“I wanted my daughter’s nursery to be a safe place.” Wilson said, “So I began to focus on products that were hypoallergenic and available at competitive price points. I knew there was a strong market because new families are vigilant about the safety of their babies’ environments. When I ask clients if they would raise their baby in a chemical factory, they always respond with an emphatic ‘No!’”

As a consumer educator, Wilson wants to ensure that the information she shares is factual and supported by research. “There’s some greenwashing going on,” she said. “As companies recognize the benefits of promoting sustainability, they may make claims that are confusing, unverifiable, or even false.” As an early member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC), a coalition of manufacturers, retailers, and designers, Wilson credits the group’s progress in creating awareness and expanding adoption of eco-friendly practices.

French Heritage

“Our objective is to help members capture emerging market opportunities for safer products.”

The SFC’s most recent initiative, “What’s It Made Of?”, is a collaboration with the American Sustainable Business Council, Center for Environmental Health, and the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. This call for transparency in manufacturing was introduced in a panel discussion at High Point Market. Sponsored by Underwriters Laboratories, the panel included Industry leaders Veronica Schnitzius of American Leather, Angelo Surmelis of angelo:HOME, Matt Huber of Belfort Furniture, Ansje Miller of the Center for Environmental Health, and Thatcher Davis of Selamat.

“You have the most complex supply chain,” said Scott Steady, Senior Product Specialist at UL Environment. “You feel like you are screaming in a hurricane when you start asking questions about the use of hazardous chemicals in the production process.”

Huntington House

“It’s a multi-stage process,” said Inglis, “but when we consider the progress that has been made in embracing other industry objectives like No Tilt, we are optimistic about the potential for widespread participation.” The SFC website features ‘The Pledge to ASK,’ and a questionnaire to help manufacturers determine their suppliers’ usage of hazardous chemicals like flame retardants, anti-microbials, fluorinated compounds, formaldehyde, and PVC.

“As retailers, we need to be truthful when our customers ask, 'What’s in this sofa?' and 'Is it safe?'”

“There is a competitive advantage to offering products from manufacturers who avoid dangerous chemicals,” said Belfort Furniture’s Matt Huber. “Currently, we find this information is available for higher end lines. Once widely adopted, the “What’s It Made Of?” initiative should help us educate consumers about home furnishings products at every price point.”

Nathan Anthony

Consumers seeking sustainable products research their options carefully, according to Wilson, so marketing claims must be backed up by a real desire to meet their needs. “The companies that successfully engage this market are those that demonstrate a sincere commitment to addressing its safety concerns, and can effectively communicate the health benefits of their products,” she said. Passing that test is the key to opening up a new, $60 billion opportunity.

About Robin Wilson

Founder of Robin Wilson Home and author of the bestseller Clean Design: Wellness for the Home, Robin is a lifetime asthma sufferer who serves as pro bono ambassador for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Her national print and TV coverage includes stints on HGTV. Her licensed Robin Wilson Home brand has sold more than $85 million (wholesale) with retailers Bed, Bath and Beyond, JC Penney, and Kohl’s.