Photo by: Jasper & Fern for Business of Home

Sustainable Improvement

Designer Nancy Fire and Susan Inglis of the Sustainable Furnishings Council discuss the trend toward more eco-friendly furnishings

Known for her emphasis on sustainable design – an interest that guided her work as a 2020 High Point Market Style Spotter – Nancy Fire was inspired to rethink designing for the future when her company joined The Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC). Here, she talks with SFC executive director Susan Inglis about the Council and its evolving role in making our industry more sustainable.

Nancy: Can you tell us how sustainable awareness has changed since the inception of the SFC in 2006, specifically in terms of furniture manufacturing?

Susan: Yes – there have been changes and there have been things that have stayed the same. When we began, we were the only voice for life cycle assessment, and even for life cycle thinking, in the furniture industry, These days circularity is a buzzword, which shows us there is much more awareness of life cycle than there used to be.

The change in manufacturing was natural, as consumer demand for healthier materials and greater transparency in supply chains reached suppliers via retailers and designers. Even though consumers may not go shopping with a first question about eco friendliness, their concern for the healthfulness of the products in their homes leads to a conversation about sustainability.

There is still a knowledge gap among manufacturers, though. Sometimes, they think they are making strides, but they really need a bit more guidance. However, since consumers do respond to a genuine eco-story, we find that manufacturers want to fill that gap and appreciate and use the information we provide.

Nancy: Can you tell me your membership ratio between manufacturers and designers? Are more designers truly focused on sustainable design?

Susan: Our membership was mostly manufacturers at first, and over the years we have involved many more retailers and designers. Now our membership is about half suppliers/manufacturers and half designers/retailers.

Yes, there are more and more designers focusing on sustainable design these days, especially in comparison to 14 years ago. When we started, many designers would first come to an awareness of environmental safety issues when a client asked them for guidance. For instance, they may have had a child whose asthma required a VOC-free interior. They would turn to us to get the information they needed to serve that client. Now there are many resources, and design students are getting good information about environmental safety in their university programs. But designers still need regular updates about new findings and new materials, and especially about harmful chemicals. Plus, they need some way to verify a manufacturer’s sustainability claims, and SFC certification is a reliable indicator.

Nancy: Why sustainability? Tell us the reason you started the SFC 14 years ago, and why you chose to start in High Point?

Susan: I grew up in a family that loved to make things – my mother was a weaver and a potter, my father a woodworker, so I learned lots of handcraft techniques. It is also a family that values stewardship. I studied anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill. I had my children as my after-college career. When my marriage to their dad ended and I had to make a living, I thought, "What can I make?" and started a sweater business, Susan Sweaters, which evolved into a home textiles business, From The Mountain. You can read that story on our website.

I was sourcing a lot in Latin America when I got word, through WithIt, that Gerry Cooklin, owner of a furniture maker then based in Peru, was calling a meeting in his High Point showroom to discuss starting an organization that might be called Sustainable Furnishings Council. I showed up and got involved. He and I and a few others put heads together that September to start the organization. We had an organizing meeting that Fall High Point Market and we were fully incorporated by Spring High Point Market. My work with SFC has pretty much eclipsed my work with artisans! We started in High Point because that is where Gerry had his showroom.

Now, as we head into our 15th year, our offices are still here, on the 4th floor of the Radio Building. We publish online and print versions of our Sustainable Guide to Market, and we regularly present sustainability seminars in our member’s showrooms. Be sure to look for us on your next visit to High Point, we would love to help you answer any sustainability questions you may have.

About Nancy Fire

Co-founder and creative director of Design Works International, Nancy has built her expertise over almost three decades of practice. The firm, a multi-discipline design studio in New York City, specializes in original textile design, trend development, color, and bespoke consulting services. Nancy’s work involves exploring and developing lifestyle trends, creating original print and pattern designs, and consulting with brands to capitalize on today’s ever-changing global market.