Corporate Social Responsibility and Furniture

I got a massive Pottery Barn catalog in the mail today. I get enough of them that this is not an event, and even the catalog’s heft (196 pages) wasn’t enough to make me spend for 20 antisocial minutes fantasizing about furniture, even if I am in the market for an armchair.

But I noticed something new, namely a sidebar on page 116. With the title “Our Evolving Commitment to What’s Natural,” it was what I’d been searching for from them (and other furniture companies) for quite some time: namely, some disclosure about what, if any, efforts they’re making toward sustainability.

What efforts are they making?

  • “We print our catalogs entirely on Forest Certified Council certified paper.”
  • “Our gift wrap, gift boxes, and shipping cartons all contain up to 30% recycled post-consumer waste.”
  • This fall, the majority of our in-store informational materials [eg., signage, etc.] will be printed on FSC-certified paper.”
  • “We offer a collection of bedding, towels and robes that is made from 100% organic cotton fiber….”
  • “All our towels are now approved by Oeko-Tex — the world’s definitive ecological certification process.”

Of course, one could nitpick. FSC paper is good … but why not recycled? Especially when the catalogs are such whoppers. According to one survey from Environmental Defense,

…if the entire catalog industry switched to paper with just 10 percent post-consumer recycled content, the savings in wood use would be enough to stretch a six foot high fence across the United States seven times.

The report continues:

Seventy-four different catalogs were surveyed for the report, including those of retail giants J.C. Penney, Bloomingdale’s by Mail, Spiegel, Eddie Bauer, Lands’ End, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn and J. Crew.

Of the companies surveyed, only Norm Thompson Outfitters, Omaha Steaks and Disney reported using recycled paper throughout the body of their catalogs.

Also interesting are the talking points Pottery Barn has chosen. They’re putting out their recent changes (a start), but they’re a little vague on their goals: “We’re also committed to finding ways to build quality furniture with sustainable manufacturing and business practices.”

So is a commitment to finding something mean you’re working on it, or is it just marketing speak? Hard to tell. This is just a sidebar, after all, an acknowledgment that “environmental initiatives are taking root at all levels” (are taking root being one of the cleverer uses of the environmentally passive voice that I’ve seen).

But there’s so much they’re not talking about, the piece is more notable for its silences. What about materials? manufacturing? labor? shipping?

Now that the seeds are germinating, I suppose it’s tempting to complain that, um, more weren’t planted. However, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to compare them to Crate and Barrel, where I haven’t seen any such mention of sustainability, and say, well, it’s a start.

But for the time being, I’ll be looking at companies like Viesso, who have a big page explaining all the ways their furniture is “green”.


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