The TH Interview: Gerry Cooklin and Susan Inglis of Sustainable Furniture Council

We have covered the founding of the Sustainable Furniture Council (SFC) here, here and here. The SFC is the result of a challenge by Gerry Cooklin, CEO of South Cone, to the industry’s leaders to: "stop destroying the environment and join me in developing cooperative, sustainable business practices that will meet the changing consumer demands for greater corporate responsibility." The group is still very much in its early stages (the website is still under development), but Cooklin, along with SFC Executive Director Susan Inglis, recently took some time to answer TreeHugger’s questions about their reasons for starting the SFC, why they consider the furniture industry to be such an important driver towards sustainability, and how they expect the Council to operate as an agent for change.

Treehugger: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to start the SFC?

Susan Inglis: Gerry started it, so he will have to answer this question, but I can tell you what inspired me to get involved and help make it happen. I happened upon a meeting that Gerry had in his showroom last fall to discuss the idea of forming the council, and to discuss the idea of the industry taking responsibility as a body for promoting sustainability. Immediately it was clear that this was too good an idea not to be realized, and also clear that I was being called to action. I love the power of taking responsibility, and it was especially inspiring to be called to lead the industry to a new level of responsibility (that is ‘response-ability’ as in the ability to respond. We can always respond, and I love being reminded of that!).Gerry Cooklin: Back in 1997 I had an epiphany. I was hiking up California’s Sierra Nevada, and a Tree literally "talked" to me. I was told that because I sourced the woods of our company in the Amazon, and that I manufactured high-end furniture, I was in a unique position to do something about the destruction of the forests in South America. This message went right into my being, and since then, I have not been able to take my focus away from this subject.

In 1998 I began our Giving Back program at South Cone where my board agreed to use 10% of our profits towards this cause. This led us to learn about certification, and we became Peru's first FSC Chain of Custody factory and High Point's first larger scale high-end manufacturer to offer a certified product in 2001. Our further research into the issues in the Amazon led us to founding PaTS, in 2001, to work with Indigenous communities. Once I learned about certification in 2000, and understood that not only was it the right thing to do, but that it was not rocket science, I became active in promoting this among my peers in the furniture industry. I conducted several meeting during the High Point trade shows, until eventually, in 2006, the interest in the matter began growing. The Sustainable Furniture Concil was then born after a meeting in October 2006, when enough people expressed their interest in joining forces to work together in promoting sustainability in our industry. It is clear to me, that until we get enough people involved in this movement, working together to educate the consumer that there is a choice for sustainable consumption in their home furnishings purchases, the whole concept will not work.

TH: Why is the furniture industry such an important driver for sustainability?

SI: Firstly, because we use so much wood, as well as significant amounts of other materials. Secondly, because we are a fashion business. We have a great opportunity to inspire responsible choices. The greatest value that can be added to any tree anywhere is to make it into a piece of high-end furniture. And when that furniture is sold, by including the full story of the difference it makes to use that wood for furniture, instead of firewood, even more value is added.

GC: Susan's answer covers it pretty much. The only thing I want to add is that the furniture industry is the main customer for the forests’ most precious species. Until the customers begin to ask for certified product, and start refusing non-certified lumber, the forests will continue to be exploited destructively.

TH: What other issues, aside from sustainable sourcing of timber and other materials, will the SFC address?

SI: The SFC is concerned with addressing all aspects of sustainability. That is: all that creates a healthy balance between environmental conservation, economic development, and social equity.

GC: The biggest hurdle we face today preventing us from having sustainable practices in our industry, in my opinion, is that the majority of consumers do not know there is a choice, and even the ones that do know about certification, do not have a wide choice of good, fashionable products to buy. The important work, therefore, is to raise awareness among manufacturers, retailers and and, most importantly, the end consumer. Therefore, the other big issue that SFC will be focusing a lot of it's resources on will be in awareness raising throughout our industry

TH: You have been very adamant that the SFC must tackle issues of social equity and justice, as well as purely environmental issues. What is the thinking behind this?

SI: We are concerned about an effective balance. I think it is being effective in creating the balance itself that makes for true sustainability.

GC: Sustainability is the balance of the three components: economic, social and environmental. Working in the Amazon with Indigenous communities makes it very clear that without social equity, environmental practices are not sustainable either. The social justice element is actually, potentially, the hardest to achieve, but it is a journey, and so long as we walk at a sustainable pace, we'll get there eventually.

TH: There is a lot of interest in green products and green business right now. Is this a fad or a paradigm shift?

SI: I hope it is a paradigm shift. But, even if it is a fad, it is an opportunity to educate buyers and consumers that just might be enough to pull us back from the precipice.

GC: I am personally convinced that green is here to stay. The Human Race, in my opinion, will increasingly understand that without sustainable practices, we are a species on our way to extinction. Already we are seeing severe consequences of our environmental mismanagement. The climatic events that will continue to be more and more present in our lives will be a constant reminder of the urgency to make sustainability the life line of human existence on this planet.

TH: While improving practices in the furniture industry is important, how will the SFC ensure that these improved practices lead to business advantages for your members?

SI: I see this as a consumer-driven effort. More and more people are voting with their dollars and making conscious purchases. We are helping businesses to provide them with products that have the integrity they are seeking. And, of course, consumers primarily want a product with a certain look, and at a certain price. So the other business advantage we offer members is information on achieving sustainability efficiently. The result, I believe, will be an acceleration of economies of scale so that many environmentally sound practices and materials will become less expensive for manufacturers and distributors.

GC: I agree with Susan that, as our membership continues to grow, we'll be able to use economies of scale with our network of suppliers. Today, many sustainable suppliers are forced to sell at a higher price due to low demand and higher manufacturing costs; as their demand
increases (which it will as the awareness increases), we'll see larger manufacturing volumes which should be accompanied by lower costs. Another business advantage that I anticipate, is that this topic is attracting more and more attention from the press, so we are already seeing much media coverage benefiting many of our members. A co-operative advertising campaign is also in the works which will benefit us all.

TH: What are the most important things that every treehugger can do to encourage a more sustainable approach to business?

SI: Buy carefully.

GC: Learn more about existing sustainable practices, communicate it to employees or colleagues, and come up with a shared strategy of how to implement changes in a workable fashion.

Tags: Furniture | TH Interview