Environmentally Unconscious

Kermit was wrong: It is, in fact,easy being green. The hard part is getting anybody to pay for it.

The home furnishings business, like a lot of consumer product industries, has struggled with how to make its products more environmentally friendly. Without any widely accepted accredited monitoring organization to set standards or validate certification, the consumer has nowhere to turn for information.

But even if she did, it wouldn’t matter: The home furnishings customer, no matter how noble her intentions or how politically correct her ideals, will not pay one penny more for a green product.

Environmentally UnconsciousThe home business is not one that takes kindly to innovation or technology. The people who make home textiles, like bed and bath products, will tell you that the greatest technological advancement in the history of the industry was the invention of the fitted sheet.And the furniture industry is no better. In a manufacturing process cursed by a huge labor factor, the use of the staple gun to attach upholstery fabrics to a sofa frame was heralded as a huge breakthrough.

So innovation is not at home in the home business. That’s why the industry’s efforts to embrace eco-friendly technology and techniques have been surprisingly aggressive…and unsurprisingly unsuccessful.

Take the case of Microban. This is a proprietary anti-microbial process that is used on fabric-based products like kitchen towels and mattress pads to make them more resistant to germs and other nasty little things…well, I think that’s what it does (Chemistry was never my strongest subject.) When it was first introduced more than a decade ago, the prices of products with Microban (and other competing treatments) were a few points higher than similar items without it.

The Microban people may remember it otherwise, but plain and simple, the consumer wasn’t buying it…literally. She appreciated the product benefit – even if she didn’t quite get what it was all about either – but she wasn’t going to pay anything extra to get it.

But the germ was out of the bag – so to speak – and there was no going back. Anti-microbial treatments became the de facto standard and all things being equal – and they were – the consumer chose an item with the treatment over one without.

And the vendors and retailers pretty much absorbed the added cost.

More recent efforts to go green have been no more successful. In soft home products, we have seen sheets and towels made without chemical treatments and washes. Somewhat illogically, they have cost more than regular products, even though they required less in the way of raw materials and fewer manufacturing steps. Needless to say, they have not sold well.

Alternative fabrics, made with such renewable fibers as bamboo, Modal™ and even rayon, have made small inroads but again because they had a higher price, they have not been widely accepted. In fact, the fastest growing fiber in the soft home business these days is the very tech-sounding microfiber, which turns out to be homespeak for good old polyester, about as ungreen as you can get.

The furniture industry has tried to use sustainability as its green card…with tried being the operative world. Most furniture shoppers don’t realize that sometimes the frame of their couch is not even made of wood, but plastic. Nor do they know that the wood grain on lower priced dressers and tables is often printed on paper which is then applied to non-descript boards made of compressed wood scraps. In other words, this is a pretty clueless shopper. So trying to convince her to spend more on a piece for her bedroom or living room made from renewable or sustainable wood is pretty much an exercise in furniture futility. It just ain’t gonna happen.

On the housewares side of the house, retailers and vendors have pretty much given up. If there’s a way to make a toaster oven earth friendly, it sure hasn’t reached the guys at Toastmaster, et al. Whatever it would take to make a small kitchen appliance more energy efficient would so increase the cost – and would be so negligible in impact – that nobody’s even bothered to give it a shot.

The big appliance boys are a different story, but they are pretty much victims of that same old Microban syndrome. Whirlpool (WHR), Electrolux (ELUXY) and General Electric (GE) – the Big Three of big appliances like washing machines and refrigerators – have done a pretty good job of making their products more economical users of power. (Albeit, it was at the mandatory behest of the federal government, but hey, we can’t quibble about such details.)

When the gas-guzzler rebates went into effect a year or two ago, a similar program was put into place for major appliances and consumers did what they were supposed to do, buying lots of replacements.

And then the minute the program ended, so too did the shopping spree. Gee, what a shock.

So, don’t look to the home business to be in the forefront of the green movement. Ever since avocado kitchens went away, the color has never really agreed with home shoppers, who remain nothing if not consistent: They just won’t part with the green to go green.

Warren Shoulberg About Warren Shoulberg

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings magazines and has been reporting on the home business for a long time. He is currently working on his next book, Stupid Business.