Your New Towel May Have Once Been a Water Bottle

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Even as the fashion apparel business comes to grip with the big questions of sustainability and environmental correctness, its sister industry – home furnishings – is facing many of the same issues…and addressing them with similar levels of success, failure, and outright confusion over doing the right thing. But for those who get it right, the payoff can be worth the effort.

This is particularly true in the soft home product sector where products like sheets, towels, rugs, upholstery for seating and decorative fabrics are often coming from the same sources as the countries and suppliers who make apparel goods. And if consumer awareness in home goods is slightly behind apparel, the difficulties of doing the right thing are every bit as challenging. The hard goods home business – from wood furniture to housewares like kitchen appliances and cookware to accessories including lighting and tabletop – seem to be less in the environmental bullseye, perhaps because consumers aren’t necessarily as conscious of what these goods are made of or where they come from.

Yes, there are concerns about the materials used for furniture and housewares but most wood in products today is manufactured like MDF (medium density fiberboard) or engineered flooring rather than the exotic veneers and hardwoods from endangered mahogany, rosewood or ebony which are only used in the most rarified circles.

Soft on Home

That’s in contrast to the home textiles business, encompassing bed and bath products, curtains, and rugs, where the product characteristics, “ingredients” and country of origin are usually displayed right there on a hangtag attached to the item. It’s why this category is perhaps a laggard on the sustainability front. For those who still think their bedsheets come from U.S. southern textiles mill of the Norma Rae era, it’s an eye-opener to know that about 95 percent of all bed and bath products come from Asia, specifically China, India, and Pakistan…in that order. A tiny fraction comes from Europe – primarily Turkey and Portugal – and an even tinier proportion is domestically made.

Unlike American-based companies, these foreign producers only need adhere to the rules and regulations of their home countries. So recent claims by overseas manufacturers to be more environmentally responsible are more about marketing and rising consumer interest in the issue than about meeting other national standards. In fact, when it comes to eco-issues for fabric and fiber-based products, there really aren’t any U.S. standards or requirements, meaning companies can say just about anything about their products and not be held accountable.

Chinese Takeout

Importers of these goods also fall victim to geopolitics, most notably when it comes to products out of China. A great example is the current situation with an organization called The Better Cotton Initiative, which was started several years ago with the intent of validating cotton growing practices around the world, including sustainability. India and China are the two largest growers of cotton, with the U.S. third and nations including Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt far behind.

The BCI was gaining acceptance, including in the U.S., until Chinese/American politics entered the equation. Last year the Biden Administration banned the use of cotton from the Xinxiang region of China where it alleged the country was using forced labor. The issue was China was trying to get the local population in that western interior portion of the country to be more beholden to the national government. (Chinese authorities deny any such thing.) Citing these human rights violations, the U.S. no longer allows products made of cotton from this region to be sold in America.

The BCI was caught in the middle. If it no longer put its stamp of approval on Chinese cotton in general because of this issue, it was clear that China was going to ban – officially or unofficially – the organization. So, it’s a fuzzy area where everyone is trying to avoid taking a hard line and it’s probably fair to say it’s weakened the BCI’s global credibility. Again, BCI says not so, but others would disagree.

Tracing Papers

A big part of the BCI roadmap was being able to trace the cotton itself back to the field so users would know exactly what they were buying when all those giant bales showed up. Many companies – including marketing organizations like Supima as well as individual end users of cotton who converted it into finished product – have taken it onto themselves to monitor the supply chain process to provide assurances that what you see is what you ordered.

Some processes use DNA tagging that seems straight out of a CSI television episode, while others employ systems ranging from in-person monitoring to QR codes that trace things back to where it was grown. This so-called “field-to-bed” process, modeled after the farm-to-table movement in the food business, has gained hold with some retailers like Target and brands like Ralph Lauren working on systems to be able to tell the consumer the entire production process.

Re-Re-Re

Of course, not all of the products in the soft home sector are made of cotton. And especially as cotton prices have risen over the past year and supplies are severely diminished due to climate change issues of too little water in some areas and too much in others, synthetics and manmade fibers and fabrics appear to be gaining share. This is particularly true in the upholstered furniture sector where the majority of coverings are manmade, usually polyester or nylon.

The environmental solution on this side of the business has been the increased use of recycled and reprocessed materials, which have come under the rather clever marketing handle of “circularity.” These are often home products that are broken down and reprocessed. In some cases, they are materials from other materials, notably the plastics used in water and soda bottles made of recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate). For the non-chemists among us, PET-based containers and bottles are crushed, broken down into pellets and through some sort of manufacturing hocus-pocus reformulated into fiber strands that can be woven into curtains, upholstery fabrics and other things.

At the recent New York Home Textiles Market Week in September, virtually every major supplier of bed and bath products, be they from China, India, Turkey or even the outlier from the United States, showed new merchandise with recycled materials, manmade or natural. There are even clever niche products made of recycled components. Designer Nancy Fire employs “lightly-used and repurposed cardboard” combined with frames made of recycled plastic bottles for a new line of wall art under the Stacked brand debuting this fall.

Retailers, Too

This sustainability trend is not just reserved for suppliers. On the retail side, companies are working the environmentally correct front, none so more than Williams Sonoma, parent company to such nameplates as Pottery Barn and West Elm. The retailer, under CEO Laura Albers, has made its sustainability efforts a core value of its corporate edict. The company, obviously a big user of wood in its products, has pledged to plant six million new trees by the end of next year. It has also said it is working to be carbon neutral in all its operations by the year 2025 and has already made significant progress on that goal.

IKEA, a retailer once more identified with disposable furniture than sustainable products, has made a major shift in its policies over the past few years, buying back its used furnishings to be recycled and working more closely with its suppliers to follow more environmentally correct manufacturing processes.

A Next-Gen Fad…or What?

Skeptics out there – and there are many—will tell you that so much of what’s going on is greenwashing designed to appeal to millennials and Gen Z customers who say that sustainability and eco issues are much more important to them in their purchasing processes. It doesn’t take much memory to recall baby boomers back in the day saying the same thing, even inventing Earth Day and going au natural…only to develop eco-amnesia when they got older and more prosperous, turning into the biggest conspicuous consumers in the history of civilization.

But so far it seems it will be different this time. Efforts to adapt more earth-friendly practices in the home furnishings field are further along and have gained wider acceptance – even from all those aging boomers who seem to have rediscovered eco-religion. The sheer number of producers introducing eco-aware products confirms they have been successful and are selling well.

No doubt, the ongoing deterioration of Planet Earth caught up in worsening climate change is also a factor. So too are new technologies that allow for eco initiatives using electronic monitoring to be more effective – and economical too – helping them gain acceptance. That’s why even the skeptics among us believe that maybe this time it will really happen.

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