Upholstery fabrics go green

Upholstery fabric manufacturers are implementing earth-friendly production processes and developing high-quality fabrics with eco-sensitive features.

From magazine articles to seminars to trade show floors, the topic of sustainability has worked its way into the American business consciousness. As a result, companies are pioneering solutions that address the safety of the planet and the effects on people, while keeping the bottom line in mind.

Count upholstery fabric manufacturers and distributors among those reporting a growing interest in the subject from their customers. “Demand is increasing exponentially,” says Sandra Summers, vice president of sales for leather manufacturer Spinneybeck in Getzville, N.Y. “Some customers are focused on indoor air quality as the biggest driving force, and others will want to know about whether our packaging is recyclable. The topic of sustainability is almost a daily conversation at this point.”

“There’s a greater awareness in the market today about sustainable products, and the desire to purchase and locate them,” adds Roger Berrier, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Unifi in Greensboro, N.C. “Our customers, and our customers’ customers, have also seen this trend, and they want to bring in products that offer a more sustainable solution.”

Manufacturers are heeding the call by changing their manufacturing processes and developing eco-friendly fabrics that rival their less-green counterparts in quality, performance and style. Industry innovators offer their insights into the definition of sustainability, environmentalism in action, business benefits to upholsterers, hurdles that stand in the way and why it all matters.

Sustainability defined

Terms such as “green,” “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” have all come to represent environmentally sound practices and initiatives. In its broadest definition, sustainability involves establishing processes and developing products that have a minimal impact on the environment, whether that be recycling and reusing materials or keeping trash away from the landfills.

For many companies, sustainability starts with their operations. “Even though they might not produce a recyclable or natural fiber, manufacturers are making sure that the water they use is coming out cleaner than the water coming in,” says Manoli Sargetakis, principal of Silver State Inc. in Salt Lake City, Utah. “They’re also trying to be more efficient on how things are transported. They want to have processes that cut back on polluting the environment.”

Spinneybeck has implemented such initiatives. For starters, the organization has attained ISO 14001 certification, an international standard that establishes an organization as environmentally sustainable. The designation comprises 11 key aspects, including product packaging and design, vehicle fleet and supplier impact. Spinneyback has also changed its lighting to energy-efficient lamps that last three times longer than the previous bulbs. Tannery employees constantly collect, filter and purify the water used during the tanning and dyeing processes; all dyestuffs are completely absorbed into the hides. Furthermore, all excess leather from trimmings is processed into a leather composite backing material. Spinneybeck has also developed a system in which the cardboard boxes that come from its Italian tannery are reused in shipments to clients.

Wearbest Sil-Tex Mills Ltd. of Garfield, N.J., developers of the eco-friendly Bella-Dura fabric, uses manufacturing procedures that address environmental concerns. The company recycles and converts all its weaving waste, obsolete or off-quality yarns, design and sample blankets, test remnants and any other associated textile production items. The process diverts waste from landfills and creates usable product lines in the process. All dyes and chemicals that Wearbest uses are nontoxic, and the mill requires all its suppliers and dyers to follow EPA regulations on wastewater discharges.

In some instances, a manufacturer’s attempt to green the production process can yield a new product altogether. Such was the case for Unifi, whose environmentally friendly initiatives include reclaiming energy and water and donating bio-solids created in the dye house to local farmers for use as natural fertilizers. “We started looking at our manufacturing operations and what we as a company could do with the waste we were generating,” says Berrier. “The outcome of that was Repreve, which incorporates the waste we generate in addition to the post-consumer bottle waste that is out there.”

Specifically, the Repreve brand comprises three products that are made from 100-percent recycled materials: a polyester filament yarn, a nylon filament yarn and a polyester staple fiber. The production of the Repreve products translates into significant energy savings. “By recycling polyester, you eliminate six steps that are required to produce virgin polyester,” Berrier explains. “We have calculated that for every pound of Repreve, we are conserving approximately 61,000 BTUs of energy, which is equivalent to one-half gallon of gasoline.”

Green in action

Manufacturers like Unifi and Wearbest have devoted significant time and research to develop fabrics with an eco-friendly bent that can still live up to upholsterers’ design and performance requirements. Wearbest’s Bella-Dura, for instance, is the only fiber, synthetic or natural, that begins as a byproduct of petroleum waste that would be disposed of if not converted to fiber form. “The process uses very little energy and minimal amount of water to form the fibers, and very little water and energy are used overall in the weaving and manufacturing process,” explains Wearbest’s president Irwin Gasner, whose company has also implemented a corporate “Go Green” management approach that focuses on safety of materials, water quality and conservation, energy usage, waste reduction, recycling and social accountability. “There are no additive harsh chemicals necessary to provide the performance properties due to the inert and inherent characteristics of the Bella-Dura fiber.”

At the end of its natural life, Bella-Dura continues to be green. “Bella-Dura can be returned to the fiber producer, where it will be re-extruded into black resin pellets that will then go into agricultural or consumer products, such as the black CD case in your car,” Gasner notes.

The Victor Group, based in Quebec, Canada, with manufacturing in Fall River, Mass., has become well recognized for its Eco Intelligence brand, as well as its Eco Intelligent Polyester (EIP), used primarily in office panels and furniture. Victor has recently introduced to the residential upholstery market a new eco-friendly brand of fabrics called eHome, manufactured with recycled (post-consumer and post-industrial) polyester fibers. Meanwhile, the Smart Life family of fabrics, offered exclusively through Silver State, is made of 100 percent recycled and recyclable polyester derived from PET, the material used in plastic water bottles.

Upholsterers may worry about quality differentials among green fabrics compared to more traditional counterparts, but manufacturers and distributors say that the growing commitment to environmentally conscious practices and products will yield beautiful results. “Some of the more progressive fabric designers are putting all their energy into green fabric R&D,” Sargetakis says. “As a result, you’ll see more cutting-edge looks and quality.”

Market research indicates that not only are residential consumers interested in purchasing green home furnishings, they are willing to pay slightly more for environmentally friendly products. Manufacturers are trying to keep the cost of eco-conscious fabrics comparable to those that have fewer green features. In fact, the need for price-conscious green fabrics has been a dominating factor in commercial interiors. “In the commercial interiors markets, we have seen a significant increase in the demand for sustainable products over the past few years, and are seeing a similar trend in the residential segment,” says Beth McInnis, product manager for the Victor Group. “People want to do the right thing, and with today’s broader range of product and color offerings in sustainable fabrics that are equal in performance and price, consumers have many more options available.”

Why go green?

Companies that initiate sustainable policies do so for a variety of reasons, and in return, they see a myriad of benefits. By offering products and services deemed as environmentally friendly, upholsterers can find an edge over competitors, notes Paul Bennotti, director of marketing for the Victor Group. “The customer is always looking for a better product,” he says. “You’re positioning yourself as forward thinking. It allows you to bring something new and different to your customers. And, of course, it allows you to do the right thing.”

Furthermore, by implementing eco-sensitive business practices, “we are going to have a cleaner environment, but it will also help keep costs down if we are not dealing with ever-decreasing resources like petroleum,” Sargetakis says.

Eco outlook

Manufacturers across all sorts of industries are making the case for going green, but challenges remain as people try to interpret the concept of sustainability in their own terms. “There is no universal definition of what green means,” says Dr. Marilyn Black, founder of the Greenguard Environmental Institute, an industry-independent, nonprofit organization that establishes acceptable indoor air standards for indoor products, environments and buildings. “It’s a little like the wild, wild west out there because anybody can call something green based on their own critera.”

Black offers the hypothetical example of a textile that promotes a new water-based finishing substance. The process used to develop this product could save energy, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a healthy product. “The product could still have chemicals that could be dangerous to people,” she says. “It’s important for the end user to follow through to make sure the product is healthy, even though it may be contributing to other sustainable or energy conservation requirements.”

Reviewing a product’s third-party certification can help upholsterers better understand a fabric’s green characteristics. “Third-party organizations that use an objective process can help manufacturers establish standards and levels of acceptability,” says Black, whose organization offers three certification programs: Greenguard Indoor Air Quality Certified, Greenguard Children & Schools and Greenguard Building Construction. The programs extensively review a product’s entire production process, carefully reviewing things such as fibers, treatments, backings and manufacturing locations, then testing the product for performance. To ensure that a manufacturer keeps the Greenguard designation, the organization will test a representative product on a quarterly basis.

In addition to understanding the value of third-party certification, speaking in definitive terms about the green products you offer is an important step in curtailing the vagueness surrounding sustainable initiatives. “I caution our reps that you cannot go into a design firm and say, ‘I have green products,’” Summers says. “It doesn’t mean anything to them. You have to be very specific about the product’s attributes, whether it’s certified and what that certification means.”

Furthermore, the concept of “sustainability” has difficulty standing on its own. “Although the interest in green is there, they’re not yet buying something outright because it is green,” says Sargetakis. “We are creating bright colors. We are doing fun designs. We are making an attractive fabric. Then on the back end we say, ‘By the way, this is a green fabric.’ We are adding that as part of the story instead of making it the main story.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer in east central Minnesota specializing in interior design, residential construction and architecture.

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