Green, eco-friendly, eco-conscious, environmentally safe, sustainable, organic, natural … there seems to be almost as many statements of eco-friendliness as there are products proclaiming them, says Jeff Hiller, who examines the practice of greenwashing in furniture marketing …

Greenwashing – the practice of making environmentally-oriented claims that are misleading to consumers – has become a significant problem. A recent study of over 1018 products across a wide variety of categories found that 99% were guilty of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims. The Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC) followed up with consumer studies that provide excellent information specific to the furniture industry.

Consumers seem to be comfortable with virtually any green or sustainable general descriptor, though ‘green’ itself appears to be getting a bit overused, and there is a fair amount of confusion as to exactly what it means. The confusion is based on the range of terms and the issues represented, including recycling, pollution, global warming, deforestation, social equity and the like. Clarity about the exact nature of claims and supporting reasons is essential to help understanding.

When asked about their interest and actions with regard to the climate crisis or global warming specifically, about half of people described themselves as very interested, and have started doing what they can. In addition to recycling and switching out light bulbs, the vast majority say that they have been buying green products, primarily in paper and plastic products where options are low-cost and relatively available. Very few report purchasing green home furnishings, mainly because they are not familiar with these types of products being available to them.

“It will be necessary to provide detailed description as to exactly what it is that makes a particular product sustainable”

Importantly, consumers are interested in buying green home furnishings, with about a third saying they are definitely or very interested, provided they liked the style, and cost about the same as other options. And when they say “about the same”, they mean it, as most are interested only up to a price premium of 10%.

This is not to say that no consumer will purchase sustainable products significantly above that threshold. Just as with top grain versus bycast leathers, consumers are willing to pay two to three times as much for important benefits that they clearly understand – but, for the general market, a modest premium is necessary for mainstream appeal.

This is a critical discussion for the green movement. As in all markets, price is dictated by demand. If retailers and designers seek to source more sustainable products to satisfy the interests of their customers, manufacturers will source more sustainable materials and implement more sustainable practices, all of which will work to bring prices down and provide greater availability.

A tipping point is typically reached when a third of a market expresses significant interest in an alternative offering. Consumers appear to be ahead of the furniture industry overall in reaching this point, aided by the widespread discussion in the press and the advances in other categories – including mattresses – near and dear to the general furniture business. It is now up to industry members to ramp up efforts to bring products to market.

As this happens, it will be necessary to provide detailed description as to exactly what it is that makes a particular product sustainable. Does it use recycled materials, or is it merely recyclable? Done it versus can do it? What percentage of the products’ materials are recycled, or certified sustainable, or rapidly renewable? Where is the product sourced, and how much transport does it involve, from getting raw materials, to the manufacture, to getting finished goods to the consumer?

These are the important issues, and it is these that consumers will be asking more and smarter questions about as they become ever-more educated. The retailer who can offer intelligent answers will get their business.

Jeff Hiller of the PROaction Marketing Group is a founding board member and past president of the Sustainable Furnishings Council (SFC), a US-based non-profit coalition of manufacturers, retailers, designers, and NGOs committed to furthering best practice. This article was originally published in Furniture News issue 274.