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Are Sustainability Certifications Outmoded?

Small design companies are devising a range of methods to communicate sustainability—without paying for certifications.

Certifications such as those from GreenGuard or the Forest Stewardship Council have become an easy way for interior designers to choose healthier, safer finishes and furnishings. But a new generation of manufacturers is forgoing these popular seals of approval and instead taking steps to make its green programs and processes so transparent that users won’t need to see a stamp.

Furniture manufacturers like Sabai Design and Outer and vendors such as Heirloom Design and Denvir Enterprises are among this growing group that has found certifications too expensive and exclusive.

“The impetus is good, but it can get diluted when there’s so much money involved,” says Emma Holland Denvir, a Los Angeles–based designer and founder of Denvir. She believes the complexity and expense involved in certifications make them only viable for large companies. 

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Another issue is whether certifications tell users enough of a product’s story. While labels can function as quick, recognizable stamps, they can also have limitations. For example, some address the product, but not its supply chain, labor, or delivery process. Others qualify merchandise based partly on its manufacturer’s purchase of carbon offsets, which may or may not actually cancel out its emissions. 

“Schools of thought and metrics around calculating sustainability are ever evolving,” says Phantila Phataraprasit, cofounder of Sabai Design, a women-led maker of easy-to-assemble, circular seating.

Denvir Enterprises recently polled its clients, who said that they value sustain-ability, but view certifications as out of reach. As a more affordable and simpler alternative, Denvir created the online platform Sustainability Check, which synthesizes and shares green facts for the products created by its independent brands. Specifiers can read brief entries on product features that may yield positive environmental impacts. 

The simplicity of this list, Holland Denvir says, is that it models “one way manufacturers can present helpful information without buying certificates.”

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Likewise, Sabai, which launched three years ago, has benefited from an accessible presentation of all aspects of its furniture operations, from material sourcing to the social impact of its women-led organization. One glance at its website reveals that its sofas, sectionals, and ottomans are nontoxic, made domestically, and circular. Phataraprasit and cofounder Caitlin Ellen believe amplifying their closed-loop system could have more impact than a one-time certification, which “doesn’t lend itself to ongoing improvement and tracking,” Phataraprasit says.

While it may sound obvious, business models that center environmental impact are an effective strategy for many, including Outer, a manufacturer of outdoor seating made from recycled ocean plastic and of 3D-printed furnishings that employ agricultural waste and plant-based biopolymers. 

Newcomers also find that ingredient transparency goes a long way toward engaging designers, because such lists of components often include certified materials. Sabai’s seating, for example, contains Forest Stewardship Council–approved wood and a certified ecofriendly foam. Instead of obtaining zero-waste certificates, some companies are forming collectives, where membership stands in for verification.

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“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there’s 12 million tons of furniture that goes into the landfill every year. Eighty percent comes from contract and commercial real estate,” explains Dave Bryant, cofounder of Heirloom Design, an emerging network of trade consumers, manufacturers, and diverse craftspeople, all of whom want to divert quality furnishings away from landfills by extending their useful lives. 

A joint venture with Uhuru Design and One Workplace, Heirloom launched this past Earth Day. Bryant and cofounders Judd Rosengart, Jason Horvath, and Chris Ferrari are currently developing a proprietary tech-nology “to provide a mechanism for the circular economy… a process to take things back and redeploy them,” Bryant says. Heirloom will even feature a royalty structure built in to pay the original manufacturer a fee. 

“Let’s focus on the behaviors,” Bryant says, pointing out what he sees as the irony of relying too much on third-party seals. After all, how credible is a certified item if it’s sitting in a garbage heap? 

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