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Sustainable Furniture - Preserving for the Future

Many conventional business managers have said they can't make a profit if they follow environmentally responsible practices. But one international furniture maker has been doing it for years - so long in fact that people around the country are asking company officials for advice.

About 100 architects, interior designers, city planners, government and private environmental groups gather at the University of Idaho's Urban Research Design Center. They're want to learn about the sustainable business practices of Herman Miller Incorporated, a Michigan-based industrial design company with suppliers and clients in 40 different countries.

The company builds office furniture, employs 9,500 people and last year did $2 billion in sales.

"As a company we want to live with integrity and protect the environment because it's actually a business proposition here, if we don't figure out how to do that, we're gonna run out of raw materials," said Paul Murray, Environmental Affairs Manager.

That's already happened with some hardwood from tropical rain forests the company once used in its office furniture.

"We discontinued using rose wood because we couldn't get good quality rose wood anymore because too many of the trees had been cut in the forest," Mr. Murray said.

Teakwood suffered the same fate - as rain forests, worldwide, fell under loggers' saws. Herman Miller now uses cherry and walnut instead of teak and rosewood. Mr. Murray says his company would like to buy all its wood from sustainable forests but there's a problem.

"We'd be out of business, there's just not enough that has been listed on the list of sustainability," he said.

Herman Miller is not the only company seeking wood from sustainable forests, where trees are harvested in controlled cuts and replanted to preserve the forest ecosystem. One of the nation's leading home product sellers, Home Depot, also wants to buy at least a portion of its wood products from sustainable forests. The firm's goal is one percent this year and five percent over the next five years., a California on-line company, sells products made from recycled wood materials - but President Sunil Wagle follows special rules for solid wood furniture.

"We use the criteria that is set forth by the Forest Stewardship Council," he said. "They are really an organization which monitors and makes sure all of the wood is certified sustainably harvested."

The Forest Stewardship Council, based in Oxaca, Mexico, requires that forest managers maintain biological diversity within the harvest areas, and that they do regular environmental monitoring, meet applicable laws, respect the rights of indigenous communities, conserve natural resources, and submit have a written forest management plan. The Council's strict forestry standards appeal to 27-year-old Scott Swanson. He and his fiancée are shopping for a table, chairs, a sofa and a love seat, and cost is pretty important to them.

"Yeah I believe we both would agree that paying a little bit more in order to protect our environment is worth it," he said.

Furniture made with the environment in mind may cost more, but it's usually more durable, says Tom Hegge, owner of the Office Pavillion, the Boise store that sells Herman Miller office furniture. "For the corporations and institutions that probably drive the volume of the market, they are going to get something that lasts longer, can be repaired to live longer, and I think it's become a part of value, overall cost rather than initial price," he said.

Until there's enough wood from sustainable forests, companies like Herman Miller, the Michigan-based design firm, will continue buying from well-managed forests - sending out purchasing agents to look at harvesting practices and planting regimens. Herman Miller's Paul Murray says his company protects the environment in other ways, too: hauling more furniture per load, crafting their chairs to last for years, even designing their factory and office buildings to save energy. They feature lots of openable windows to let in natural light and fresh air in the spring and fall, and furnaces that burn the factories' waste wood.

But such eco-friendly strategies can be hard to implement. Steve Benner of CSHQA Architectural Engineering in Boise says he often has difficulty persuading developers to spend extra money today on future energy savings. "A lot of developers will develop a building and then own it for a couple of years, then lease it out then they'll sell the building," he said. "So they aren't concerned about savings that are going to occur ten years down the road, cause they're not gonna going to own the building anymore."

Mr. Benner says state building codes that require energy efficiency could help. Education is important too. Ann Hausrath, with Idaho's Sustainability Coalition, helped organize on the Herman Miller event.

"We are helping to build an ethic of sustainability in Boise, which means, to make all of our decisions as if the future mattered," she said.

Ms. Hasurath says businesses are in a powerful position to make dramatic changes in the environment - for better or for worse.