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Striving for Material Transparency in Furniture Manufacturing

Six minutes

At Watson, we believe people have a right to know where their furniture came from. Whether there are harmful or toxic ingredients in products that go into offices where they spend 40 hours a week. To rest assured the materials we use in production are sustainably sourced. Our VP of Product & Operations, Greg Kooistra, agrees. We sat down with him to talk about Watson’s push for transparency in materials: What is material transparency? “Getting manufacturers to allow a third-party set of eyes into their products and let people know, honestly and up front, what they contain.”

What’s difficult about achieving true material transparency in the furniture industry? “There are several organizations out there pushing for their own sets of standards. At a baseline, they each provide, essentially, an ingredients list like you’d see on food product labeling, that says what your product is composed of. At the next level, they may have information on what the product’s carbon footprint is and how much energy it took to produce.

This kind of information is being put out there and tested, but then what? These standards exist, but how do we know and communicate what ‘good’ is? What’s good, what’s bad, what’s in between? Just having a list of stuff and how much energy it takes to produce doesn’t really give any sort of comparative measure. How do you know what’s best-in-class when you’re measuring so many different products and processes by so many standards?”

How does Watson interpret these varying sets of standards and determine what to adhere to?

“What we’re working on is just doing what we know is best for the planet and our products, independent of standards. A few years ago, The International Living Future Institute introduced the Living Building Challenge. As part of it, they published lists of chemicals and materials found in building products, furnishings, everything else that’s part of the built world. The list is divided into tiers – red, for harmful materials, yellow for okay materials, and green for safe, environmentally-friendly materials. They started asking manufacturers to avoid the use of these things and figure out ways of doing business without these products.

We’ve largely stepped to that challenge. More recently we’ve switched from using formaldehyde in our boards to NAF (No Added Formaldehyde) and we’ve eliminated PVC from our products. The steel used in our table bases and brackets is 100% recyclable and made from recycled auto parts. Every year, we divert 350,000 lbs of sawdust away from landfills and compress it into briquettes for fuel at a local paper mill. Historically, we’ve focused on indoor air quality, having that third-party tested and certificated through the SCS Indoor Advantage certification program, which certifies compliance with rigorous indoor air quality emission requirements, based largely on how much VOC products like Tonic and Miro emit.

We’re proud to be taking on these really big material challenges – especially because we’re ahead of some multi-billion-dollar international companies. A lot of manufacturers will say they’re PVC-free, but there’s an asterisk behind the statement. It’s a mostly PVC-free statement. Even our electrical wires aren’t PVC-coated, and that’s pretty hard to do. When we say no PVC, we mean it.”

How does material transparency fit into Watson’s philosophy of practical environmentalism?

“Part of the practical environmentalism ethos of doing good rather than feeling good. When we make these changes, they cost us more money and we know that. We don’t pass that onto our customer, because we know it’s the right thing to do. We also don’t offer these things as alternatives – this is our standard. At a lot of other manufacturers, a client first has to be aware enough to ask for these options, and then they’ll get charged for them. That’s about feeling good – when you say ‘yeah, we can do that also.’ By making environmentally-friendly materials an opt-in, they’re not driving their products to market in the best way, environmentally. For us, environmental ethics inform everything – our facilities, our processes and practices, and the products we deliver.”

Learn more about Watson’s philosophy of practical environmentalism and how we can help customers meet environmental standards in their own buildings.

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