The tiny eco-friendly furniture store that strives to protect the homes of its customers is strangely out of place in its own.
A Natural Home is sandwiched between a coffeehouse and a kitsch shop in Fredericktown, a village 50 miles north of Columbus that isn’t exactly a bastion of environmental values. The pickup trucks racing down Main Street are not hybrids, and there isn’t a vegan burger to be had for miles.
Nevertheless, buyers travel to the store from Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and New York to check out mattresses made with organic cotton, organic wool and natural rubber latex.
Shoppers sink into armchairs, locally crafted by the Amish, with frames of sustainably harvested wood. They leaf through samples of upholstery fabric with color “grown in” the cotton instead of dyed.
Still more customers from Washington state to Washington, D.C., buy nontoxic beds, sofas, tables and organic sheets and rugs from the company’s Web site.
Though owner Susie Little has sold only one furniture item to local customers — a mattress — her business is thriving.
It’s not alone. Retail sales of pillows and mattresses made with organic materials — those grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers — increased 32 percent in 2005 from the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Overall, sales of nonfood organics topped $744 million that year, increasing 32.5 percent from the year before. That “greening” trend has many furniture retailers latching on to the concept.
The International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., the industry’s largest trade show, featured a “green” pavilion in its recent spring show.
The exhibit showcased bedroom suites in quarter-sawn white oak — wood certified to be sustainable, or harvested in a way that protects wildlife and the environment. Outdoor furniture constructed of reclaimed teak — salvaged from other structures — incorporated recycled farm plows and rice barrels into their designs.
“There were elements of green furnishings throughout the entire marketplace,” said Jackie Hirschhaut of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, the trade organization that sponsors the twice-yearly show.
“Certainly ‘green’ was a very important focus.”
Even major manufacturers now offer earth-friendly components in some products. Lane and Bauhaus both recently introduced seat cushions made in part with materials derived from soybean oil instead of petroleum products.
The ideas are also going mainstream with consumers. A survey conducted for the American Home Furnishings Alliance indicated that 72 percent of respondents would pay up to 10 percent more for furniture that is environmentally friendly.
As people cross over to that “green” lifestyle, they’re bringing with them savvy ideas about home design.
Much of the grittiness of the old organic movement has softened; natural design has gone from hippie to hip, from earth-crunchy to sleek. Now that Ralph Lauren has introduced organic linens and Pottery Barn touts rattan furniture that preserves rain forests, consumers want it all: fashionable furniture that’s functional and earth-friendly, too.
“Gone are the days when I can furnish my whole house with a futon and a bean bag,” Little said. “People want something that’s sustainable, but they don’t want to be sitting on a burlap sack.”
Most of Little’s sofas, armchairs and matching ottomans have simple lines and a contemporary flair, a style she describes as “Shaker meets midcentury modern.”
Many of her clients design their own pieces, sending artist renderings for designs that Little often names after the client: “Molly and her ottoman” or the ample hemp-covered chair named “Max.”
Many people buying “green” furniture are compelled by health concerns: Little estimates that 65 percent of her customers worry that chemicals and synthetic materials in furniture can make them sick.
They’re concerned about gases released by polyurethane, formaldehyde and wood stains. And they dislike PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ether), flame retardants used in many consumer products including mattresses and upholstery that have been linked through animal testing to thyroid problems and learning impairments.
(PBDEs) “seem to be a persistent chemical. . . . They might be cancer-causing,” said Laurel Powell, who has campaigned to have the chemical banned in her home state of Washington. “I don’t want my son playing or sleeping on them.”
Powell recently bought furniture from A Natural Home for her house in Gig Harbor. Like her, many people with children are willing to pay more for nontoxic furniture. Little sells 25 to 30 baby mattresses each week. The mattresses, ranging from $199 to $350, are made of organic cotton and organic wool.
Although the mattresses have no chemical flame retardants, the naturally flame-resistant cotton and wool creations pass the same federally mandated flame-tests as conventional mattresses.
“There’s nothing synthetic in (these mattresses),” Little said. “No chemicals, no formaldehyde, no boric acid, no (recycled fabric) sweepings from off the mill floors.”
But the emerging eco-friendly buyer also views furniture purchases as an expression of his or her values about protecting the environment as a whole.
“Ask them about home furnishings, and it’s primarily the environment or preserving forests they’re concerned about,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumer Association. “These (buyers) are thinking they want to ‘green-up’ their entire lifestyle.”
“For about 20 percent of the population, this is a broad lifestyle change that relates to their concern about health but also about sustainability and economic justice,” or making purchases that provide a fair wage to marginalized workers, he said.
Little’s network of Amish craftsmen meshes well with that paradigm of social responsibility. She began the business, in part, to provide struggling Amish farmers with another source of income.
“We’re the ultimate in cottage-based industry,” Little said. “Everyone works at home.”
When a client commissions a piece, she visits Eli Yoder or one of 30 other Amish families with whom she works.
In a tidy shop on his farm a few miles outside of Fredericktown, Yoder constructs furniture frames out of maple and oak. He upholsters the pieces with naturally colored cotton or fabric pigmented with low-impact nonmetallic dyes. His wife fashions slipcovers and pillows. His father makes solid wood legs — some weighing as much as 10 pounds — for the sofas and chairs. The legs are finished with tung oil or shellac but never stained.
The fact that the furniture is made by Amish families in their homes seems to be as important to Little’s clientele as having it built sustainably.
“Each piece is unique. You can’t just go pick it up off the shelf and take it home,” said Jayna Ray, the store’s manager. “That really appeals to people.” Textile terms
Organic. Sustainable. Nontoxic. Natural. The lexicon of the earth-friendly can be confusing and sometimes misleading when buying furniture.
Technically, there is no such thing as organic furniture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies as organic any agricultural products — food and textile fibers — grown without chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But the government does not yet regulate the processing of fabric, including dyes and finishes.
Fabric can be labeled natural because it uses earth-friendly dyes but might not not be organic. Likewise, textiles can be organically grown, but treated with synthetic dyes and flame retardants. The Organic Trade Association has established voluntary guidelines for processing textiles.
Other parts of the furniture such as wood and latex are largely unregulated as well. Not all mattresses claiming to have natural rubber are indeed natural.
Ask whether the rubber is derived 100 percent from the sap of rubber trees.
Nontoxic refers to an absence of chemicals added during production. When looking for eco-friendly furniture, inquire about flame retardants, formaldehyde, adhesives, stains and fabric and wood finishes.
Sustainable refers to raw materials, which are harvested, produced and transported in a way that protects wildlife, the environment and the needs of future generations. Wood certified to be sustainable is not clear-cut. Independent and accredited certification programs include the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, promoted by the Nature Conservancy, and the Rainforest Alliance. For additional health information, visit OhioHealth