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‘We can turn this into really beautiful heirloom-quality products’

Whether you live in a shoes-off or shoes-on household, furniture maker Room & Board is betting you probably care a lot about what products and furnishings you bring into your home — not just for comfort and style, but the actual materials and their quality.  

As the brand’s director of sustainability, Emily McGarvey says she gets that loud and clear: “People care a lot about what goes into their homes — what goes … in, on, and around their bodies, and so furniture is an extension of that.” 

Instead of fast furniture — which, like its cousin fast fashion, promises affordable style at the expense of durability and significant environmental impacts — Room & Board’s modern but classy furniture is American-made and meant to last.

“It’s really important that we have furniture that we love and we can feel good about and … is sustainable,” McGarvey said.

In an exclusive conversation with The Cool Down, McGarvey walks us through how the Minneapolis-based company’s investment in sustainable furniture has made for great couches and good business for over 40 years.

🎄 What “reclaimed wood” actually looks like

2023 was a big year for Room & Board. Not only did the company become B Corp certified (meaning it balances purpose with profit), but it also now sustainably sources 95% of its wood — with a goal of 100% by 2025.

And the Urban Wood Project is a big reason the company can hit that target. Room & Board partners with organizations nationwide to reclaim wood from buildings slated for demolition and trees removed for maintenance.

It all started in 2018, when “the U.S. Forest Service reached out … and said, ‘We’d like to talk.'” 

“[They] had a project happening in Baltimore where a lot of the row homes were being taken down just as population shrunk in that city,” McGarvey told TCD. “… And so to deconstruct these real homes in Baltimore meant they were taking out this beautiful pine and this beautiful old wood that had been there for a long time, and they really needed someone to use the wood.

“So our designers and our product team took a look at it, and said, ‘We can turn this into really beautiful heirloom-quality products.'”

Nowadays, Room & Board has over 30 products in its Urban Wood Collection from cities nationwide, which are highlighted on the company’s website. Looking ahead, “There’s so much urban wood that’s coming down in our cities, and it would be great if we could reclaim all that wood and divert it from landfill.”

“And that’s really about setting up a circular supply chain … that doesn’t exist today,” McGarvey said. “It’s like a highway. If we can help set that up, more and more people can join us and … be using reclaimed wood versus virgin wood.

🛌 So you’re thinking about buying a new bed

It turns out, there’s a better way to shop for furniture than going to a showroom and jumping on all the beds.

Step 1: When it comes to furniture and your health … 

• McGarvey recommends certifications like Greenguard Gold Certified, water-based versus oil-based furniture finishes, and low “VOC” products to reduce off-gassing — which is when toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process spread throughout your home. (Think of it like the negative version of that new car smell.)

Step 2: When it comes to furniture and sustainability … 

• McGarvey recommends looking for the “things that have the most renewable content,” like wood instead of steel and cotton instead of polyester. 

• That’s because “if you look at the life cycle of a product — from materials to transportation to manufacturing to use to end-of-life — raw materials are the biggest piece from a sustainability perspective.”

And what about that FSC-certified label? 

• McGarvey says if you buy furniture made in the U.S. or Canada, you can be confident it comes from sustainably managed forests, but looking at FSC-certified products can be great “if you’re coming from a country outside of North America.”

🇺🇲 Made in America adds meaning — and money 

“90% of our products are made in the U.S. by [an estimated 12,000] American craftspeople, and that’s important to our customers,” McGarvey noted. “They really want to know that their purchases are impacting local craftspeople in local communities.”

It’s also good business. When Room & Board dives into the data, “We see that we have a higher conversion rate when people are on our sustainability web pages learning about our sustainability efforts … [and] we also will see higher order sales as well.”

“We know that when people are engaging with our sustainability information,” McGarvey said, “that’s going directly back to the product pages, and then they’re choosing to purchase from us.”

For context, according to Room & Board’s reporting, sales exceed half a billion dollars annually. 

Bottom line: “Sustainability has been one of the top growth drivers for us for several years,” McGarvey said.

💚 Green teams get it done

Room & Board’s equivalent of an internal green team — called “sustainability change agents” — actually started as a book club. “And then they said, ‘How do we do more?'”

One of the reasons the sustainability change agents are so effective is that they’re embedded throughout the whole company. 

For example: “When we were looking at the [return on investment] of putting solar panels on our rooftops for our headquarters,” McGarvey noted, “I went to my change agent that’s in finance and said, ‘OK, how do I figure out the capital process for this? Can you help me?’

“And she said, ‘Yep, I’m on it.'”

That sort of ownership mentality has been hardwired into Room & Board’s culture. In fact, as of early 2024, Room & Board literally became 100% employee-owned — meaning the 1,000-plus staff members hold a financial stake in the company.

💰 Value is more than a dollar sign

Buying your first dining room set is a rite of passage, mainly because it’s when you realize how expensive things like chairs really can be. In terms of pricing, Room & Board’s furniture isn’t cheap — but you’re also not likely to toss it out after six months.

“We really think about price in terms of value, because there’s the price tag of a piece of furniture — but there’s so much more that goes into that,” McGarvey said. 

Other factors that go into the pricing equation include:

• Durability 

• Trend-proof style

• Quality materials

• And even support for the American craftspeople — and their communities — who are making each piece of furniture

“All those things together really add up to the value,” said McGarvey. “That is a good value for our customer in the furniture they’re buying — and also a good value for the planet.”

Anna Robertson conducted this interview for The Cool Down. 

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‘We can turn this into really beautiful heirloom-quality products’