Building an Eco-Friendly Domestic Furniture Brand with EcoSelect Furniture’s Ken Fonville

August 20, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us Ken Fonville. He’s the owner of EcoSelect Furniture. Welcome to Green is Good, Ken. KEN FONVILLE: Thank you for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s great to have you on today, and before we get talking about your great company, EcoSelect Furniture, and your website, EcoSelectFurniture.com, please share the Ken Fonville story. You have a fascinating background in the furniture industry, Ken, and before you went into making eco-friendly furniture. You did a lot before and share with our listeners what you’re up to and what led up to you founding EcoSelect Furniture. KEN FONVILLE: Okay. I spent almost 40 years in the furniture industry, most of it with high-end, high-quality companies, some of which were family owned and some of which were corporate. As I approached my retirement years, I came to the belief that there was a real opportunity for a greener product if you only started with that as a basic premise as you developed your processes and product for the consumer. It came from a fundamental belief that having a good life and living a good life were not mutually exclusive goals so the decision to get involved in green furniture or eco-friendly upholstery primarily was also a function of that belief as well as the feeling that there was an opportunity to bring the manufacturing of upholstery especially back to the U.S. after most of the furniture industry has migrate to Asia so those two things were the primary drivers behind the decision to start EcoSelect Furniture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and for our listeners out there that want to follow along, I’m on your great website right now. Your website is www.ecoselectfurniture.com. It’s a beautiful website, has a lot of green on it and a lot of beautiful pieces of your eco-furniture and your beautiful upholstery so I suggest our listeners go to EcoSelectFurniture.com. Ken, what are the benefits of custom upholstery manufacturing and what you’re doing? Can you explain? You have such a great background in this stuff. Share a little bit about what are the benefits that first come with that kind of custom upholstery manufacturing. KEN FONVILLE: Well, custom upholstery manufacturing or customer upholstery for the consumer is that you can really tailor it to your own lifestyle and your own desires so we can address those unique requests though, things like someone who wants an especially firm seating or someone that wants a very soft seat, someone that needs a little higher seating level if they’re especially tall or especially short. We can accommodate that. We can also make most all of our chairs into reclining chairs. We can make virtually all of our sofas into sleep sofas so if someone needs the extra bedroom, as it were, so that we’re able to take these basic styles that are traditional and classic and then customize them to the particular wants and needs of our customers and to their personal style. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What are the costs involved with custom upholstery manufacturing versus buying something off the rack? Is it much more expensive than just going into the store and just buying something off the rack? KEN FONVILLE: There are some tradeoffs. We have to hire and use higher skilled manufacturing employees and workers. Our upholsterers, in man cases, are second and third generation craftsmen and they are very much steeped in a quality culture. Each piece is custom made to order so that it must take a little longer time and it’s probably not as efficient from a cost standpoint as making ten of the same kind or 500 of the same kind like some of the big manufacturers. It’s a little slower, so we ask our customers to wait a few weeks to get their upholstery rather than having it tomorrow, but we think those tradeoffs are more than offset by both the quality that we can provide as well as the ability to personalize it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Ken, since the name of your company is EcoSelect Furniture and you make eco-friendly furniture and especially, upholstery, can you share with our listeners, why are your furniture products and upholstery considered greener than just stuff that you could just go in and buy at a regular furniture store? Explain the differential greener elements. KEN FONVILLE: As I mentioned earlier, it was really starting with the premise that if you plan for green manufacturing from the beginning, there’s not a lot of additional cost to do it. For example, all of our frames are made from solid lumber. It’s hard wood lumber locally sourced in the mountains of North Carolina near our factory so that we don’t put any plywood in it, which as all the chemicals associated with plywood manufacturing. The springs we use are made from recycled steel. It was just a matter of finding the right source for it. The foam that’s used in our cushions is a soy blend foam. While it’s not a perfectly sustainable product, the fact that it has a soy oil component in addition to the petroleum based stuff means that it is a better product but it still has the performance, the durability, and the resilience that we think our customers need and then there’s something that you don’t typically think about making a product green but the fact that our frames and cushions are so high quality that the could be recovered so instead of sending your sofa to the landfill, you can put a new fabric on it or give it new leather. The leather in itself is a green product in the sense that it lasts many, many years. In fact, it can last a lifetime if well cared for so those are the primary things. The other thing, obviously, is that because of the California flame requirements, in the foam, we elected to buy the foam supplier that does not put those toxic chemicals so that that complete issue is not a function of our upholstery at all so that you get none of that toxic flame retardant chemicals in our upholstery. Plus, even our fabrics do not have any treatments to them like the slow repellent chemical. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. I mentioned your website, EcoSelectFurniture.com. You sell your products strictly online and you don’t have any retail stores. What was your business vision behind that decision-making? KEN FONVILLE: A couple of things; the primary one being that we believed, and still do believe, that we could provide a higher-quality product to the consumer for the same price as they would pay buying a lower-quality product in a retail store. We’ve tried to remove those distribution channels out of our selling equation, out of our business model so that we don’t have any risk. We don’t have any inventory. We don’t have a lot of personnel costs. We do minimal advertising so that we’ve taken the cost that we believe adds to the product value to the consumer, to our customer, and tried to remove them from the equation so that we could provide a higher-quality product for a regular price. We like to say we give you a designer quality or designer product for a regular price. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and also, you have a lower carbon footprint by just selling online with no retail stores. You are greener just with regards to that because you don’t have any retail stores and have a bigger carbon footprint because of that. KEN FONVILLE: Absolutely and in fact, we try to reduce our carbon footprint across the board. Fortunately, all of our materials’ components are sourced locally near the factory and our furniture product and upholstery is delivered directly to the consumer via a home delivery shipping company so that it doesn’t go to a retail store and then is reshipped so that all of those things help reduce the carbon footprint of the complete business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Ken, can you share with our listeners a little bit about the new California upholstery flammability regulations? KEN FONVILLE: Sure. Ever since the mid-1970s, California has required that all upholstery sold through retailers in state of California meets a very strict flammability requirements or fire-resistance requirement. For all of that time, there was an open flame test where actually, the fire was applied to the upholstery and it had to resist flaming up or burning for 10 minutes or so. I’ve forgotten the exact timeframe, but for a rather significant time. What wasn’t realized at that time was the toxicity of the chemicals that were required to beat that requirement, to make the foam and the upholstery flame resistant or fire resistant so as it was learned that the chemicals that were being added to the upholstery were actually worse for the environment, worse for the consumer because they off gas at home, and even worse for the firemen who are called to put out a home fire. If the upholstery is burning, it’s giving off all these toxic chemicals so they recently changed the regulation to go to a smolder test where a lighted cigarette is applied to the upholstery and the piece has to resist catching fire for some period of time but that has meant that all of the manufacturers have to retest all of their products to make sure they meet the new requirements. Plus, in many cases, they’re not quite sure how to meet the new requirements, whether a barrier coat is needed or whether some chemicals can be added or whether fabrics can be treated, plus the fact that the state has been sued by the chemical manufacturers so whether they can actually put the new regulation in place is up for debate and will probably take some time to get resolved and worked out. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I see. For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Ken Fonville with us today. He’s the owner and founder of EcoSelect Furniture. It’s www.ecoselectfurniture.com. You know, we talked about the fact that you’re only online so talk a little bit about how people — I’m on your beautiful website now, Ken. How do people interrelate? They can call or email you and make orders and then how does delivery happen and how long does delivery take? Is it longer than typical furniture going into a store and is it coast to coast in every ZIP code across the United States? How does your website interact with the consumer and how easy is it to order furniture and upholstery off of your website? KEN FONVILLE: Okay, well, that’s a lot of questions at one time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I know. Sorry. KEN FONVILLE: The consumer can browse through the website. We try to answer as many questions as we can. The customer can certainly call me. I spend a lot of time talking to consumers on the phone and answering questions, explaining what we do, trying to help them make the right decisions. Once a decision is made about which style they want and which pieces, they can either order online — there’s an order form on the website and their credit card payment would go through the secure server but we don’t ever see it and then the order is placed and what I do is send them an order acknowledgement that I ask them to confirm that we got everything exactly right since there are so many custom options to the pieces that we sell and then the order is put into the production cycle at the factory and it takes about eight weeks for us to produce a piece from the order entry day and then another couple of weeks or so to get it shipped to the consumer. Our shipping process is nationwide. We ship everywhere. In fact, we’ve sent pieces to Canada and a couple of pieces to Hawaii and once, we shipped to Alaska, though those are more difficult because of the packing required. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, of course. KEN FONVILLE: But for the typical customer in the U.S., we use a specialized white glove home delivery furniture carrier. They pick up pieces from our factory, pay another factory that delivers to our consumers, take it to their warehouse, which is about 75 miles away from us, and there they bundle up all of the products in a single truckload going to a single geographic area. The customer can track that process online through the shipping company and then when they have a truckload ready to go, they will call the customer to make a delivery appointment and then bring the pieces to the customer’s home, unwrap them, put them in place in the customer’s house and where she wants them, and then remove all the packing materials for recycling. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Ken, you’ve had a storied career in the furniture industry and now you are making eco friendly furniture with your great company and it’s really — is this a trend that you see other people like you, other veterans getting involved with making eco-friendly furniture and is there a furniture industry organization for green furniture? KEN FONVILLE: Well, there is. Number one, I do see some other companies embracing green trends. In some ways, I’m sorry to see it because it’s more competition for me but I’m pleased that the customer is offered more green alternatives and green furniture for their homes. There is an organization called The Sustainable Furniture Council that I’m not only a member of. I’ve been through their green leader training and I keep that certification up to date. They are very, very effective and they have a website as well where the consumers can learn more about sustainability and furniture and even get the names of the manufacturers and the retailers who support the Sustainable Industry Council and their practices. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and with regards to trends, you’ve dealt with families now for decades, buying furniture and seeing what they want and what they really are excited about and what they’re not that excited about. Is this a trend that you see is here to stay with regards to people coming to you and really being interested in having toxic-free furniture, chemical-free furniture, in other words, eco- and green-friendly furniture? KEN FONVILLE: I think it’s a rapidly growing phenomenon. In fact, most of my customer contact on the telephone is explaining what we do and why we do it and because of their interest in finding someone who could give them toxic free furniture. People are very concerned about what they’re bringing into their homes what they’re exposing their children to. The studies are a little bit scary about the chemicals that wind up in children’s bodies as a result of chemicals that are around us all the time so having the upholstery, which, number one, is gonna stay in their home for many years, having that toxin-free becomes very important to people and I think it’s growing in importance as people become more aware of it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. You know, you recently participated in the Green Festival. Can you share some of your thoughts about your participation with the Green Festival, Ken? KEN FONVILLE: Sure. That was sort of a test for us. We had not done anything like that before in our advertising. We try to stay in many of the green advertising vehicles. The Green Festival is a show that goes around the country. There’s five locations, I think: New York, Washington, Chicago, LA and San Francisco. It’s a two- or three-day event where there are hundreds of vendors selling green products mostly for the home, but not totally and all kind of educational lectures and things about sustainability and how you can live a better life and what kind of products are green and some of the things that enable people or help them live greener lives. We had a little booth and talked to many, many customers. Obviously, people didn’t come to the Green Festival expecting to buy a sofa, but it was rewarding to be able to see people and talk with them and have them sit on our upholstery, which is one of the real drawbacks to selling online. We recognize it’s a real act of faith to make a 2- or $3,000 purchase of a product that you’ve never seen and certainly in the case of upholstery you’ve never sat in to make sure that it’s comfortable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Ken, we’re down to the last minute. Any final thoughts or shameless plugs before we have to say goodbye today? KEN FONVILLE: Well, I encourage everyone to take a look at the website. I’m available most of the time on the phone and certainly I’m available by email and all of that contact information is on the website. I encourage people if they’re interested to request some swatches. We’ll send them small pieces of the fabric’s colors or the leather and on the swatch request form, there’s a place for questions so if you have something specific that you want to know about more, absolutely give me a call or drop me a note. I would be delighted to share my knowledge with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Ken, so much. Your website is, for our listeners out there, EcoSelectFurniture.com. Thank you, Ken, for making toxic- and chemical-free upholstery and for creating eco-friendly furniture. You are truly living proof that green is good.