How to Sell the “Sustainable” Message to Consumers

Environmentally Friendly Lighting

Celebrity designer Angelo Surmelis and Susan Inglis of the Sustainable Furnishings Council give advice on helping consumers understand that “green” furniture doesn’t always mean having to pay more.

Residential Lighting: Sustainable Lighting Products

Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious in their purchases — and they’re willing to pay more in order to own the greener product, according to the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s (SFC) fifth annual consumer research study. However, the report reveals that retailers and manufacturers need to educate people about sustainable home furnishings if they want to earn consumer dollars.

“The need for greater awareness about the importance of ‘living green’ is among the top takeaways from this year’s study,” according to SFC executive director Susan Inglis. “Our report shows the consumer is more aware [of] sustainability – especially as it pertains to energy savings and reclaimed materials – but the need for home furnishings retailers and manufacturers to do more is clear.”

Nearly 50 percent of this year’s survey respondents stated they were “Definitely Interested” or “Very Interested” in buying green home furnishings if the style and cost were about the same as other options. Approximately 46 percent cited “Lack of Awareness” as the reason why they have not purchased green home furnishings.

Renowned designer Angelo Surmelis – who starred in TV series such as Clean Sweep, HGTV Showdown and HGTV Design Stars, plus appeared on TLC, The Today Show, CNN, The Tyra Banks Show, and other popular media outlets – spoke to Las Vegas Market attendees about some of the misconceptions that consumers may have about buying furnishings that are eco-friendly.

Surmelis was one of the first design professionals to join the Sustainable Furnishings Council. “I was [initially] ignorant of the green movement. I thought in order to be ‘green’ you had to spend a lot of money,” he explained. He credits his upbringing in Chicago as a child of immigrant parents with making him sensitive to offering design that is affordable to most consumers.

“I wanted to get into design to help people realize their own dream homes without sacrificing anything else. Making your space the best it can be should never feel overwhelming or like it’s a luxury,” he has said. That tenet has led to a successful line of affordable products under his angelo:HOME™ license through partners such as AF Lighting and Surya Rugs.

“I’m a big fan of real-life design; no one wants to look like they live in a museum. Buying furniture is simple. It comes down to ‘Do I like the way it looks, and what does it cost?’ Green isn’t what clients lead with when selecting furnishings,” he commented. “They have to feel good about their choice. If they have to go out of their way to buy green – or if it’s ugly – they won’t care about how sustainable it is,” Surmelis said. “I rarely get asked the sustainability question – even from my high-end clients. They just want to know if it’s pretty.”

Surmelis suggested taking a more subtle approach. “If I’m showing five pieces of furniture to a customer, I’ll include three that are made with reclaimed wood, etc., and mention that fact.”


Little Steps Lead to Change

Surmelis has designed for big box retail giants such as, Costco, and Wal-Mart. “These aren’t thought of as green leaders,” he admitted. “Yet they can tip the scale by the sheer mass quantities of what they sell if they just do a little bit [to adopt greener practices]. Change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen,” he advised. “The more you ask [factories] about how they are being responsible, the more they get forced to do the right thing. And when you have enough people asking for it, [factories will listen].”

Added Inglis, “I think consumers are becoming more aware of where products are being made. We also see a trend toward transparency, where customers are asking questions and getting answers. More companies are willing to tell customers about their business practices.”


Speak the Language

One of the difficulties when it comes to selling sustainable furnishings is that there is no consensus on the terms used. “There is no regulated definition of ‘sustainable,’” Inglis remarked. “What is ‘eco-friendly?’ It might mean organic materials, or it might refer to the packaging. Sustainability is about using the resources we have today in a way that the generation after us will still have those resources,” she explained. “‘Reclaimed’ means the material was taken from another use, while ‘recycled’ means it’s been made into a different material. Some petroleum-based products can be infinitely recycled, like ‘wicker’ made out of plastic or plastic soda bottles made into fabric.” Very often “recycled” is formed from material that is melted down before assuming a new shape or purpose.

“Ask your manufacturers what the material is reclaimed from,” Surmelis said, adding, “I once used ‘reclaimed’ doors, but it turned out they had been treated with chemicals.”

“When you talk about what makes something cool, it’s often the story behind it. ‘Oh my gosh, this table is repurposed from….’ It’s the Wow factor,” he commented. “If you can make the eco-story about how sexy the furniture looks or how it doesn’t cost a lot, that’s a better sales technique than preaching about the environment. Don’t oversell [that message]. The young shoppers get it; they’re the ones who are going to change the world.”




How to Obtain a Copy of 2013 Green Home Furnishings Study

The Consumer Research Report “2013 Green Home Furnishings Study” was generously underwritten by Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and conducted by Impact Consulting Group.

SFC members should contact the SFC offices at (252) 368-1098 or to obtain login credentials.

The report is also available to non-SFC members for $250 at; select the Industry Info tab and choose Industry Reports in the dropdown menu.

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