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Can treatment facilities go green?

May 15, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Centers face challenges in assessing environmentally conscious purchases of furniture

When it comes to decision-making about the furniture and other heavy items required in order to equip residential addiction treatment facilities, making environmentally sound choices can prove challenging. Unless facility designers intend for residents to sit and sleep on the floor, they will be acquiring products that contribute to depleting wood resources and petrochemical reserves.

“It's impossible to manufacture furniture without having an impact on the environment,” says Keith Voigt, president of Furniture Concepts, a company that manufactures products for healthcare facilities and other group living environments.

This doesn't mean that addiction treatment center leaders shouldn't be thinking about how they can make more green-focused purchasing decisions, and asking questions of the vendors with whom they are doing business. But judging from the experience of Voigt's company as but one example, these conversations often aren't taking place to a great extent in the addiction treatment community.

Voigt says the two groups of Furniture Concepts customers that express the most concern about environmentally conscious purchasing are colleges (which cater to a young market with a passion for environmental issues) and park and recreational facilities (where this subject typically is embedded in decisions-makers' DNA).

“As a whole, when it comes to addiction facilities, this issue rarely comes up,” Voigt says.

Companies' options

Voigt generally believes that it is up to purchasers to decide whether to initiate a conversation about environmental considerations in their buying decisions. And it appears that in the vendor community, furniture companies in general hesitate to push this topic to the forefront of discussions with current and potential customers.

Visitors to Furniture Concepts' website might find a personalized message from Voigt that describes some of that company's efforts to consider environmental impacts. The text opens with Voigt's description of how he tries to transfer to the workplace the “fanatical” approach he takes to recycling and other environmentally focused strategies in his family. “I ride my bike to work as often as possible and enforce the same recycling and conservation efforts at the office as I do at home,” Voigt writes. “Yet, it's not enough.”

All furniture companies engage in manufacturing and finishing processes that utilize significant amounts of finite resources. Furniture Concepts says it has adopted several approaches that it believes take advantage of environmentally preferable options, though Voigt acknowledges that in some instances questions about these approaches' impact do remain.

For example, the company sells furniture made of woods certified to be from renewable resources. However, Voigt says he wishes he could say with certainty that 100 percent of these sources are of sustainable origin.

The company's website states that it offers furniture finished in a bath of tung oil and linseed oil, which releases fewer volatile organic compounds than lacquer or varnish. It also offers domestically manufactured and finished products that are subject to stricter environmental standards than are some products assembled elsewhere.

The company states that it also purchases carbon offsets that finance projects in reforestation and renewable energy.

Voigt says a number of more environmentally sensitive products and approaches have surfaced throughout his industry in recent years. Mattresses made with Fiber Core (a material derived from recycled plastic) instead of foam result in a lower volume of petrochemical byproducts. Similarly, more companies are using fabrics that are made of recycled fibers and yarns.

Still, these factors bring to the fore another layer of potential questioning by customers. Mattresses have covers as well as a core, of course, and the manufacturing processes for the two might differ greatly. Fabrics could be made of recycled material, but then the chemical treatments used to make the fabrics fluid-resistant and therefore suitable for health facility use could raise a red flag.

These in essence are complicated processes that could require purchasers to dig deep as they conduct their analysis. “But at least we're making progress,” Voigt says of some of the options that have become available in the industry.

Starting the conversation

Voigt says he does see more companies being compelled to have conversations with their customers about environmental considerations in purchasing. As larger national manufacturing companies have started talking about green buying, this approach has started to trickle down to smaller vendors, he says.

He does not believe that the multi-layered questions that need to be asked about practices' effects on the environment make these conversations a dangerous proposition for vendors. Yet he adds that for many individuals with whom companies do business, environmental considerations remain a politically charged topic, depending on “what side of the political aisle you're on.”

Voigt says of health facilities that work with furniture companies and related vendors, “If it's important to them, they should be asking these questions.”

Yet he also sees several reasons why these conversations often don't get started, particularly given the lingering uncertainties nationally about the economy.

“It costs dollars to be green,” Voigt says. “Customers are already stretching their dollars, so for many this almost becomes more of a luxury.”

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