Hand-crafting green sofas with social impact
PROFILE OF PURPOSE: Aimee Robinson, Founder and CEO of EcoBalanza
What could possibly have driven someone in 2007 to start up a sustainable, ethical and toxic-free sofa manufacturing business? Probably the only person who can answer this question is Aimee Robinson, founder and CEO of Seattle-based EcoBalanza. EcoBalanza is the definition of a purpose-driven company. It exists to make a positive impact on people and the environment. Aimee is quick to acknowledge that for the most part, she has pretty much always put purpose above profit which can make life “interesting” at times.
From selling a green sofa to making a green sofa
Back in 2007 when Aimee was operating one of Seattle first ‘green’ home décor stores and struggling to find a green sofa that met her high standards, she set herself a daunting challenge. “I wanted to see if I could create a beautiful green sofa that is as clean as possible, made with the best materials and using traditional techniques,” she says. At the time, all upholstered furniture was made with highly toxic chemical flame retardants. Aimee realized that the environmental impact throughout the supply chain of all the materials used to make a sofa was very harsh. “I knew we could not afford to dump any more chemicals into the environment,” she says.
Commercial furniture contains:
Plywood frames which contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Petroleum-based polyfoam which is highly flammable and continues to show toxic effects, even post-production, on household air quality.
Waterproof, stain-proof, wrinkle-proof and anti-microbe fabric finishes present long-term health concerns through the addition of toxic Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s).
Volatile organic compounds (VOC) used in furniture paints, varnishes and wax are a source of indoor air pollution that can lead to health impacts.
The timing back in 2007 for a mission-driven green sofa company was not ideal. According to Aimee, awareness of “green furniture” while still pretty nascent, was just starting to gain some momentum. “The organic movement was starting to take off because people understood the importance of not having pesticides in their food. But, they didn’t understand what it means to have an organic sofa that is free from toxins.” As Aimee started to research materials for her new green sofa, the more she saw how “dirty” the industry is. As the owner of an eco-conscious furniture store that contracted out sofa production, Aimee became even more determined to create a product that is ethical, has minimal environmental impact and maximum social benefit. The challenge was to see if building the utlimiate green sofa could also be a viable business.
The time is right for an eco-conscious sofa
Ten years later, EcoBalanza is thriving and Aimee is reaping the benefits of all the determination and hard work it took to find the right materials, techniques and suppliers. “I was very fortunate,” she says. “I was curious about the supply chain, where the materials came from and who made them.” After rigorous and creative exploration over many years, Aimee has lined up a stable of suppliers who share her values. “Now I understand what impact our suppliers have on people and the environment and that is very important to me.” Aimee says she found some of her suppliers because of the reciprocal learning process she has with customers. “Passionate customers would ask me questions and the process of finding the answers often led me to new materials and new processes,” she says.
An interdependent network of supply
For Aimee, the criteria for selecting suppliers is multi-faceted. Wherever possible, she chooses local, women-owned businesses. “Women in manufacturing is a passion for me because there aren’t many. I recently found a women-owned business that makes sofa springs out of recycled metal. This is a huge win,” she says with a broad smile. Aimee also prefers to source wool from family-owned farms. Not only does it provide her with access to specialized wools from very specific breeds, but it allows her to work towards fulfilling her vision of creating a tight network of suppliers who collaborate and support each other to build a strong local economy. “A women-owned business cards my cotton in neighboring Oregon and in Montana, Ed and Sue wash and card the wool I buy from a family farm on the Puget Sound’s Decatur Island.”
There have been other changes in the last 10 years. Legislation made it non-mandatory for upholstered furniture manufactures to coat their foam with chemical flame retardants. As a result, consumers have become more educated. “In the past, most of our customers have tended to be families with young children who are concerned about the impacts of environmental toxins or people in a later stage of life who are finding that they have chemical sensitivities and can’t tolerate any kind of environmental stress.
Today, however, more and more of our customers just want cleaner products to put in their homes.” Aimee says the growth of this group has coincided with the growth in the green home construction market. “People are asking for non-toxic building materials and now they also want non-toxic furniture to put in those houses,” she adds.
Leading the Slow Furniture Movement
Aimee’s thoughts turn to the idea of mindful versus conspicuous consumption and how that influences her business and the decisions she takes. “We are definitely part of a slow furniture movement which rejects the idea of using up the things we buy and then simply throwing them away.” The slow furniture movement also acknowledges the importance of how things are made. “If you look at antiques,” says Aimee, “you will see pieces that are well-crafted using great techniques and materials that can last for over 100 years.” She explains that by investing in products that are built to last, you get a piece that will work with you over time. While the handcrafted sofa may be more expensive upfront, it has been built so that it can be modified when your tastes change.
For Aimee, the techniques used to create her eco-conscious sofas are just as important as the non-toxic and organic materials she chooses. “For me, there is a tremendous satisfaction to learning to do something with your hands and creating a product that adds value and lives on in the world,” she says. But, unfortunately, increasingly, the skills required to create heirloom-quality pieces are being lost. “My team learned to hand-craft fine furniture through apprenticeships in their teens. Now they are in their 60s and are ready to pass their skills down to the next generation.” Aimee points out that this process of skill transfer is critical otherwise handcrafted furniture will be a thing of the past.
And handcrafting is central to EcoBalanza’s ethos. “We are committed to making all our products by hand and not by machine even though that would be better for our margins,” she says. Every EcoBalanza sofa, chair, sectional, ottoman and headboard is handmade by Aimee’s team in Seattle. She collaborates with local artisans like Two Sisters EcoTextiles and sources specialty wood and metal work when needed, otherwise, everything else is made in-house.
Technique is everything
Aimee says she “geeks out” on different techniques for building furniture and how to combine organic materials to achieve different levels of comfort. For example, to ensure that cushions never felt, harden, or bunch, the artisans at EcoBalanza hand-sew organic Merino wool batting onto organic Dunlop latex and hand-fluff kapok before gently inserting it into cushion cavities. “It would be cheaper and faster to use commercial techniques, but we are not willing to trade-off the lasting comfort and quality we can achieve using traditional methods.”
The company has also developed innovative approaches to solving common furniture problems. A unique buffer on the base of each piece ensures that seat cushions never slide forward over time. “This is an extra step we take that we will never compromise on,” she says. Because her team has a deep bench of expertise, EcoBalanza can easily create unique pieces that meet a specific need. “If someone, for example, has a sensitivity to a specific material, we can easily find an alternative and modify the structure, if needed,” she explains. Why does Aimee think people buy EcoBalanza sofas? “We hand-make green sofas with meaning. There is a story to every component of your sofa. And people trust our materials. You just feel different when you interact with a product that feels that clean,” she adds.